St Peter's Church, Manchester
Compassion — Acceptance — Welcome
Preached at St Peter's House on 30 November 2008 [First Advent, Year B.]
Isa 64.1–9; Mk 13.24–37;
More than any other thinker, Walter Brueggemann has encouraged us to consider the exile of the church in contemporary culture. (See, for example, his contributions to Exilic Preaching: Testimony for Christian Exiles in an Increasingly Hostile Culture (Erstine Clark, Ed.), as well as in many earlier books.) I was pleased that Lawrence Moore chose a similar theme this year in his excellent lectionary commentary Disclosing New Worlds (http://lectionary.wolsblog.com/).
Recently I saw an ad on a bus. It had a picture of a model stretched out in some new clothes with a bold claim beneath, something like: “The Trafford Centre: the true meaning of Christmas.” I was curious to discover the true meaning of Christmas and so my family and I went to the Trafford Centre to find out.
The Trafford Centre, of course, is one of the largest malls in the area. A colossal Father Christmas sits atop of the tower in the centre of the mall. There he is way high up, waving his arm slowly in a slightly sinister fashion, if you ask me. The true meaning of Christmas, indeed, for many of the thousands streaming into the Trafford Centre this time of year: God as a benign, well-meaning individual who is far, far away from us and any relevance to our world. A beloved figure waving weakly from a great height. Perhaps the ad was more true than its designers knew.
“Tear open the heavens and come down,” we hear in the Isaiah reading. “Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, you who lead Joseph like a flock,” writes the psalmist, as if reminding God the kind of loving shepherd God is supposed be. And we sing, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel and ransom captive Israel” as we begin the season of Advent, during times in which God feels far away, benign, and ineffective. Advent is about waiting for God during these times when God is like a well-meaning automated figure – a construction that, someone hopes, might mean something to others. Advent is about the wait, the gap, the longing.
Of course there are different kinds of waiting. Once I was going to get a skateboard for my birthday, and I knew where my father had hidden it. I would sneak into the closet and take it down and hold it in my hands, and then carefully reach up and put it back on the shelf. The waiting, the anticipation, was definitely as pleasurable as the having the skateboard itself. In fact it was almost more pleasurable; actually getting the present was a bit of a let down.
Advent is not about that kind of waiting. Advent is the kind of waiting that is more to be endured than enjoyed. The kind of waiting you see sometimes in the emergency room at the hospital. The kind of waiting that has no illusions. A kind of waiting in which not only your plans and dreams for the future are taken away, but also your past; the way you have understood yourself and your life. After Jesus’ crucifixion the disciples surely doubted everything they had learned and thought they knew about God, until Jesus came to them anew the following day and they received their lives anew. This is the kind of waiting we endure during Advent – the God we thought we knew far, far away, and the people we thought we were dispersed and disillusioned and disagreeable.
The Israelites in the 6th and 7th centuries BC went through something similar when they were taken into exile in Babylon as slaves, their religion mocked and traditions forcibly forbidden. “You have hidden your face from us,” Isaiah says, “and have delivered us into the hands of our iniquity.”
I was reminded of this kind of spiritual crisis when I preached recently at a church that will be closing in a few weeks. After the service I stood chatting at the communion rail with the steward. The church banners were all there on the wall behind us; another steward was clearing away the collection that we’d gathered and offered to God. Tea was being prepared in the small kitchenette off the sanctuary. The steward talked quite openly about the closing of the church and I asked him what had happened in recent years; why the congregation had dwindled. Recently the church had suffered several deaths in the congregation over the period of a year. A family or two had moved away and the church Sunday school had shut. He couldn't really say why they had declined over the years. At the heart of it, behind his words, was the throbbing sense that God hadn’t been faithful; that God had let them down.
God had been faithful in the past but now, inexplicably, was profoundly absent in a way more painful than God's punishment would have been, which at least would have shown that God existed. I've seen it at a church in Salford, and I think of it every time I pass the bricked-over remains of a church, or a church that is now luxury apartments, or a carpet warehouse with grasses sprouting from the walls. In the neighbourhood where I live the tallest structure around is one of the needle-like steeple of a church, one so narrow and so tall it seems to be pulled from a point high above. It’s a hulk of a church that has been empty for several years but is still inspiring to see up close, as it was built to be. Often the church is present now by its absence. For many people God is, too.
The church in Manchester is very much in exile, as were the ancient Israelites. The God we knew in the past has let us down; our way of understanding our past is in question, we wait in “mournful exile” for reasons we don't understand. But in the Mark we hear that terrifying events that appear to be cataclysmic and destructive are actually redemptive and mysteriously part of God’s plan. Jesus speaks the words we heard in Mark in front of a place of worship, the temple, that was destroyed 500 years before when Jerusalem was sacked; the temple would be destroyed again, Jesus predicted. In fact, not just the temple but the world was changing. Heaven and earth will pass away, Jesus said, but my words will not pass away.
When our hope, too has run out, when God seems benign and far off and irrelevant, when we recognize that everything has changed around us and that we are in the exile of the stranger, then Advent hope can be born in us – a hope not in towers atop shopping malls or steeples atop churches or human beings but in a living, loving, unexpected, but very much needed God; a God who makes out of the very place of disaster a blessing, if we can wait and watch and hope and listen for the word that has not, and will not, pass away.