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Fr. John Allison

Advent 1B

Isaiah 64:1-9

1 Corinthians 1:3-9

Mark 13:24-37

December 3, 2023

Christ Church, Hudson


On this first Sunday of Advent, a season characterized by waiting and expectation, by watchfulness and the continual call to be awake, we find ourselves immersed in readings that sound not so different from those we have heard over the last few weeks as we journeyed to the end of the church year and the celebration of Christ’s return and the promise of a new heaven and a new earth. Indeed, the apocalyptic tone of our Gospel reading today points to Jesus’ return at the end of time rather than the Incarnation of the Son of God as the sweet and tender baby Jesus. We have the “Son of Man coming in clouds with power and great glory” rather than the meek, mild baby in a manger.  It’s a stark contrast to what one might expect and, yet, each year this season of waiting and watchfulness begins in the same way. 

In T.S. Eliot’s great poem cycle the Four Quartets, he says, “In my end is my beginning . . . We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” This is something I read every year during this time because it reminds me of God’s promise of newness and invites to refresh my view of what’s going on around me and to see with new eyes. That can be a difficult task in the busyness and turmoil of human life. 

That difficulty is apparent in both our psalm and our reading from Isaiah.  They both speak to a people who are desperate for God’s presence. “O’ that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence,” says the prophet Isaiah. “There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold our you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.”

Written during a time of great oppression and turmoil, just after the conquest of Israel by the Babylonians, this passage reflects feelings that are with us to this day. We hurt. Whether it’s two raging wars that have taken the lives of tens of thousands or the senseless violence and oppression that so many experience in daily life or the personal tragedies and illnesses and losses that we all experience—the chronic pain in our bodies, the illness and injury that afflict us and our loved ones, the loss of those closest to us, or the bearing apart of relationships. The list could go on and on and when we look clearly and honestly at what happens in the world in it can be hard not to be jaded or, at the very least discouraged, at the prospect of God’s new kingdom ever coming to fruition on the earth.

At least part of our discouragement, I think, comes from misplaced trust. Many recent studies and surveys show that we approach people in public life with high levels of suspicion. Whether it’s elected officials or others in positions of authority or our health care system or our educational system or even the stranger in need who approaches us for help, many of us find it hard to trust. We see and experience dysfunction and exploitation and it’s easy to throw up our hands in despair and lose hope. 

And yet, here we are on this first Sunday of Advent with our single candle of hope that is lit as a sign that God’s love is persistent, even when it seems that darkness has prevailed. In fact, over time the light grows stronger; we seek to represent this overcoming of the darkness as we light more candles each week. In some ways, this enactment can seem wholly inadequate. The world goes on as before and the news cycle continues to relay the many horrors that happen to us. Nevertheless, we persist—with God’s help. We light our candles and join together in prayer and worship and seek to live from a place of thanksgiving and hope. Some days it’s easier than others.

So, what is it that we watch for? In our Gospel reading Jesus points to some signs but then says we can never know exactly, which is why we must be awake and alert to God’s presence. For me, that means being awake to what happens in my heart. Advent is a time to cultivate awareness about what’s going on in here (in our hearts) as much as it is about what’s happening out there. 

As I look inside my own heart, I’m aware of discouragement about many of the difficulties of our world that I mentioned earlier. Sometimes, if I don’t look closely, all I can see is the dark and that can lead me down a dark path. If I look closely, however, I can see that one small flame that the darkness cannot overtake—that one small flame that I trust will prevail. I have no proof or verification but that is the nature of faith. As the founder of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, Fr. Richard Meux Benson said, “The truest faith springs from really honest doubt.” You see, faith is not so dependent on the object of our trust as it is on our own inward disposition. Advent is a time to cultivate that inward disposition to trust in God’s love, to participate in God’s love. That doesn’t mean that all the problems of the world will disappear. It does mean that in the midst of all the turmoil and difficulties of life I can be (you can be) a sign of God’s love. Broadly speaking, that’s what we will celebrate at Christmas: God’s love becoming Incarnate, taking on human flesh, and in the process glorifying all of creation—that includes us and all the material world. That’s the vision we trust will ultimately prevail, the vision that is often hard to see against all the darkness. 

In the Advent devotional that some of us are reading together, the author says, “The whole tenor of Advent is that God may act in us, through us, beyond us, more than we imagined, because newness is on its way among us . . . Advent is preparation for the demands of newness that will break the tired patterns of our lives.”  We must be awake to spot God’s action inviting us to new life. We cultivate that awareness through our various practices of prayer and meditation and study and acts of charity and other methods that may be unique to you. The first step is wanting to be awake, wanting to see that spark of God’s love and light that is at the core of each one of us. That’s what changes not only how we see ourselves but how we interpret and act in the world around us.

In closing, I offer this prayer from our Advent book. Let us pray:

Living God, visit us in this season with your Holy Spirit that we may get carried away to do obedient things we have not yet done, kingdom things we did not think we had in us, neighbor things from which we cringe. May you act in us, through us, beyond us, more than we can imagine, because newness is on its way among us. Amen.