God Is the Good We Do

November 27, 2011

Clay Nelson

Advent 1     Mark 13:24-37     Isaiah 64:1-9

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Win Rugby World Cup…tick. Hold election…tick. Finally! Now we can focus on summer. Well, not quite yet. First, there is the matter of today’s Santa parade and doing our Christmas shopping. But while the world focuses this weekend on retail therapy, I’m going to preach on the world falling apart. It’s not that I’m a killjoy or don’t have my own shopping list. It’s because I live and work in the parallel universe we call the church and today is the beginning of Advent. It’s what I’m supposed to preach on this Sunday. 


The four Sundays of Advent always begins with a bang. Instead of looking backward to the circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth, it describes a future full of images straight out of a science fiction horror flick. Isaiah sees heaven ripped open and mountains quaking. Mark foretells of sun, moon and stars being blotted out. Remember Harold Camping? He was the guy who put up a billboard on January 1st over our car park predicting the end of the world last May 21st. This would be his kind of Sunday.


These images reflect what was going on in the writer’s time. For Isaiah, it was the destruction of the Temple and exile in Babylon. For Mark, it was the crushing defeat by the Romans in the Jewish Wars. We can relate today. We have plenty of misery of our own. At the top of the list is the economic downturn presently enveloping us, courtesy of greedy Wall Street bankers. An updated version of today’s gospel might use images of high unemployment, embarrassingly high child poverty figures for a developed country, and a rapidly diminishing middle class marked by increasing income inequality. 


Look at Isaiah, the Gospel and today’s circumstances side by side. Then and now and every Advent Sunday in between the world has been falling apart. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse have ridden through every age leaving war, famine, pestilence and death in their dust. Often these times have been attributed to God’s abandonment of us in anger or as predictions of God’s final judgment. This is the interpretation of many Christians like Camping. But this is not Jesus’ point.


In the midst of the world falling apart, we are meant to be preparing. But preparing for what? Jesus instructs us to prepare for God to act in the midst of our brokenness and despair. “Sort it God,” is our prayer. “Make it right.” It is a time of waiting in hope that we might see the messiah. But are we looking in a manger? Waiting, often in frustration and disappointment, is difficult; recognizing Jesus, even more so. 


In Dresden, the German city that was devastated by firebombing at the end of the World War II, there was a wonderful discovery. They found in the ruins a musical score that had survived the fire and devastation. 
It was the score to Albinoni's ‘Adagio for Strings and Orchestra in B Minor’.


In the midst of this devastation of war – the very worst that we do to each other – there survived something of the most beautiful
that we create for each other. So, the Albinoni piece has become a sign of hope. It has been used that way ever since.


During the siege of Sarajevo during the Balkans War the city was shelled month after month, every single night. On one of those nights a group of people
standing in line in front of a bakery were waiting to buy bread. A mortar shell fell right in their midst. Twenty-two people were killed: Innocent people. Hungry people. Wanting to buy bread.


A few days later, at the same spot, in front of the burned out bakery, a man named Vedian Smailovic placed a chair and began to play his cello.


For 22 days he played his cello, one day in memory for each one of the people
who had been killed at that spot. The music he played each day was 
‘Adagio for Strings and Orchestra in B Minor’. It was a beautiful gesture. 


Do you recognize Jesus transforming a place of death and despair into a place of hope and new life?


Some are seeing Jesus today in the Occupy Wall Street movement driving the moneylenders from the Temple. For those who decry the destruction of the social fabric by unbridled capitalism, those camping on Wall Street, on college campus quads, on the steps of St Paul’s; on Aotea Square are a sign of hope that God may at be work. Maybe not through all their aspects, but the vision they profess is encouraging:


We envision:


[1] a truly free, democratic, and just society;


[2] where we, the people, come together and solve our problems by consensus;


[3] where people are encouraged to take personal and collective responsibility and participate in decision making;


[4] where we learn to live in harmony and embrace principles of toleration and respect for diversity and the differing views of others;


[5] where we secure the civil and human rights of all from violation by tyrannical forces and unjust governments;


[6] where political and economic institutions work to benefit all, not just the privileged few;


[7] where we provide full and free education to everyone, not merely to get jobs but to grow and flourish as human beings;


[8] where we value human needs over monetary gain, to ensure decent standards of living without which effective democracy is impossible;


[9] where we work together to protect the global environment to ensure that future generations will have safe and clean air, water and food supplies, and will be able to enjoy the beauty and bounty of nature that past generations have enjoyed.


It could be our mission statement at St Matthew’s.


However, the movement is also a reminder that Advent is dangerous. Advent expresses the insistence that all is not right in our societies. That is a dangerous expression. Stoking hopes for a new world order, for justice to really to be for all, usually implies that old systems, governments, and loyalties aren’t what they’re cracked up to be. Those enamoured with the current system (probably more than 1% if our election yesterday is any indication) are not likely to let go of their power and position easily. We only need to watch peaceful protesters being pepper gassed, brutalised by batons and arrested in droves for proof.


But Advent is dangerous for those who resist change as well. The transformation anticipated in today’s Gospel is such a monumental and all-encompassing upheaval; its description must resort to symbolism. The symbolism is unnerving, even though it was familiar to ancient audiences. It suggests that, in the face of God’s desires coming to full fruition, every other power (symbolized by sun, moon, and stars) receives notice and sees its light go out. No aspect of human existence goes untransformed when God enters in for good.


The claims of Advent should rattle all who benefit from exploitative and domineering forms of power.


But still, where are we to seek this face of God that can mutate the cosmos?


It is told that when God finished with Creation, She had a desire to leave something behind; just a small piece of divinity and wholeness so humans could experience this delight.


But God was a bit of a trickster too, so She didn't want this to be too easy for human beings. She wasn't sure, at first, where to put this special something, so she asked the other living things in creation.


Someone suggested in the stars and God replied, “No, I have this feeling that one day humankind will explore space and they will find it.”


Someone else suggested hiding it in the depths of the ocean. God thought about it for a moment and answered, “No,” I have a feeling that some day humankind will explore the deepest places in the seas.” She thought that was also too easy.


Then suddenly, God had it. "I know where I'll put this special something, a place where they will never look. I'll hide it in them, they will never look there."


And so it was. And so it has been. [i]


However, someone has recently found it. Michael Benedict, the son of holocaust survivors, argues persuasively that whether or not God exists is up to us. For God comes into being by what we do and not do. He does not suggest we are God, but what we’re doing may be. This God, who lives as deeds not creeds, is the God we know firsthand. This God whose shape is action not image, is the God we witness every day. But this God’s presence is not guaranteed. Do good again and again, and you do God’s will. Do God’s will, and you bring God into being. [ii]


Bring God into being and Advent happens. Don’t, and the wait continues.


[i] Muir, J. J. Heretics' faith. Vocabulary for religious liberals. Annapolis: F. J. Muir, 2001. P. 114


[ii] Benedict, Michael. God is the Good We do, New Your: Botting Books, 2007.

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