Sunday, November 27, 2011

Helplessness and hope

Text: Mark 13 ("The little Apocalypse")

Why is the first Gospel reading for Advent taken from the last week of Jesus' life? And why is it a reading that describes the Second Coming of Christ? Advent is a time when we prepare to celebrate the First Coming of Jesus as a baby born in Bethlehem. So it may strike us as odd that the church year and our preparation for Christmas begin by focusing on end times instead of new beginnings.

Well, one connection I see between Jesus' birth and the end times is a connection between helplessness and hope. In a newborn baby, we see both. Likewise, I believe that we can see the same helplessness and the same hope in times of crisis or pain.

I love the Christmas stories of the birth of Jesus. They are stories of light in the midst of dark, love in the midst of hate, life in the midst of death, and beauty in the midst of poverty. They tell of God come to earth in the most humble form imaginable, as a tiny baby. Like all babies, the Christ child is helpless and dependent. He is born in a stable to an poor family in an obscure part of the world.

This is the peaceful and gentle First Coming of Christ in Bethlehem. The Second Coming will be different. In our reading today Jesus tells his students that he will return as the Son of Man coming in the clouds with great power and glory. The signs of his Second Coming will not be a star shining in the night sky or angels singing gently to shepherds. For the Second Coming, the signs will include earthquakes, famine, war, and the darkening of the sun and moon.

This description of the Second Coming is similar to the scene of the Last Judgement we heard in church last Sunday from Matthew. So just as our old church year ended with awesome power and judgement, this new one begins with similar awesome power and judgement.

In the face of the terrible signs of Christ's Second Coming -- wars, earthquakes, and darkness at noon -- most of us might feel frightened and helpless. Indeed, such terrible events might make us feel the way we once did as a helpless infant.

And when calamities like this occur in our lives, it is hard not to feel God's judgement, I believe.

How often have we heard an innocent victim of war cry out against God? How often have we heard the victims of an earthquake, tsunami, or hurricane speculate that their plight must represent God's anger or judgement against them.

While I find such reactions understandable, I don't agree with them. Just as Mary and Joseph were not responsible for the wars and poverty of the world into which Jesus was born more than 2,000 years ago, so are we not responsible for most of the difficult conditions under which we live.

Everyday in the news, we hear reports of economic crisis, destruction of the environment, natural disasters, and violence. Because of this news, we might even conclude that we are living in the end times described in our reading from Mark today. And people may have always thought like this.

So it might have appeared to Mary and Joseph when Jesus was born in Bethlehem all those many centuries ago. They were poor working people. They were Jews who lived under foreign occupation. They were threatened by the campaign of King Herod to murder all the children born near Bethlehem. And so they fled to Egypt as refugees to escape this threat. In the face of these conditions, they must have been scared and oppressed.

And yet, they raised Jesus: our Messiah, the Christ, the person who is the perfect image of God in human form. In the face of difficult conditions, they helped bring new hope into this world. Visible in the baby Jesus was God's hope of liberation, of mercy, and of salvation.

One of my favourite Bible stories occurs in Luke 2. It tells of Jesus presented as a newborn in the Temple in Jerusalem. An old and faithful man named Simeon is serving there. When Simeon sees the baby Jesus, he also sees the Messiah. And so he declares that he can now die in peace. He does not have to live another 30 years to puzzle at Jesus' parables or watch Jesus heal sick people. He does not have to wait for Jesus' death or resurrection. He experiences salvation just by holding a helpless infant in his arms. In that moment, he experiences all the hope he will ever need.

Scripture and our tradition say that all of us, as a baptized and baptizing people, carry the Spirit of Christ in our hearts. We, too carry, a Christ light into the world.

In the face of disasters -- whether collective ones like war or personal ones like sickness -- we might feel helpless. Nations have worked for peace and justice for centuries and yet war still happens. Most of us want to be good stewards of the land, air, and water and yet habitat destruction continues. We try to take good care of ourselves, and yet we all age and get sick.

In the face of such problems, we might feel helpless. We might even feel as helpless as a newborn baby.  And here is where I see a possible connection between the First Coming of Jesus as a baby and his terrifying Second Coming in clouds of glory. The Christ Child was helpless and yet holy and divine. And we too are are holy and divine despite our helplessness in difficult circumstances.

Within us flickers the same hope that entered the world with the birth of Jesus. And it is a hope that God's Grace fans into reality in any moment. This hope does not mean that we will avoid loss, that violence will cease, or that our loved ones won't become ill. It does mean that God is with us in all of life's ups and downs.

Our initial helplessness as infants does not last. We grow up to be strong, knowledgeable and capable adults. But despite our achievements, we all eventually face age, sickness and decline. And just as we start our lives helpless and dependent, we end our lives the same way.

In the middle of life, we might be tempted to deny our reliance on God. We might judge ourselves to be a person who has figured it all out. But the humiliations of life lay bare for us a deeper reality, that we are dependent on each other and on God for everything we achieve. By the same token, our stumbles and decline are part of the human condition and not the result of personal failings. So just as we can't judge ourselves as great because of our achievements, neither can we can judge ourselves as weak or evil just because life circumstances bring us low.

In fact, I believe it is when we feel most helpless that the truth of God With Us -- Emmanuel -- becomes clear. When we see a newborn infant, or when we spend time at the bedside of a loved one in the last stages of life, then we can wake up to our frail but divine reality most clearly.

We are born helpless, yet holy; and we die helpless, yet holy. We are dependent human beings who nevertheless carry the light of Christ into the world. In the face of some crises, we may be helpless. But we all belong to God and we all return to God. And this will be as true at the Last Judgement as it is in any difficulty in life.

Whenever we see the presence of God's light as the Risen Christ in our own heart or in the heart of our neighbours, we can say with Simeon, "Now let me, your servant, go in peace. This is what you promised, God. My eyes have seen your salvation" . . .

The Season of Advent is here again. We wait for the coming of God's light to the world. We prepare for the birth of new hope in the form of a helpless infant. And with God's help, we turn away from fear.

This Advent, the signs of the times might look more like the frightening ones of Christ's Second Coming than the gentle ones that heralded his birth in Bethlehem. But even when life's problems make us feel helpless, we live with the sure hope of God's salvation. It is a hope visible in the face of any infant and in the light of Christ living in each heart. And so this Advent we say again in hope . . .

Come, Lord Jesus, come.


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