Sermon preached by Rev’d Lizzie Kesteven.
Mark 13 – 24-end – Watch. Wait. Be Awake. Be on your guard. – Signs of the time.
1 Cor 3-9 – Thanksgiving – God is Faithful
I had an unexpected phone call on Thursday evening. I looked at the number on my mobile and didn’t recognise it. Normally when this happens it is someone asking me about an accident that I haven’t had. And depending on my mood at the time I either play along, or just get grumpy with them. As the call on Thursday was unusually late I braced for this sort of encounter as my finger swiped left to answer.
Yet to my surprise the woman on the end of the phone didn’t ask if I had crashed my car recently, or fallen off my bike or slipped at work. She introduced herself from a charity – Transforming Lives for Good – and offered to pray with me. Now maybe I shouldn’t be surprised, being a vicar, at this – but I was. Not many conversations start like this. Sometimes they might end in prayer but its rare for prayer to be the core purpose of the call. And yet there it was on a dark Thursday evening as we chatted about the charity and I excitedly explained how we had just received some funding to partner with them, that all they wanted to do was not check in about how the bid was going, or hassle me about progress, or give me another impossible deadline. But just to pray with me. It was a refreshing and rather beautiful moment. It was as if God was reaching down and bending close for a moment.
Today is Advent Sunday. It is the beginning of the Church’s New Year. We start a fresh new season at the beginning of advent. A season of prayer, fasting and penitence, similar to Lent, as we watch and wait for the coming of Jesus at Christmas. Advent literally means “coming”. Or as is sometimes whispered and sung in the Aramaic “Maranatha – Come Lord Jesus.”
So if it’s is the beginning of a season, the start of a new year. The time when we begin a different gospel – its Mark for this year – then why do we seemingly illogically start in the middle? Chapter 13 – And not with the beginning? Why do we hear Jesus speak about the “end times” with predictions of darkened days, when the moon will not give light and stars will fall from the sky”. It doesn’t seem like the best beginning for a New Year and Season. When I am looking for order and chronology, I am met with cosmic chaos that seems far removed from the baby in the stable that I am trying to think about.
Yet perhaps on reflection we need to start at the end, in order to make our way to the beginning. And the readers and listeners of Mark would have picked up the clear voice of Isaiah. The predictions and prophesies of the end times were a way of also signalling that there is to be a new beginning. New beginnings are often found in the seeds and the remants of a shift, or shattering of the status quo and the ordinary patterns. The Hebrew people throughout the old testament tell of a story of suffering, followed by salvation. Of an Egypt followed by the Promised Land. Of captivity in Babylon followed by a return to Israel. The prophets of the old testament, be it Isaiah, or Eekiel or Amos would tell of these times, and use similar cosmic images and symbols of stars and sun and moon to signal a shift, a change – something new.
Jesus points to the fig tree and also the owner of the house to tell his people to be alert at this time of uncertainty and shift. And that is the overarching message of Advent – be awake – watch and listen for God. It is likely to come at the most unexpected time.
Paul in his letter to the church in Corinth brings us words which sound a different tone. They are right at the beginning of his letter – words which are full of thanksgiving and encouragement. They speak of enrichment and have a firm confidence in a God who is faithful. It is a heartening start to what turns out to be a challenging letter. Yet combined with the Gospel this morning the two passages collide in a way that should give confidence to all today.
God is faithful. The story of God tells us of that faithfulness. It does not shy away from the difficulties and challenges and suffering that life might bring, and this world is currently experiencing a great deal of that. It might feel that we are in a shifting world right now, with the sun and the moon and the stars being mis-aligned. The chaos of the world feels close.
Yet God is faithful. God was faithful to the cry of the Hebrews in the time of the Pharoah and to the Israelites as they wept at the rivers of Babylon. God was faithful in the sending of Jesus Christ to walk with us, to live with us, to be one of us. And God remains faithful today. Yet in the turbulence and the often overwhelming nature of today, I sometimes miss that faithful God. God tapping at the window in the corner saying over here – and yet my head is stuck down looking at the ground.
I was tempted to ignore that phone call on Thursday night. I was in the wrong sort of mood. I was sceptical about who it might be and what they might want from me. Yet God spoke in the darkness, and lit a candle with the simple connection between one human being offering to pray with another. Seperated by distance, but connected through prayer – God stooped low and bent towards me and spoke words of calm in the chaos that seemed to surround.
As the nights draw in, and the days become shorter and the nights longer, as the darkness descends. Then I was reminded that it is only in the dark that the true majesty and healing of a lit candle can do its work. That in the chaos – God is faithful and calls us to look at the light. May we watch and wait for the light of Christ this Advent.