Let’s Not Begin with Jesus – A Sermon for Advent 1

Texts: Psalm 80:1-19; Mark 13:32-37

God, grant us wisdom . . .

I want us to begin today by not thinking about Jesus. Remove the pictures of baby Jesus or old Jesus, dead Jesus or living Jesus, nice Jesus or stern Jesus, black Jesus or white Jesus, long-haired Jesus or short-haired Jesus, tall Jesus or short Jesus—remove them all from your mind for a moment. Now I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “I’ve been to church before. The answer is always Jesus. Something strange is going on here.”

Maybe, but where I want us to start today is not with Jesus, but with the situation that makes our heart ache. So think of that story you heard this week of the person who has had to wait too long for surgery. Or think of that person you know who has been alone for far too long. Or think of that wound in your own life, the thing you think of more often than you would like, the thing that makes you lash out at those who love you.

Take a moment. Think of that thing . . .  whatever it is for you.

Friends, this is where Advent begins. Advent begins, not with make-believe, but with absence and heartache and longing. The waiting of Advent is not about waiting for trinkets or electronic gizmos. The waiting of Advent is the sort of waiting that happens when it feels like life itself is on the line. We may be more aware of the depth of our waiting this year than in any year within recent memory.

When the poet of Psalm 80 writes, “Stir up your might, and come to save us!” We’re right there. The stylus may as well have been in our hand. “Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved.” We could have written that. Maybe we have written that, not on a page but into the air after we’ve hung up the phone. Maybe we have written that, not on a page but into the air as we’ve waited for the text or the email that never came.

Friends, this is where Advent begins: it’s with the gap, with the wound, with the unfulfilled.

And these are all around us. Even in surprising places. The former US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy tells a story about a patient of his, a successful chef who won the lottery, not metaphorically, but literally. And it was that win the propelled him into a downward spiral. Before long he didn’t know who his real friends were. He stopped working because he didn’t need the money. He was wealthy but terribly lonely. Eventually his health began to suffer.

Don’t be mistaken, we live in a wonderful world full of wonderful people. And yet, this year we are more conscious of the holes. We are waiting.

“Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.” We could have written that. Our friends could have written that. Our students, patients, clients, and bosses could have written that.

And so it’s fortuitous that we start Advent listening to a reading from Mark 13. There is nothing here about a pregnant Mary or a bewildered Joseph. Instead, what we have is a rabbi speaking about the arrival of the Son of Man. The Son of Man in this case, is an emissary of God, returning to check on how the household has been run while he was away. This is not about the past. This is about the now. It’s about a real waiting, waiting with fear, waiting with a broken heart. 

Here in Mark 13 the rabbi tells us that “about that day or hour no one knows,No one knows, so “Keep awake.” So we wait in anticipation.

Our first thought, as we listen to this reading today, might be the worry that we’ve gotten the reference wrong. It might feel like wires have been crossed in worship planning. You might think, “Hold on, Advent is about imagining how others waited. It’s about throwing ourselves into first-century story that we know ends with the arrival of the infant Jesus.”

And yet, what the gospel of Mark suggests to us is that it’s not just that. And thankfully so. It’s not just that. I wonder if you’ve ever went to a party and found out that the people you really wanted to see had already left. Or maybe you went to the medical clinic to see the doctor and found that she had already went home for the day.

Advent isn’t just about history. It’s also about the need we have for God right now.

The second century theologian Irenaeus of Lyons made the point that God’s arrival in the world in the person of Jesus was not a plan B. It was the intent all along. God created us in order to be with us. God created the other creatures of the world in order to be with them. God created skin, bone, hair and muscle, in order to present God’s own self through these things–these weak things.

You see, one thing we see in scripture over and over again is that God is the one who arrives. God’s very identity is the one who shows up in times of distress. Not always, not inevitably, not like a machine.

Think about the beginning of Genesis. God is the one who arrives at a scene of chaotic emptiness. Or think about the origin story of God’s ancient, chosen people. God arrives at a point in time when Abram and Sarai are grappling with bareness, when their future is in question. Or think about Hagar. God is the one who arrives when she is sent out into the wilderness. Or think about David. To David, God is not a theory or an idea to be debated, God is the one who arrived with protection and, eventually, with forgiveness. And to the early church, who was God to them? Well, among other traits, God was the one who arrived when they were huddled in an upper room afraid to even venture onto the street.   

So, as we begin our Advent waiting, scripture invites us to hope that God will show up. Our hope can be that God will show up in the gaps, in the heartache, in those unfilled places, in the rips, in the wounds.

Just a few weeks ago the great Rabbi Jonathan Sacks died. One of the things he has done for us is point out that hope and optimism aren’t the same thing. Optimism is the vague belief that the world is getting better. Standing, as we do, after the horrors of the twentieth century, or even just the horrors of this last year, optimism is too cute to be of much use. Rabbi Sacks says that hope is something different. Hope is the belief that if we work together we can make the world better.

If I can expand that idea a bit, maybe we can say our hope is that God will arrive. Our hope is that God will show up. And God’s arrival to us, if it happens, will probably not be a flash of lightening or an immaculate conception. God will probably show up through others, through the words of strangers, through the actions of neighbours, through stories or through the words of an ancient text.  

But there is no guarantee. God is not a machine. So our hope is real, actual, immediate, now.

Oh God of hosts, let your face shine, that we may be saved, not in a time long ago, not in a story about someone else—but here, in the real heartache of our real lives. Amen.

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