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Friday, 5 December 2014

discomforting comfort, ye my people?

FIRST SUNDAY OF ADVENT (30th November) 2014

Readings:      Isaiah 40:1-11
                       Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13
                     2 Peter 3:8-15a
                     Mark 1:1-8

Outside academia it is little remarked that the author of the Second canonical Gospel, who we call Mark and who may have been an eyewitness of Jesus, a companion of Paul or even both, was one of few creative artists to invent a wholly new genre. As he penned his resounding words which depict a new beginning for humanity, he did so not with the expectation of admiration, but of conveying new hope. Quickly in his instinctive and urgent story-telling he diverts attention from himself (by the simple expedient of never permitting it), bypasses one of the great religious and cultural icons of his era (John the baptiser), and places attention squarely on Jesus.

He does so because Jesus is for him the issue. But he does so with words that for us are blunted by 2000 years of use and misuse and even abuse. In Greek: archÄ“ tou euangeliou yesu christou. The resonance and the danger and sheer subversive brilliance of his words are blunted by 2000 years of tradition. To Mark’s audience, these words meant “roll over, Caesar, a new boss is here.” These words were laughable. The so called new boss had been executed under Caesar’s delegated and disinterested authority two decades before. Only if light bulbs went on in the experience of the first hearers of Mark would these presumptuous words make sense. Only if the first hearers felt that their long-crucified messiah was indeed bigger than Caesar would these words achieve anything other than to have Mark despatched to a first century looney bin.

There, for a moment, we will leave Mark. He stood in the line of a series of brave speakers who had dared to subvert dominant paradigms with their preposterous pronouncements. Five hundred years earlier a second Isaiah had stood in the dangerous shoes of prophesy and told his simultaneously complacent people that their God was re-establishing their comfort and hope. The words that Handel rendered so brilliantly in the Messiah were daring words, disturbing words, and surprisingly unwelcome words: “comfort ye my people.”

The infrastructure of the Hebrew peoples had been shattered, the world they knew destroyed when the Assyrian Empire had swallowed them and all their security a century before. But they had become contented in their exile, and Isaiah’s words were deeply ambivalent: did they want to go back to the old ways? As prophets today speak of downsizing our infrastructure we hear the same lament: you can’t put the clock back, can’t stop the rape of the earth that produces climate change, can’t redraw the arbitrary boundaries that fuelled nationalism, can’t put back in the ground the uranium that casts the shadow of nuclear winter across the globe. The Assyrian and subsequent gods were sexier than the God of the Hebrews: did they really want God’s comfort? Keep your comfort, Isaiah, keep your comfort and your God.

But Isaiah dared to dream a dream of a challenging, different and un-complacent reality. He dared to dream of a less sexy existence but one in which the Creator God brought a deeper narrative of meaning into human lives and deaths. Superficiality is fine, but when the twin towers of commerce are destroyed by terrorist action, or a tsunami destroys a quarter of a million lives in a single boxing day surge, or when another tsunami wipes out a nuclear power-station and renders the ocean toxic, or when airliners disappear without a trace, or cyclones and typhoons obliterate entire cities, or terrorists kidnap hundreds of schoolgirls, then superficialities dissolve and humans lapse into stunned impotence and rapid-onset amnesia. When our language no longer permits the harsh truth of death, and we just pass or pass on or pass over, then when the reality of our own or our loved ones’ vulnerability sinks in we have no words with which to embrace hope and comfort. Isaiah would have none of it: Comfort, comfort ye my people.

His comfort would embrace reality, embrace truth, embrace pain, and there find hope without any denial. Isaiah was mad. He dared to suggest that his people reconnect with their demanding God, rediscover that all people, even you and me, are grass, are perishable, and wither and die. He dared to suggest that only in the embrace of God, only in the harsh and demanding disciplines of God, the embrace of a demanding God, could meaning to life be found. Like all the biblical writers Isaiah dared to suggest that the emptiness and the pain and even the sense of abandonment that is a part of human journeying is not a place to be denied or repressed or partied away. It is instead a place where we encounter the God who, in the very depths of God’s self, also knows loneliness and abandonment and superfluity, and only there begins to breathe the miracle of new life. Isaiah dared to suggest that pain is the place where God dwells best, because God knows it best.

So the prophets waved no magic wand. But the people of God who have stood in their line, including the first Christians for whom Mark told his crazy tale of a new and death-transcending Caesar-Christ, discovered something in the rites and rituals of their faith. They discovered that as they came together and suffered together and bore one another’s often quite heavy burdens, they began to discover that hints of light conquered even their darkness, and hints of hope transcended even their despair. They discovered that Mark’s claim of a death transcending Christ-Caesar was not crazy after all, no matter what the Roman authorities tried to tell and do to them.

In Advent therefore we are challenged to journey on through the superficiality in our lives, the complacency and what Peter calls the spots and blemishes in our lives, and find a deeper, inextinguishable blaze. We are challenged to find that it is in raw honesty that there breaks a yet more glorious Day, as William How put it. We are challenged to serve a different paradigm to that which surrounds us, putting aside the superficial and the sexy and finding instead the deep and uncomfortable places of the comforting God. At the end of Mark’s good news frightened women dare to live and tell out the resurrection story, however silly and even inconvenient it seems. We are challenged to do likewise.


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