Advent 1 2017

Advent 1 2017

The liturgical year challenges our attitude to time, our awareness of now and our readiness for the future. Sometimes the rhythm of the liturgical year seems at odds with the pace and preoccupations of the world around us, and even with the stages of life of our congregational community.

Our diaries in December are filled with social and religious commitments, leaving very little time to be spiritually attuned to who we are now, and what Advent might mean for us.

This first Sunday in Advent is the start of a new liturgical year. Yet in our Parish we are aware that we are coming to the end of a time we value, the ten years in which Peter has been parish priest.

Through the next two months we need to honour that ending. It’s hard to hold together this time of good-bye with its sadness and anxiety, and the beginning of a liturgical year.

We are not ready for a fresh start just yet: we are not even in transition yet.

The time following Peter’s leaving will be our waiting time, and it may feel a bit like the scenario in the gospel today where the man goes on a journey and the members of the household are left to keep everything ticking over.

It’s up to us not only to keep the Parish awake and active through the time of waiting, but also to keep hope for the future at the forefront of our prayers. Perhaps it’s a good opportunity in this Advent to reflect on who we are as individuals and as a parish, and to be open to discern the new direction of our calling.

Advent is a time of preparation through prayer, and of communal and private soul searching, seeking readiness for the surprises God has in store for us. That does seem appropriate to where we are in the Parish.

Advent 1 is often dedicated to the theme of hope, and hope is the challenge to look forwards positively, ready for anything, prepared to seek the presence and promise of Jesus in a new way. Wouldn’t it be lovely if we could begin this Advent feeling wide awake, hopeful, on the brink of a big adventure?

Advent and adventure ought to go together. I once wrote a poem about that, (surprise, surprise). Here it is.

Adventure in Advent
I want adventure in Advent,
the pregnant waiting and the journey,
not just memory of a gift
not particularly welcomed,
now relegated to a high shelf,
except for the gilded ribbon
and recycled wrapping that reappears
each year as though it were the gift,
the heirloom to be passed down.
I want the voice in the wilderness,
the cry of the wild man and the chill
wrestle in the water, leaving behind
the old, and rising mother-naked
to the new testament, new birth,
new heavens and new earth.
Let us make straight the rough
paths from reconciled exile.

Child in a trough is risk and right,
absurd yet awaited and foretold.
Shepherds astray upon the hills
and travellers perusing stars
are companions fit for adventure –
no piety, just mystery and awe,
gifts offered, gift received in straw.
What’s offered, what received
in Advent now when travelling days
it seems are done? Angels on strings,
electric stars: nostalgic trappings
substitute for joy. Desire gives way
to sentiment; the babe is banished
by banality. God with us exiled,
we are refugees in our own skins.
Wilderness creeps in and prophets stir
making space for angels in the skies.
Absence of wisdom makes a void
that draws the magi caravan toward
the lone star over the lonely child.
  Barbara Messner 2011

Times of transition are times for prophets to stir. In the transition between Hebrew and Christian Testaments, John the Baptist was the prophet to stir, the one to prepare the way. In the transitional time of reformations in the church, Luther was one of the prophets, and the Lutheran Church has been honouring his contribution in this 500th anniversary year. In Mark chapter 13, sometimes called the Little Apocalypse, Jesus is in prophetic mode, both in vision and challenge. He seeks to warn the society that will shortly bring about his death that they are going the wrong way, a way that will lead to destructive outcomes.

He also seeks to stir his followers to be prepared both for grief and for hope, as he is taken from them in death, and returned to them in resurrection. In our Parish Vision meeting last Sunday we sought to discern our strengths and weaknesses, our opportunities and challenges, our Parish profile and our Parish vision.

That’s a prophetic exercise as well as an appropriate preparation for Advent, a preparation we could all benefit from applying at an individual level. It’s an exercise of hope, because it presupposes a belief that who we are and who we will become is important to God, and is part of preparing for God’s kingdom to continue to come.
The people of Israel awaited the coming of the Messiah: he came in the unexpected form of a baby in a manger, not a conquering king.

We await the coming of a new Parish priest: it’s important to remember that that person may not immediately be apparent as the embodiment of all our ideals and hopes. The priest God calls for the Parish of Stirling may be as unexpected as a baby in a manger, for God is the God of surprises.

Being open to being surprised is actually a very hopeful spiritual state. It means trusting in God to provide what we cannot yet see that we need. There is a simultaneous need for discernment about where we are now, and vision about where God is leading us. Jesus presents a challenge that disturbs us. He offers an apocalyptic vision of the end of the age, in which everything but his words might pass away. Only if we hold to those words will we have the grounding that will carry us into a new and hopeful age, the time of fruition when the fig tree puts forth leaves and summer is near, when the returning Son of Man is near, at the very gates. Again and again, Jesus challenges us to be ready for anything, at any time – keep awake, keep alert. Advent is all about an unexpected coming of the one awaited, and our readiness to meet that time. Will we be asleep or awake when the kairos moment comes, God’s creative time, the hinge of transformation, the new “now”?
That’s a challenge to our Parish as well. As I said earlier, there’s a parallel between Peter leaving, and the man in Jesus’ parable going on a journey leaving his household to keep working and the doorkeeper on watch. In the time of transition, we need to keep everything here functioning and ready to move on in whichever way God intends.

We need to keep awake and open to what we might become when the future begins its time amongst us. As Christian communities we continually experience that sense of balancing between the past and the future. Perhaps we need to experience more fully the balance point of the “now”. On the one hand, there are traditions to uphold and existing communities to nurture and cherish; on the other hand, we are called forward into the future, seeking God’s will for a world that is changing rapidly.

Patient waiting needs to be balanced with hopeful awareness which creates a trusting readiness to act. Paul speaks of our call to wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, and he assures us that we will be strengthened to the end. That is the forward looking dimension of hope, yet it is founded on the wisdom that comes from the past and from experience, “the testimony of Christ among us”.

It is also about the transforming awareness of Jesus here and now, being responsive to our enrichment in him, “in speech and knowledge of every kind”.

Mark chapter 13 ends with Jesus’ statement:

“And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

Richard Rohr points out that both Jesus and Buddha say the same thing: “Stay awake.” That means being fully open to the “Now” as well as being prepared to respond to whatever comes with openness and no agendas, what Buddhists call “beginner’s mind”.