Monday, December 04, 2017

Advent 2017

At the shopping mall near Chez Adventus last night, some excitement.  Police cars blocked access to the parking lot on many sides.  It was reported as a shooting; turned out to be a "smash and grab."  Except nothing smashed, and nothing was grabbed.

The would-be thief went to a jewelry store and proceeded to smash at the display cases with a hammer.  It always works in the movies.  But in real life, the hammer just bounced off the glass.   Very, very strong glass, the kind used to make glass doors work as security doors.  Shatterproof glass.  His hammer blows rang out like gunshots, terrorizing the shoppers.  Calls went out, the police arrived, the frustrated thief fled.

It struck me as a metaphor.  The would be vandals who are Trump supporters still think they can smash and grab government goodies for themselves.  They can challenge the powers that be, take the reins of power, assert their will and be dominant!  Turns out it doesn't work that way.  Turns out they know as much about it as that thief knew about jewelry store security.  Turns out jewelry stores aren't so stupid as to leave their valuable merchandise in vulnerable displays, even during business hours.

Turns out things are not what they thought they were.  And now all they can do is run away.

Advent begins this year, as it does almost every year, with apocalypse.  Apocalypse is not devastation and disaster; apocalypse is revelation.  Apocalypse is realization.  One could say the thief at the mall had an apocalyptic experience, banging away on glass that refused to behave as expected, realizing he'd made a dreadful miscalculation.  .Here is the gospel reading for the First Sunday of Advent from the lectionary:

Mark 13:24-37
13:24 "But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light,

13:25 and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.

13:26 Then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in clouds' with great power and glory.

13:27 Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.

13:28 "From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near.

13:29 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates.

13:30 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.

13:31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

13:32 "But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.

13:33 Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.

13:34 It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch.

13:35 Therefore, keep awake--for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn,

13:36 or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly.

13:37 And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake."

But roll back a moment, to the reading from the Hebrew Scriptures, the reading from Isaiah, known to most Christians as the great prophet of the Messiah, of the virgin birth and the coming of John the Baptist and the relation of Jesus to the descendants of David.  Isaiah of the vision of the holy mountain; Isaiah of the frustration with God.

Wait, what?

Isaiah 64:1-9
64:1 O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence--

64:2 as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil-- to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!

64:3 When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.

64:4 From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him.

64:5 You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways. But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed.

64:6 We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.

64:7 There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.

64:8 Yet, O LORD, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.

64:9 Do not be exceedingly angry, O LORD, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.

Isaiah wants God to return, although not as Messiah; simply as Creator in direct contact with the creation.  I love this passage, because Isaiah wants a sign, a proof of God's supremacy as clear as the one shown to Elijah:

So Ahab sent to all the people of Israel and gathered the prophets together at Mount Carmel. 21And Elijah came near to all the people and said, “How long will you go limping between two different opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” And the people did not answer him a word. 22Then Elijah said to the people, “I, even I only, am left a prophet of the LORD, but Baal’s prophets are 450 men. 23Let two bulls be given to us, and let them choose one bull for themselves and cut it in pieces and lay it on the wood, but put no fire to it. And I will prepare the other bull and lay it on the wood and put no fire to it. 24And you call upon the name of your god, and I will call upon the name of the LORD, and the God who answers by fire, he is God.” And all the people answered, “It is well spoken.” 25Then Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, “Choose for yourselves one bull and prepare it first, for you are many, and call upon the name of your god, but put no fire to it.” 26And they took the bull that was given them, and they prepared it and called upon the name of Baal from morning until noon, saying, “O Baal, answer us!” But there was no voice, and no one answered. And they limped around the altar that they had made. 27And at noon Elijah mocked them, saying, “Cry aloud, for he is a god. Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.” 28And they cried aloud and cut themselves after their custom with swords and lances, until the blood gushed out upon them. 29And as midday passed, they raved on until the time of the offering of the oblation, but there was no voice. No one answered; no one paid attention.

30Then Elijah said to all the people, “Come near to me.” And all the people came near to him. And he repaired the altar of the LORD that had been thrown down. 31Elijah took twelve stones, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob, to whom the word of the LORD came, saying, “Israel shall be your name,” 32and with the stones he built an altar in the name of the LORD. And he made a trench about the altar, as great as would contain two seahsa of seed. 33And he put the wood in order and cut the bull in pieces and laid it on the wood. And he said, “Fill four jars with water and pour it on the burnt offering and on the wood.” 34And he said, “Do it a second time.” And they did it a second time. And he said, “Do it a third time.” And they did it a third time. 35And the water ran around the altar and filled the trench also with water.

36And at the time of the offering of the oblation, Elijah the prophet came near and said, “O LORD, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, and that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your word. 37Answer me, O LORD, answer me, that this people may know that you, O LORD, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.” 38Then the fire of the LORD fell and consumed the burnt offering and the wood and the stones and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench. 39And when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, “The LORD, he is God; the LORD, he is God.”

1 Kings 18:20-39

That's what Isaiah wants; the great prophet of God, probably the most well known prophet of Israel, wants a sign from God like the sign to Ahab.  Who wouldn't keep awake to see that happen?  And yet God, who uses the prophets to speak to Israel, doesn't even answer; and Isaiah ends begging God to be merciful.

I heard the old joke again this morning about a man whose house is surrounded by rising floodwaters.  A driver in an SUV comes by and says "Come on, we can still get out in my truck!"  The resident refuses.  "God will provide," he says.   The waters rise further, and a man in a boat comes by.  "Come on, I can get you out this way!"  "No," says the homeowner; "God will provide."  Finally he has to escape to his roof, and a helicopter comes by and stops above him.  Again he refuses:  "GOD WILL PROVIDE" he shouts above the aircraft's roar.

Finally, he can't escape and he drowns, and finds himself before the Pearly Gates.  "What happened?," he asks; "you were supposed to provide!"  "I sent a car, a boat, and a helicopter," God replies; "What more did you want?"

What is the sign?  When is the sign?  And are we awake to it?  The situation of Elijah was not the situation of Isaiah; the situation of the homeowner was not the situation of the would-be jewel thief..  But there were clear signs they were both on the wrong path, if they were awake to them.  And I don't mean, in the case of the thief, the sign that says "Thou shalt not steal."  I mean the sign that says the world is not as simple and accessible as you think it is.  Nor, to the example of Isaiah, is God.

The story of Elijah and the priests of Baal is a compelling story, but it was already outdated by Isaiah's time.  The warnings from Mark's gospel seem already outdated today.  But apocalypse is not about warning; it's about assurance.

If the days of suffering make the moon go dark and the stars fall from the sky and the power of heaven shake, then surely bad times, terrible times, are upon us.  But that's when the triumph occurs; and it' s not about calamity and terror, it's about the fig leaf putting out leaves.  It's about the world working as it should, rather than as it shouldn't.  And why do you keep awake?  Because the apocalypse is the revelation of the way things really are, instead of the way we thought they are.  It's better to know, and not encounter the failure of the hammer against the display case, than to have your ignorance revealed, leaving you vulnerable.  The jewelry store did not know when the thief would come, but we can say it was "awake" to the probability.  The thief, on the understand, found revealed what he had failed to be awake to.  And we, the nation, were asleep to the possibilities that our system of governance could allow such vandals and poseurs and thieves and cut-purses into its halls of power.  The voters thought they could smash and grab, the rest of us thought they could never get in the store.  Turns out we were both asleep, though the glass cases of government are not proof against the employees who can loot the store after hours.  But if we wake, if we stay awake, will we find the world working as it should, rather than as it shouldn't?

Before we can find out, we'll have to wake up, won't we?

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