GOD Isaiah 64:1-9; Mark 13:24-end
The film director Woody Allen, who has a knack of the pithy, humorous
soundbite is quoted as saying : “If only God would give me some
clear sign! Like making a large deposit in my name at a Swiss bank.”
We sometimes long for God to send us a sign that will be clear and unmistakable.
This feeling can come when there is some kind of crisis for us, when we
are “up against it”. We feel we need something that will guide
us when a decision about the future might be needed. We perhaps want proof
from God when we face opposition for our faith. We feel in need of encouragement
when we feel like giving up on God. Wouldn’t a clear sign just help
us out? Why will God not play ball when we need Him to?
The hymn writer William Cowper who was a local man, wrote about this feeling
in one of his hymns: Jesus, where’er thy people meet. The last verse
exclaims: Lord, we are few, but thou art near/nor short thine arm, nor
deaf thine ear;/O rend the heav’ns, come quickly down,/and make
a thousands hearts thine own. That third line is a quote from the first
verse of today’s OT reading:
“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!”
a prophet during the time of his people’s suffering in exile. Their
land had been invaded by a powerful enemy and they were carried away far
from home and made to work for these foreign masters. Isaiah recalls the
time when Moses met God on the mountain in the wilderness when it seemed
that nature made a dramatic response to that encounter. It was the time
when God gave the law to Moses and promised his people the blessing of
their own land. “Can’t you come back and do the same again?”
complains Isaiah, probably echoing some of the cries of his own people
in their prayers and talking together. The absence of God, especially
in suffering is something that causes a lot of doubt in people of faith.
In fact, amongst Isaiah’s people, it caused not only doubt but sinfulness.
“Because you hid yourself we transgressed.” Vs 5 And then
again, “There is no one who calls on your name...for you have hidden
your face from us,” vs 7. The trouble with feeling the absence of
God is that it opens us up to temptation. There is the temptation to “play
up” in the sense of when the cat’s away the mouse come out
to play – to sin in the sense of doing what we please. But more
profoundly, the temptation can be to give up, to despair, to cease, as
Isaiah puts it “to attempt to take hold of you,”.
All of this
puts us in touch with the Advent theme of waiting. Perhaps it is stronger
than that: Advent is about longing for God to make himself clear, to show
himself in an unmistakable way.
St Mark tells us about Jesus’ teaching in connection with these
concerns. Jesus’ teaching is about the end times. The theological
term for this is “apocalypse” and is a special type of biblical
writing. This section of Mark’s gospel is known as the “little
apocalypse” because it is a short piece about this subject. It is
a mistake to take the descriptions literally. It is partly based on poetic
warnings drawn from various OT sources which speak of catastrophic events.
These events could be something like fall of Jerusalem in AD70 which happened
shortly after Mark’s gospel was compiled. They could also refer
to the end of the world, or at least to what people in biblical times
imagined the end of the world might be like. Hot on the heels of those
events is the description of the coming of the Son of Man. This is based
on Daniel’s vision of one like the son of man being carried on clouds
to the presence of God. The disciples would have remembered these imaginings
when they witnessed Jesus’ ascension – his disappearing in
the clouds was a symbolic way of saying that he went to be at God’s
right hand. Along with that was put yet another event that would mark
a conclusion: the gathering of God’s chosen ones (the elect) from
the four corners of the earth. All of these things are often drawn together
in Christian thinking about the return of Christ and the final judgement.
In a way they are response to that plea for clear, unmistakable signs.
“You want an unmistakable sign?” the prophet or the gospel-writer
asks? Well, the presence of God can be a terrifying, overwhelming thing.
You may not realise what you are asking for!
Instead, Mark says, listen to what Jesus said to his disciples about signs.
He recalled two parables in connection with this. One is a simple sign,
the other a little more extended. The parable of the fig tree is about
detecting signs of the changing season. Figs are a common sight in the
Mediterranean climate and also carry special spiritual significance in
many religions. Jesus simply referred to the way in which you can tell
that summer is coming soon when you notice the tender buds forming on
fig branches. It is a small but meaningful sign for those who will to
notice a change. The other parable is about readiness. In the larger households
of Jesus’ culture there would be a number of servants. If the head
of the household went away, he would expect the servants to carry on with
their duties and be ready whatever time of day or night he returned. Just
so, Jesus encouraged his followers: always be ready.
We seek signs.
Sometimes, when we are desperate and feel that God is far from us, we
get desperate in what we expect of God. We want large, unmistakable signs.
But the truth is that small signs can also be unmistakable – like
the tiny buds on plants in early spring. There are signs for those who
will look and Advent is a time of learning how to stop, wait and watch
for those signs.
life. A great novel, a symphony or a film works because it holds different
themes in tension or conflict. It takes that tension and moves towards
an eventual resolution at the conclusion of the work. Life is full of
unresolved tensions and so is our faith. The main tension we experience
is between what we believe to be true and what is not proven to be true.
All we have to go on is our trust in God and the signs that we may pick
up on the way.
We may well ask what those signs might be. The first sign may be so obvious,
that although we’ve been thinking about it, we have not recognised
it as a sign. That is the sign of longing. Where does the desire come
from that first exclaims, “If only God would do something –
like write a message in the sky – or even put a large amount of
money in my bank account!” That desire itself which fixes its hope
on God is planted in us by the Holy Spirit. The next sign which may be
so obvious that we overlook it is the one that we experience almost every
week when we come to worship. Is not the Eucharist meant as a sign that
will encourage and feed our faith? It is a special kind of sign –
that which we call a sacrament – an outward and visible sign of
an inward and spiritual grace. It is a sign that points us to Jesus and
renews our faith and trust in him. And then, of course, there is for us,
the greatest sign of all: Jesus Christ himself is the sign on which we
place all our hopes and longings. And that is why we sing, “Come,
thou long expected Jesus!”
Jesus said, “Stay awake!” By that I take it to mean that we
are to remain conscious. As we remain conscious that one day all we long
and hope for will be fulfilled, we stay alert to the signs that may come
our way. As well as the signs I have mentioned, if we stop and reflect
on our Christian life, we may realise that there are signs buried in our
experience. It is for us to practise readiness. I don’t wish to
be morbid, but if you haven’t already, it is good to make sure that
you live in such a way that your affairs are in order. It is a good Christian
thing to do for it makes it easier for those whom we leave behind. It
is also a sign that we make in faith that we expect a resolution, a consummation
to come at the end, whether that is of the world’s time or our own.
© Rev Paul Smith