Advent is about waiting. Note how the first Advent readings pick up on recent themes.
Psalm 80 follows on from Ezekiel’s depiction last week of Yahweh as the Shepherd of Israel. The gospel passage, dubbed by scholars the Little Apocalypse, is the Markan parallel to Matthew’s gospel reading for Pentecost 25. It is the theme of waiting that links the Lectionary passages as we move into Advent. That is a different emphasis from the previous weeks. Waiting, longing, need and expectation – these are what characterise the communities of Israel in the Old Testament readings, the Christian community of Mark’s gospel, and the Corinthian church. There is a clear sense of standing on the brink of something – something that God is about to do. “Summer is near”; Yahweh’s redemption is at hand; Jesus Christ is about to be revealed. It’s not only therefore about the yearning of God’s people, but also about the promises of God that permeate the readings and summon the sense of expectation. God’s people wait – in exile, in persecution, in hope – for God’s promised coming.
Exile and New Exodus (Isaiah 64: 1-9)/Psalm 80: 1-7, 17-19
Exile and New Exodus: it is not surprising that the Isaiah reading has been chosen. Judah is in exile. “Zion has become a wilderness, Jerusalem a desolation” (Isaiah 64:11). The people are in exile and mourning. Exile is the crisis of the Old Testament. It is as hard to re-imagine ourselves into the mindset of the exiles this side of the return to Judah as it would be to imagine how the disciples felt on Easter Saturday. It is the death of all their dreams, all their hopes, of any future. And therefore it is the death of all the past, too. That’s the problem with a crisis like the exile or the crucifixion of Jesus: it makes a nonsense not only of the future but of the past, too. All the hopes and expectations of the past appear destroyed. The meaning with which life was invested is left hollow and empty.
For the exiles, it meant that their belief in being a covenant people – their fundamental identity, in other words – was in tatters. It made mockery of their faith in Yahweh as a God who made promises that endured. Exile was ultimately destructive because it robbed the people not only of a future but of their whole past, too. If they had been wrong about Yahweh after all, then the way in which they interpreted their lives until then was simply a ghastly mistake. Nothing meant what it had appeared to. For the disciples, too, the crucifixion did the same. It didn’t just take away their anticipated future with Jesus: it robbed them of the past. What price all Jesus’ stuff about the coming kingdom? What had all the sacrifices been for? Why had they “left father, mother and children” to follow? What a waste of the past three years! And what gullible fools they appeared to be!
The psalmist uses the image of Israel as Yahweh’s flock – a flock that has been abandoned by their Shepherd on the hillside and needs rescue. This image is one of the oldest and here is one of the most powerfully poignant: it seems almost as though the psalmist chooses the image deliberately, not only because it speaks of Yahweh’s special care for Israel, but also to remind Yahweh of that care that Yahweh is supposed to have! Exile saps the soul and suffocates faith. The refrain is an indication of the desperation behind the plea for help:
Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved!
Unless we make the imaginative effort to begin to conceive of how desperately soul-destroying these experiences were, we will not understand what waiting in the Advent sense means. We won’t understand the longing, hunger and desperation that characterises Christian prayer and anticipation of the coming of Christ into the world, and will therefore miss out on the enormity and joy of Christmas. For me, the hymn, “O come, O come, Immanuel” gets closest to Advent waiting. Mourning, loneliness, lostness, misery, gloom, darkness, and shadow – this is the experience of “exile”.
Church today: the experience of exile
One way of preparing properly for Advent is to take seriously just what a mess the Church is in. The Christian Church – at least in the hi-tech, consumerist west – has had its day. Its best years are in the past. The old answers no longer work. The gospel appears to have little or nothing to say that sounds as Good News to the increasing millions who have either had nothing to do with Christian faith or who have quite deliberately voted with their feet and left. A look at trends and statistics shows that Christian faith is something for old people, so that ministry appears increasingly to be about hospice care. People are turning not to Christianity, but to other faiths and spiritualities for answers. And those churches that buck the trends are increasingly simply the exceptions that prove the rule. Church has had its day. It is more and more a museum piece, showcasing a past that is bathed in the golden light of nostalgia. That is why people who come back to Church at significant times in their lives (births, marriages, deaths, national events) want Church to be church as they remember it.
We need to be realistic and work to kill off residual optimism. Unless we do, we will not take seriously enough the crisis we are in and will be unable to respond appropriately. I am not saying that there aren’t signs of hope. I am not saying that this is the story of every church. Yet, if we look beyond the immediate borders of our own localities, we cannot avoid the fact that there is a clear, alarming pattern. We recognise the global village in every other aspect of post modern life: the same is true of Church. However good our immediate situation may be, we do not and cannot live in glorious isolation from what is happening to the Christian Church more widely. Church as we know it – and spend huge amounts of money, time, commitment and energy – is dying. Whether it is right in the forefront of our consciousness or not, most of church life in the west is about survival. And that is not what we’re here for!
Let me say something clearly: I have no doubt that, in twenty years time, church as we know it will be alive and well. We will still be singing the same sorts of hymns, having services and activities that we have now, and living as we always have. The crucial difference, though, is that we will be a tiny, shrinking minority – a sort of “Christian train spotters” society. In other words, we will be one of those tiny, harmless groups of consenting adults (one difference between then and now is that we’ll have virtually no children at all) whom society indulges, leaving us to get on and do our thing because we don’t disturb or hurt anyone. And that is not Church. The Church is here to make a difference to the world. We might talk loudly and often about being salt and light and yeast in the world, yet if that is not a reality, we are deceiving ourselves and God. We are playing at being faithful.
Walter Brueggemann is one of the scholars who has actively embraced the notion of exile to describe twenty-first century church life in the west. In other words, Advent is not just a particular time in the church calendar when we think about exile and longing: it characterises all church time! We are a group who lives with our past in ruins, with no clear future, with many of the things of “home” gone or broken.
That is the point at which God can do something with us! If we have nothing other than our hope in the God of resurrection, return and new beginnings, we are in the best possible place. When we have got to the point when we have let everything go – or become prepared to – because there is nothing worth holding on to anymore, then we are waiting properly, because God is able to do something radically new with us and through us.
Jesus: New Exodus (Mark 13: 24-37)
The New Testament scholar NT (Tom) Wright believes that we ought to read Jesus’ whole ministry and the proclamation of the kingdom in terms of exile and new exodus. Jesus, he says, casts his ministry and message in these terms. The journey to Jerusalem is the journey of Jesus to accomplish a new return from exile. The old things are going. This is the significance of the fact that Jesus’ sermon in Mark 13 takes place immediately outside the temple. This is the old order – and it is going. “Not one stone will be left upon another!” says Jesus (13:2). As the deliverance cycle in the Moses narrative ends with the Hebrews looking at the Egyptian dead on the seashore – the complete and utter destruction of the old slave system – so Jesus’ hearers will look at the utter destruction of the present system, centred in the temple, which is life in exile. Exile is about to end. What will appear cataclysmic and destructive is actually redemptive.
Jesus recalls the lesson of the fig tree (v28). Some scholars view the leafing of the fig tree in this passage as a counterpoint to its withering in Mark 11:20. There, Jesus curses the fig tree – and then cleanses the temple. In other words, the fig tree represents the temple and its unfruitfulness. Jesus, in a prophetic symbolic action, predicts its destruction, and with it, the end of the order it represents. This is nothing less than the destruction of the known universe – hence the apocalyptic language of vv 24-5. This is not language to be taken literally (predicting nuclear annihilation, for example, as some fundamentalist exegetes have read it) but symbolically: it is language that tries to convey not the event itself, but its significance. Its significance is nothing less than the end of the world as it was known.
Now in chapter 13, Jesus promises that this unparalleled disaster contains within it the seed and promise of hope: it means that summer is around the corner! There is a new order in view – the kingdom. Confidence in the old order is misplaced. It is not a sign of hope in exile, but part of what needs to be swept away in order for God to bring in the kingdom. Waiting on God –Advent waiting – is about waiting in faith and hope. Isaiah recognises just how much is wrong with the nation. Yet the hope is in the image of Judah as the clay to Yahweh’s potter (v8). Yahweh may indeed be justifiably angry; Judah has been resistant to the shaping of the potter. Yet Judah is Yahweh’s clay – Yahweh’s possession and the object of Yahweh’s care and moulding. Because Yahweh is the God of exodus, the very desolation of Jerusalem contains the promise of salvation, even as it also casts doubt over Yahweh’s covenant fidelity!
“Gethsemane life” (Mark 13: 33-37/1 Corinthians 1: 3-9
Advent is about watchful waiting and anticipation. We do not know when the master of the house will come (v35) but we do not doubt that he will come. But life in “exile” is also Gethsemane life. That is what the stress on “keeping awake” (vv33; 35ff) is about. In the very next chapter, Jesus goes with his disciples to Gethsemane to pray (14:32ff). Look at how central the theme of “sleeping” is, and the loneliness of Jesus! Three times Jesus, like the master in 13:36, comes and finds them sleeping.
Gethsemane life is exhausting. That is why Paul prays for strength for a Church with problems. The Corinthian Church appears to be remarkably blasé about the significance of the present, thoroughly immersed in self-satisfaction and their ongoing “Church life” (as opposed to life-in-mission). The Church is proud of its vibrant worshipping life and plethora of spiritual gifts; it is blind to the misuse of these gifts (which have become inward-directed) and to the impression that their spiritual pride gives to those inside and outside the Church.
Paul, in other words, is not dealing with a Church that is overcome with a deep sense of Gethsemane; rather, Paul’s task and intention is to create that sense of crisis – to reveal the significance of the moment. The delay in Christ’s return is not grounds for complacency, but a test of faithfulness – a Gethsemane. They are “hanging on” until the “revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ”; the task is to “keep strong until the end” (vv 7-8); the trouble is, they don’t realise this, and Paul’s letter is a call to recognise the crisis of waiting.
If the destruction of the temple (for Jesus’ hearers) is the sign that summer is around the corner, then the hour of deepest darkness is the hour just before the dawn. Preparing for the arrival of Immanuel is about living through Gethsemane – and this time keeping awake! If we are as alive to the darkness as we ought to be, we will be “tuned in” to the places and situations in the world which experience life as unrelieved, stupefying darkness. If we are alive to the darkness as we ought to be, we will be “tuned in” to the awful aridity of the Church’s exile and longing for home. And because God is the God of the exodus and resurrection, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the waiting becomes purposeful and hopeful. It is not about languishing helplessly and hopelessly in the dark. Neither is it about frenetic activity. There may well be nothing we can do at present about the Church. But it is about patient, faithful and hopeful “sitting it out”. These are the last few hours of darkness. The Light of Christ will soon be seen. Immanuel will come!