Psalm 80.1-7, 17-19
1 Corinthians 1.1-9
Ladies and gentlemen, both pilots are incapacitated. Are there any passengers who could land this plane with assistance from air traffic control?
If you think you could manage it, you’re not alone. Survey results suggest many believe they could land that plane, and among male respondents of this particular survey, the confidence level rose to nearly 50%.
It is hard for us to admit what we don’t know sometimes, and even harder to admit that there are many things that are completely unknown. The season of Advent throws us squarely into such discomfort. The Gospel reading today is often known as “the little apocalypse” – a description of judgment and coming tribulation. It provides some dissonance after our Advent opening liturgy where we lit a candle of hope and sang that “Christmas is coming.” Well apparently, that is not all that is coming…we also can expect that there will be a day where;
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
This passage is full of metaphor, so we should be careful to not hold too literally to such images, but the meaning conveys a need for readiness ahead of judgement and a throwing down of the cosmic powers that rule our world. The text tells us over and again that we will not know the day or the hour- even Jesus says he does not know the day or the hour- so we are to be alert in the present. We need clearly to develop our tolerance of not knowing, and our perseverance and patience in waiting for revelation. This, of course, is the meaning of that word, “apocalypse”- a revealing of things hidden. It is why some of the events we have known in the past few years could be accurately described as apocalyptic- revealing who we are, how we have organised our societies, what matters to us most, what we don’t care about and of what we are most afraid. Think of the stress the Covid pandemic placed on our isolated living arrangements, the competition between nations for vaccines and treatments, the way many began to re-evaluate their relationship with work, time and money and the importance of good mental health. Think also of climate change and natural disasters we are witnessing across the globe and what it shows clearly about how we live, our use of resources and our patterns of consumption. With such revealing, we should be feeling some sense of humility in the face of the unknown. Recognising our arrogance in assuming we know how to do everything and fix everything, from the climate crisis to landing a passenger plane without any prior training, is a first step. To learn to live resolutely in the present is another message of this text; it seems we are required to live without a clearly outlined step program for how to navigate the world but to remain open, attentive and alert. Our dreams and longings about the past and fantasies about the future can keep us from the gift that is the present. To live in the present moment is to be awake.
Of course, objective certainty can be alluring. It seems, when we hear the first reading from Isaiah this morning that we humans have been longing for answers that are unequivocal and evident to all in a very final way;
O that you would tear open the heavens and come down…
If only Yahweh (the Lord) would appear in an absolute, cataclysmic way so that enemies would be thrown down, Israel restored to prosperity and peace be known. As we consider the violence and injustice of the world, and the suffering of the innocent, we sometimes too might long for such a god who inserts a powerful arm into the machinations of history, manipulating people and events to enforce peace. Perhaps such a god seems more understandable, but is nevertheless an object of fear; a fear that is revealed clearly as Isaiah continues, addressing Yahweh;
But you were angry, and we sinned;
because you hid yourself, we transgressed.
I find this a wonderful reversal of what happens in Genesis where Adam and Eve hide themselves and their nakedness from God in the garden, having just eaten the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil. It is a human habit to hide when we feel we are not worthy to be seen, and blame others when we do not want to face our own mistakes. In Isaiah’s justification, it is because God had remained hidden that human sin abounded; if only God could have returned with power and might, Israel would not have been guilty of such transgression. Here is the human desire for a big other to take responsibility from us and save us from facing ourselves and the consequence of our own actions. Someone to blame is always convenient, and the bigger the someone, the more completely we can absolve ourselves. But, as is often found in these ancient texts, we hear both human shadow and light, dishonesty and the searing facing of truth in the one passage. The voice of the prophet moves past denial and defensiveness to a posture of humility, recognising that the responsibility lies with Israel who is receiving the natural consequences of their actions.
We all fade like a leaf,
and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
There is no one who calls on your name,
or attempts to take hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us,
and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.
Hope seems to be in short supply at this point of the reading where Israel recognises that in their unfaithfulness, they can have no claim upon Yahweh.
And then there comes a little word that changes everything. YET.
Yet, O Lord, you are our Father;
we are the clay, and you are our potter;
we are all the work of your hand.
In this one little word “yet”, what really matters, perhaps in the end the only thing that matters, is named. Despite it all, God remains “father”; one who is always taking the initiative afresh in every glorious present moment to attend to the loving bonds of relationship. God in this metaphor is the potter, gently guiding shaping and attending to the materiality of our lives with infinite care. The metaphors we choose change the way we see. God as potter is only one metaphor, but the writer of Isaiah turns to it in some relief to express a God of gentleness and attention rather than the one who would tear open the heavens and shake the mountains.
Preaching a God of judgement, ranting from the pulpit about fire and brimstone is mercifully not the way we commonly communicate about God today- such messages have done great harm, robbing us of the God who calls us to come as we are, and know ourselves beloved. And yet… scripture reveals a God of justice and a coming judgement that promises an end to the violence and oppression of those driven by greed or love of power. This should cause us to examine ourselves, but it is also a cause of great hope. The poor, the hungry, the oppressed and downtrodden shall be lifted up in the great reversal of the kingdom of God. Death does not have the last word. Love wins. These are what we wait for in joyful expectation in Advent.
The ‘and yet’ changes everything. Sometimes it appears that powers and principalities of this world will always endure. Sometimes it seems that the drive to succeed and acquire wealth and status and things, will always be the prime motivator of our hearts. But the ‘yet’ says these things will pass away into unimportance because what is most foundational is no thing but relationship itself. At the beating heart of the universe there is the relationship of the Divine which scripture describes through the metaphor of ‘father’. But it is fundamentally about what is primordial…or what is at the heart of everything that is real- and that is the relationship of utter commitment and loving attention of the creator to creation.
There is a healthy humility to knowing that we cannot safely land that plane, that there are many mysteries of this life that we cannot comprehend and that we need one another if we are to address the hurts, sorrows and challenges of our time. And yet…we cannot wait for a god to intervene and fix the world. The God revealed in scripture and experience is one who is already here, with and amongst us and present in creation, working in each present moment through the relations of love that are at the heart of everything. This Advent, let us be awake to the present and alert for the signs of hope that reveal the rescue operation is underway. Let us be people of hope, joy and peace, co-creating with the Divine potter as we remould the world through every act of love.
And yet, come Lord Jesus.