First Sunday of Advent

Sermon for First Sunday of Advent, Sunday, November 29 2020, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Isaiah 64:1-9; Psalm 80:1-7,16-18; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-37

“Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down.”

Isaiah is waiting, longing for some decisive intervention on God’s part, but fearing it also. And we are waiting, here. Locked down in Lent, we have returned to lockdown in Advent, though it is a very partial lockdown, still leaving many factory and warehouse and delivery workers dangerously exposed and usually underpaid, while other workers have seen entire industries falling apart, and tenants and small businesses struggle to survive, without adequate government support, without an eviction moratorium, without a vision to guide us. And meanwhile, many in their homes are suffering isolation, loneliness, confusion, sometimes violence within the enclosed bubble of the household. Illness and death are all around us. Even those of us who have been privileged in this crisis are living, far more consciously than usual, in a constant suspended state of uncertainty, wondering, waiting for what might come next.

This pandemic came upon most of us—really, all those of us who aren’t infectious disease specialists—so very suddenly, unexpected, so like a flare of fire from heaven. But we cannot really cast this as God’s judgement on a corrupt and unjust society, when the system’s response has succeeded mostly in increasing corruption and injustice.

The Isaiah writer—the third writer, scholars believe, collected under the name of the prophet Isaiah—seems to be writing after the return of the Israelites from the exile in Babylon, and at a time when what had seemed like the greatest of all possible dreams had been fulfilled, and turned out to mean confusion, division, anxiety. The homecoming had not been what it was meant to be, and the prophet is not sure, now, where to turn for hope. Not our context, not exactly, but still, a prophet standing in the middle of a society which has gone very wrong, and seems not to be healing. A prophet still believing that there is hope, that the potter may yet rescue the ill-formed clay.

In what is called Mark’s “little apocalypse”, Jesus may be looking to his own crucifixion and resurrection, which follow very shortly in the narrative, as God’s decisive event. He may be foreshadowing the destruction of Jerusalem by the armies of Rome, a few decades later, an event which may have been happening while Mark wrote or have happened very shortly before, an event which might have seemed like the end of the world, which may even have brought this first gospel into existence, as one of the early followers of Jesus, traumatized by the terrible events, seeing the scattering of the Jewish people and fearing that all might be lost, raced to get his story down on paper so that someone, someday, could read and remember. Or Jesus’ words here might be pointing towards some great divine action which exists at the horizon of being, not really an event within history as we know it at all.

Or it may be all of these things at once, the perspective shifting and jarring, the relationship between past, present and future unclear. But whatever is going on in this passage, it shares the same quality as Third Isaiah, that sense that we are waiting, that there is a great change outside our grasp, and it is hard to know whether we more greatly desire it or fear it.

And it is this we’re given to reflect on at the beginning of Advent, as this part of the earth moves further into darkness and winter. The gap we stand in, longing for something different and fearing it as well, bitterly aware of our own limits and failures. Hunger and pain live in our streets and our homes and our hearts. Our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away.

But there is hope in a tree.

Both Isaiah and Mark, in the middle of the more obvious sweeping imagery of darkened sun and moon and the torn heavens, have also given us the imagery of a tree. In Isaiah, it is a tree in autumn, and we are dry leaves, fallen, lifeless, blown across the landscape by the wind.

But in Mark, it is a fig tree in the spring. For even though the intervention of God in the world may be compared to a cataclysm, an earthquake, the shaking of all things, it may also, Jesus says, be compared to the soft green buds of a quietly growing tree, buds which will slowly mature into fruit. And when God did rend the heavens and come down, it was quiet, and it was slow. God came down as an infant among the poor, in an unimportant place, and lived there, and for a few decades did mostly such little things as were not worth writing down. God walked around small towns and lakeshores, and healed a few lepers and blind men of no particular merit, and had dinner with random assortments of fishermen and disreputable women, with political resisters and with collaborators. God died on a tree, one of a crowd of deaths among the meaningless rejects of society, and returned in a garden.

Advent tells us to watch, to wait, to know that God is coming into the world and into our lives, is always coming again. And sometimes, maybe, that coming is dramatic, a rupture, a flash of lightning; it may be a pandemic or the fall of a great city or a revolution within ourselves, the overturning of all that we have known and been, powerful and terrible, something both to hoped for and feared. But it may also, and even at the same time, be like a tree. God may come quietly and slowly, in all our daily, ordinary, unimportant lives, in all our partial and limited and always failing love, in all our slow growth and sometimes decay, in all our moments of turning.

We are the dry leaves of Isaiah’s vision, betraying those we care for, falling short, choosing wrongly or simply not being strong enough. This is inevitable and human. We are even, at our worst, that tree on which the child of humanity suffered and died; we are all sometimes the instruments of violence and exclusion, we all inflict pain. We come with the scars of our exile, the damage which has been done to us, and we act out that damage, unavoidably, no matter how hard we try. But we can also be the green buds of that fig tree. We are capable of new life, of growth, of healing and return. And it is small, and it is slow, and it is unimportant, and it happens in places of vulnerability and poverty, one false and faltering step after another. But it happens.

So watch, then, and wait. Because the day of the Lord is always coming, and always here. There is no point, as Jesus says here and in a number of other places, in speculating about when it will come, when that decisive action will occur, the unmistakeable moment, the utter change. For it is always ahead of us and always here, it lies under our small moments, it charges our lives with meaning. God has come down, is always coming down, is always coming home. Always coming to the home which God has made here among us, our selves beloved and failing and struggling, still being shaped like unfinished clay in the potter’s creating hands.

And we, as we are, half-formed clay, a fragile sprouting tree—we are called to stand at the doorway. We are called to be there to open the door for God’s presence, for God’s work. To watch for the signs of this presence, however fleeting or partial, in the church, in the world, in ourselves, and to make space. So that the gap may become the doorway. We stand in the darkness and watch for sunrise. We stand in the cold of winter, and watch for the budding of the tree.