By Lucy D'Aeth

Isaiah 64:1-9, Mark 13:24-37

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, 36 or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. 37 And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.

It’s Advent Sunday – the first day of a new church year, the first day of the new lectionary, which sets the texts for us in the Worship Group. Over the next few weeks, we’ll light these remaining candles, and on Christmas Day, we’ll light the central candle – the Christ light.

Following the church seasons isn’t what it used to be – for our community here at Aldersgate by December 25th, many of us will be out of town, reunited with family or far-off friends. For many of us, we’ll be beginning long anticipated summer breaks. In our whanau’s case, a trip to my motherland where the winter is bleak and dark and there’s not a Shirley Murray hymn to be had! For modern people, the rhythm of the church year isn’t what it was.

In pre-industrial days, Europeans had a yearful of religious festivals and saints’ days to shape community life – no holidays act, no electricity to stretch the working day. In pre-European times, Māori had a seasonal rhythm which has been nearly obliterated by colonisation – the maramataka (moon calendar) indicating when to plant and when to fish and when to rest, and Matariki to acknowledge the resting season of winter. We Christians in Aotearoa are out of sync, struggling to find the right rhythm to feel the heartbeat of our faith’s story. So we gather here today to find a rhythm and a harmony which can enable our God to sing through our lives.

I love Advent – it’s my favourite church season. I love how it contradicts the excesses of Capitalism which have colonised Christmas and washed it so far from the guts of the stories. Look at these texts we’ve been handed this morning – a reading from Isaiah – not even one of the gorgeous ones, and a piece from Mark which comes immediately before Jesus’s final clash with the authorities, which will lead to his humiliation and execution – no jingling bells or chocolate, cheap booze or bargain priced Xboxes. Instead these texts which take us straight into the lives of communities who are disappointed and confused and struggling to make sense of how to live in a world where they are victim to the whims and arrogance of the violent and the powerful. I love Advent because it stands in such contrast to the frenzy of shopping and eating and partying which we are lured into almost everywhere else this month.

Advent also has some of the richest images in the kete we have inherited from our forebears – John the Baptist (blunt and charismatic), the mysterious tree of Jesse where the whakapapa of Jesus is far from genetic, an ordinary young girl daring to be open to an angel’s lifechanging request, and today, two of the best – the image of God as the potter shaping us the clay, and, from Mark’s gospel, this recurring message Keep Awake!

Isaiah is three books in one, and today’s passage comes from the final part, written after the return from exile in Babylon. This is for and by a people who have known defeat and humiliation – the loss of everything they loved. For them, judgement has taken place and restoration is at hand, but there’s still an uncomfortable amount of anger and shame in those first verses:

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence … to make your name known to your adversaries.  

But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed. We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.

The Bible is a comfort to me because it shows communities who struggle to make sense of life just like we do – why do bad things happen, why do we do the wrong thing when we really wanted to do the right thing, why do we let each other down even though we love each other, why is it so hard sometimes – the papercut disappointments and the major disasters? Why? Why?

I’m not sure we get the answers, but we get the reassurance that we’re not the only ones to have asked the questions, and for me, some days at least, there’s some comfort in that solidarity across the ages.

And then, this image which jumps out of the page – an absolute assertion of relationship –

Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.

I have a friend I used to work with, who I only see on Facebook now, She’s been through the mill (or perhaps I should say, she’s been round God’s potting wheel a few times) – acrimonious divorce, job loss, I think some health issues. But what I see on Facebook is how, over a number of years, she’s become a very accomplished potter. She showed some magnificent fails early in this journey – things that collapsed before they got to the kiln, and things that weren’t structurally right so didn’t survive the flames. The potter has to have imagination and persistence and skill, but the clay often wins. It’s a hands-on relationship – neither party succeeds without the other. The potter has the upper hand but the clay is definitely not passive – it has to be treated right, the relationship definitely affects the final outcome.

Sallie McFague, the brilliant theologian who wrote some much about metaphor, reminds us always that there is an innate tension in every metaphorical image – the ‘is like’ lives in balance with the ‘is not like’. We are clay but we are not clay. God is a potter but God is not a potter. It’s supposed to be a fleeting glimpse to throw light on a mystery, not a downloadable manual to be worked through page by page. I like the image for today because it conjures the warm hands, the willingness to be messy, the deep focus, the playfulness of the God I love.  What does it conjure for you? How are we clay? How are we NOT clay? Do you want to buy this image of God the Potter?

But wait, there’s more – Advent has a wealth of imagery on sale, an enticing shop window of God images to entice your custom.  There’s rows and rows of invitations to be awake, to keep watch, to take notice – because something big is going to happen and you don’t want to miss it.

For many of us, tired at the end of a long working year, the image of staying awake is kind of terrifying. This time next week, I’ll be on a plane, throwing my circadean rhythms to the wind and about to surf the waves of jetlag. First world problems but we all know sleep is a key ingredient of mental and physical wellbeing and for some of us here, it’s a difficult issue.  So the image of hypervigilance in the Mark passage, the idea that the Master will catch us napping, is not a comfortable one.  Is that the intended effect? Surely not – running on adrenaline is not the invitation, I don’t think. Instead, I think the exhortation is to be open, to be aware and to take notice, to live in the moment. The timing of the Master’s visit, in the image, is out of our control, so rather than being primed for an unexpected and hostile arrival, maybe it’s about living in a rhythm where we can be a welcoming host regardless.

Again, it’s a fleeting image which we load with all our own expectations – Master sounds a very hostile presence to me, full of judgement and criticism, but that probably says more about me than the image intends. What if the master is long awaited, and much missed – a beloved character who will fill the house with joy and laughter, filling the sense of emptiness and loss? Maybe it’s not a warning to be hypervigilant, maybe it’s a reminder to keep giving companionship the top priority, so that when the long awaited one arrives, they aren’t a stranger.  So what if that long awaited one arrives early in the morning – they’re likely to be bringing coffee and fresh croissants because they know we work hard. So what if they arrive when we’ve just fallen asleep – we don’t mind the ones who love us seeing our dodgy jammies.  Maybe the one we are waiting for has warm hands, the willingness to get stuck into the hard work, the creativity and playfulness to make the household happier, more harmonious, better able to provide hospitality.

The Bible is laden with these images. It’s an invitation for us, individually and collectively, to play with the metaphors, to play in the space between the Is and Is Not like. The space, the vā, is where hope happens.  Not for the first time, I need to invoke the great prophet of our days, Rebecca Solnit:

“Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act. When you recognize uncertainty, you recognize that you may be able to influence the outcomes–you alone or you in concert with a few dozen or several million others. Hope is an embrace of the unknown and knowable, a alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists. Optimists think it will all be fine without our involvement; pessimists take the opposite position; both excuse themselves from acting. It’s the belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact, are not things we can know beforehand.”

We don’t know when the master will arrive, we don’t know what’s coming, and in that vā we are invited to gather, and be awake, be open to the possibilities for hope and justice, for love and laughter. “Authentic hope requires clarity—seeing the troubles in this world—and imagination, seeing what might lie beyond these situations that are perhaps not inevitable and immutable.”

Once upon a time there was a potter, who prepared the clay not knowing what she might shape. Once upon a time there was a household waiting expectantly for a beloved relation to return so the laughter, and the shared work, and life in general would be richer and deeper. Once upon a time there was a world and a city which was waiting for good news, was waiting for the hungry to be fed and the sick to be cared for and for the violence to end. Once upon a time… and the time is now and the invitation is gentle and the table is set. Let’s hope that we can be part of the story that leads to happy ever after.


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