“Celebrating” a New Year?

There we were celebrating the first Sunday of the new church year – Advent 1 – and what are we hearing for lessons…

From Isaiah.. “we became like one who is unclean, we fade like a leaf and our iniquities take us away… you have hidden your face from us…”

The psalm asks “”How long will you be angry with us…. And pleads “restore us O God of hosts, and we shall be saved…”

Paul’s encouragement to the Corinthians sounds hopeful…at least before we undestand the context.

Then we get to the Gospel from Mark talking about the end time, suffering, stars falling from heaven, and  suddenly the elect will be gathered from the four winds…

And we are told keep alert.  Keep awake… and ends with keep awake…

Doesn’t exactly sound like readings that are celebratory… doesn’t make us feel good or want to dance or even to enthusiastically praise God at the end of the reading.  What is going on here?

Let’s take a look. If we were to be transported to Jerusalem and meet Isaiah we would find ourselves among people coming back from exile to a city that is ruins.  They are confronting the reality of what has happened to them and to their city. This is part of a portion of Isaiah which is a lament.

Instead of simply blaming God for this tragic human condition, Isaiah admits that the people have a role in it too… faithlessness, hubris and pride have taken their toll, and says Isaiah “have delivered us into the hands of our iniquity.”

But all is not desolation for Isaiah almost immediately declares the hope for redemption  “…we are the clay and you are the potter” in essence saying form us – we are willing to change, to be formed, as we are all the work of God’s hand. Trust in God gives the confidence to face the future with hope. Isaiah ends with the declaration “We are all your people.”  He claims that identity. When we too claim that identity and open ourselves to God to form us aright we are given hope for the future.

In the second reading Paul writes to the Christians gathered in Corinth. They are waiting for the immanent return of Jesus to finish the work of God and bring in the reign of God where all will be as it is meant to be. We must remember that Paul is addressing a community that is a mess. Everything that could go wrong there has gone wrong among them. Yet Paul speaks positively – but with carefully chosen phrases. He gives thanks because the grace of God has been given to them in Christ Jesus. Yet he chooses not to judge them by tell them that they have utterly failed to express that grace in their community life.

He tells them they have been enriched by Christ. But he does not remind them of how they have misused or not used those gifts.

Think of the personal and professional gifts of every kind that exist within any community of faith. Paul notes the richness of gifts within the community as they wait for the return of Jesus, noting they lack no spiritual gift. What is lacking  among them is the willingness to nourish and to use their gifts in God’s service.

Paul reminds them that God is faithful and will “strengthen you to the end”. The promise of Christ’s presence among us is real and dependable. God is faithful – the implied question is how faithful are we?

You cannot get much farther from the seasonal preparation of Christmas lights and decorations than we get in the reading from the Gospel. It is almost frightening.

We must recall Advent plays two roles as a season. Advent marks the beginning of a new year commemorating Jesus birth, ministry, life death resurrection and teaching.  Advent leads us up to that yearly commemoration beginning with Jesus nativity.

Advent also looks beyond the child, matured to adulthood, crucified, brought to new life in and, who promised to return to bring all creation to its fulfillment in God.

Jesus in this Markan passage speaks in symbols, with images of clouds, angels and the gathering of humanity to indicate that time when God calls all creation (including us) to an accounting.

When this portion of the Gospel was written the Roman threats against Israel were becoming real, false messiahs were arising saying they were the second coming. The signs were all around the early followers. They were torn between giving themselves up to despair or reaching out for a flicker of hope. There are all manner of signs around us as well. We have to decide whether to give in to despair or to look for the hope in the midst of the signs.

This is usually seen as judgement. And most depictions of what we often think of as the last judgement (including last week’s separating sheep from goats… seem frightening or negative.What I see here is not threat but rather advice on how to wait for that time when all will become as God created it to be. It is telling us we need to spend our energies and time living responsibly in the present.

Nancy has spoken of how as a child this gospel was frightening because she knew she could not stay awake all the time… Jesus says three times to stay alert and awake… for what?

To stay alert to the fact that our life, as one who tries to follow Jesus, is lived knowing there is accountability for our actions and inactions, for our attitudes and ignorances, and for using or burying the gifts we have been given, in order to move us closer to what God created us to be.

We know neither the day or hour when we will be answerable. In Jesus parable the servants keep doing their work knowing that the master will at some point return they will give an account of their life and work.

Years ago a doctor by the name of James Moody published “Life After Life”a study of near death experiences. In most of them the person undergoing clinical death met a being of light who asked them something like “I gave you life what did you do with it…?

This is what I see our accountability will be like. Not ledges or tomes with entries of misdeeds, not anger nor bitterness. A simple question we answer by our reviewing our lives and actions. This is actually a question we can ask ourselves even now.  What have I done with that gifts I was given? What do I want to do with these gifts now and in the future?



About don

The Rev Don Hill is an Episcopal priest, rail fan and writer. He and his wife the Rev. Dr. Nancy Woodworth-Hill are currently Co-Pastors of St Paul's Episcopal Church, Jeffersonville IN, in the Diocese of Indianapolis. They also work as parish consultants in Appreciative Inquiry, strategic planning and spirituality development for parishes and vestries.
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