30 November 2014
Revd Rachel Wood
Isaiah 64. 109; Mark 13. 24-end
As I was preparing for this sermon I came across a commentary on today’s readings that described the season of Advent as ‘forced inactivity’. Some hope, I thought. In fact, I wouldn’t mind at all if someone forced me to stop doing things at this time of year. My Christmas shopping is already more than in full swing with boxes arriving by post most days it seems. Christmas cards will soon need to be written and I’m starting the military operation of planning visits to various family members and friends over the Christmas week. I do love Christmas, I have to admit, but the weeks leading up to it are never usually characterised by stillness or calm and certainly not inactivity. If Advent is about preparation then surely it makes no sense to prepare for something by doing nothing?
But this commentary then went on to say that Advent makes us sit still and look, learning to see the world as it actually is, full of signs, joyful or terrifying of the coming of God. Something about the season of Advent causes us to stop, look around, seek God.
We hear this shift from restless action to stillness in our reading from Isaiah.
The first few verses are all about a plea to an all-powerful God coming down to Earth in melodramatic style to sort out those other people over there who are causing all the problems. ‘O that you would tear the heavens open and come down’, we heard, ‘…make your name known to your enemies…make nations tremble at your presence’! But then there is a sudden change of tone, a recognition that actually there are lots of reasons why God won’t come and rescue His people, chiefly because God’s people forget Him, ‘there is no one to call on God’s name’.
The people of Israel in our Isaiah reading are swinging between two poles. First of all everything is terrible and it is all God’s fault and God just needs to come down here and sort it out. But then it changes, everything is terrible and it’s all our fault. We can’t get it right, we’ve made a mess of it all and so we’re being rightly punished.
In the face of imminent change, in times of uncertainty and insecurity, responses like those in our Isaiah reading are common. It can be a lot easier to blame those who are far away, demand someone else sorts it out – they caused the mess they can clean it up. It is also common to get overcome with despair, everything is terrible, we can’t possibly sort this out, we‘re all going to the dogs.
At the time of this reading from Isaiah, probably written in the 6th century BC, the people of Israel were going through deeply uncertain and discouraging times. They had returned to Jerusalem from exile full of hope and expectation but things were not easy, conflicts between those who had stayed and those who returned were rumbling on and the people were obviously unsure as to where God was in their situation.
Change and uncertainty then are nothing new. My job in the diocese of Newcastle is, at its heart, about enabling congregations to face and respond to change – changes in the community which challenge local congregations and changes in the church around falling clergy numbers and new approaches to mission and ministry. As members of a newly created diocese I expect you have all had your fair share of facing change. Our Local Ministry scheme in Newcastle is about encouraging partnership, collaborative working to meet and be part of change for the better. The development bit of my job title is all about encouraging and enabling people who are already involved in their local churches to reflect together on what they currently do and as lay and ordained, congregation and community, to listen for what God is calling them to next.
The temptation in a role like mine is to encourage lots of activity – audits, away days, planning meetings, projects, fund raising. Much harder to sat stop, listen to one another, reflect, learn and pray.
I always ask congregations when I first meet them, what is good about being their church and people are always encouraged as they list the things they do. But when I ask about what they feel are the issues for their church I often get a much longer list. I hear church members worry about what they haven’t got, who isn’t in church, the people they don’t reach. The temptation is to quickly find a solution, start a program, try and sort it out, or alternatively some begin to despair that these are insurmountable problems and conclude that the church probably won’t be here in 10 years’ time.
Meeting challenges and anticipating change is a process, learning and exploring new ways of being a church takes time. But slowly things emerge. At some point in the first year of setting up a development team groups always ask what are we doing? There’s confusion and uncertainty but gradually things emerge. The group and the wider congregation start to see ways to respond to the needs in the community and the congregation. These are not quick fixes or even often big radical programmes but things that focus on doing a few things well and come from a sense of trust in God and in one another.
Towards the end of our reading from Isaiah there is another mood shift. From asking God to sort it all out, through feeling unworthy and hopeless to a new understanding – an understanding of themselves as created by God, agents with God, being God’s people. Advent is an invitation to hear that call from God to all of us, to hear the message that God is near, God is at work and that we can, each one of us, listen for that call and respond. It is not a call to anxiety or despair but one to trust and hope. As we face challenges and change as a church, as congregations, as individuals – at work, in our communities, at home or in our families, we are always invited to listen, to hear God’s call afresh and to wait for God’s glory to shine on us, through us and through the whole of creation. Amen.