First Sunday of Advent, Year B, RCL
Isaiah 64:1-9,1 Corinthians 1:3-9,Mark 13:24-37, Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18
Humans have made great things from skyscrapers to rockets and even medical advances which extend our lives. Historically humans believe that we are strong both physically and mentally. We are creative and have the power to do just about anything we can think of. It seems almost natural that we are anthropocentric, we “consider human beings as the most significant entity of the universe”. And we interpret the world in terms of our values and experiences. Essentially our thoughts and ideas center on humans as being the most important thing in the universe.
Isaiah’s gives us a poem today which says, in part, that we fall into sin because God hides from us. We know of his presence and at times we are surprised by what he does for us, but nonetheless we forget about him and fall back to our old ways. The poem contends that our sin not only comes from our desires but because God delivers us into our iniquity. We sin because we are not in control and since God is so elusive we are essentially forced to do wrong.
God has the power to judge us for our wrongs doings. The same wrongs that God delivers us into. At the same time, God has the power to look past our inequities; to show favor upon us. To fully understand Isaiah and to truly understand our faith we have to look past our human-centeredness to a point in which we find ourselves utterly insignificant.
Do any of you remember the TV show Cosmos, either the original version with Carl Sagan or the modern version? In either case, there are points in the series which try to impress upon us how insignificant our planet and solar system is in the universe. We sit amongst a solar system of 8 other planets all rotating around the Sun. We are but one solar system in the Milky Way, which is a galaxy that contains 200 billion solar systems. The Milky Way is but one galaxy in a universe that contains 2 trillion other galaxies.
To make this idea a bit more comprehensible, let's make this comparison with rice. Think of our solar system as being one grain of rice in a large pile. Last year, we produce 481 million tons of rice worldwide. How insignificant would our single rice grain be amongst all of the rest? Pretty small, right? Yet that isn’t insignificant enough. Even by thinking of our solar system as being one grain of rice out of all the rice that was produced in recorded history, we would still not be close. It’s only when we take the current world production of rice, the 481 million tons, and multiply it over the last 15 million years, when our first ancestor diverged from other apes, that we begin to reach the scale of significance that our solar system is within the universe. We are one grain of rice out of what is an incomprehensibly large pile.
Clearly Isaiah didn’t have this knowledge of the cosmos but he did routinely see something in his life which demonstrates the insignificance of our being. He uses one of our fondest images in which God is a potter and we are the clay. I wonder if we have this romanticized idea of an artisan potter of today who makes fine vessels, each of which is rather special, and unique. Though the potters back then were skilled craftsmen and each pot was unique; potters and pottery were much more common. Pottery was a low cost material much as we think of plastic today. Cups, bowls, cookware, storage containers, ovens, and toys were often made from the hands of a potter. The finished product was simple and not glazed; think of terra cotta.
I wonder, however, if we should be thinking of this clay as being playdough rather than a fine ceramic. Playdough is less than a dollar a can; some of us even make our own. We watch our little ones use their imagination and create all kinds of things from dogs and elephants to cars and ice cream cones. Kids make and remake clay figures, experimenting with color combinations that usually end up brownish. Whether we are talking about professional potters or children with playdough, we find that the clay is rather insignificant. Unlike the clay itself, the final piece of work has meaning and significance in either the child’s eyes or in the person using it.
Our physical being and the stuff we are made from are rather insignificant. This is the point that Isaiah is trying to make. What brigs significance to our being is God. It is only because of God that we have our being or even a place within the universe. Being made by God does not set us apart from anything else in creation. What sets us apart is that we are made in God’s image and through God’s love we are called into a deepening relationship with God.
The awareness of ourselves as being different from the rest of creation has lulled us into a sense of superiority. We believe that we are not only different but that we are better the rest of creation. Additionally, we often think that we are in control of the world around us. Anthropocentric.
When we look at the gospel we find that Jesus tells us to stay awake. We are staying awake so that we can see the signs which mark Christ’s return. These signs should be as apparent as knowing that summer is coming when a fig tree begins to leaf out. Christ wouldn’t be telling us to stay awake if we didn’t have a tendency to fall asleep.
Around Thanksgiving, we are lulled into a sleep; a sleep not due to the tryptophan found in turkey. We are lulled asleep when we offer good tiding and don’t mean it; when we offer hope and good cheer while walking blindly past people in need. Probably even more nefarious is our sense that we can control others at this time of year. During the holiday season, we are lulled asleep when we believe that purchasing gifts, or spending money, truly makes our loved ones happy for any sustained amount of time. We see the faces of our loved ones light up when opening gifts. But we know that week’s later this cheer fades and they will be in their routine again, most likely no happier than they are right now.
At this point you might be thinking Fr. Steve is the Grinch that stole Christmas this year, but that is precisely my point. The advertisements, the trees in the stores, the month of cyber days, and the gifts we give are not Christmas. Christmas comes whether we are ready or not, whether we spent more than we should or have not spent anything at all. Christmas comes because Christ came one day many years ago and we celebrate Christmas because Christ will come again, possibly sooner than we think.
Isaiah tells us that we are not in control, God is. Because we are not in control, other people, family members, store clerks, or advertisers, cannot determine whether you have a happy Christmas or not. Only we can choose to accept Christmas. Each of us can choose to close our eyes and be lulled into worldly dreams of sugar plum fairies or to stay awake and look for the signs of Jesus in our midst.
God made humans out of stardust, dirt, or earth. Earth is the same insignificant material that Adam was made from, is the same material that we are made from, and that Jesus was made from. God took this same human form so that he could be with us. No longer would he be as elusive as he was in Isaiah’s poem. His love for us has been made abundantly clear through his son. Christ is Immanuel, God is with us. In this Advent season, we cannot fall asleep because we are waiting for his coming. We are waiting for him to be born unto Mary. We are waiting for Christ to come and make his presence clear to us right now at this very moment. We also await his coming in the future when his kingdom shall reign. And just so you don’t miss it, “what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”