Catholic Contextual urban Theology, Mimetic Theory, Contemplative Prayer. And other random ramblings.

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Sermon at Parish Mass, Advent 1 2013

'Watchman, what of the night?' by Sonia Lawson 
(By Leightonb3 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

Isaiah 2:1-5
Romans 13:1-end
Matthew 24:36-44

You may experience a sense of deja vu on hearing that Gospel reading. Didn’t Luke say something similar two weeks ago? Well yes he did. But now we are in a new church year, and this is the year of Matthew. Nevertheless, we start near the end of Matthew’s Gospel, in the equivalent place where we left off Luke.
As with Luke, this section of the gospel is called “apocalypse”, that is, unveiling, seeing what is going on behind the scenes of the world. But we are told to be watchful for something unknown and unexpected. What we are going to see is not what we expect. That something is the “coming of the Son of Man”. Jesus does not say what exactly that means. But he does go on to say that the coming of the Son of Man brings both judgement and salvation. 
Judgement that will bring to light things hidden in darkness. St John says that the light has come into the world, but people preferred darkness to light because their deeds were evil. If you’re not expecting the light, if you are not watching for it, you will act as though you can keep on hiding and covering things up. But the light will come, and the truth will be exposed.
And the coming of the Son of Man will bring salvation because everything will be brought into the light. Reward, therefore, for those who have been faithful and watchful. Redemption for those who have been the victims of the deeds of darkness.
And this is Advent, which means “the coming”. The character of this season, of penitence, sobriety, and renewed prayer, is a preparation for the liturgical feast of Christmas. But it also reflects the way in which we should be constantly watchful and awake for the signs of the coming of the Son of Man.
We look forward of course to the celebration of Christmas, the coming of the Son of Man as the Baby of Bethlehem, the light come into the world. And that was unknown and unexpected. Even the Magi from the east, who followed the heavenly sign to find the new baby, went to look in the palace of Herod. Where else would you look for a Royal birth? Certainly not in an animal feeding trough in an overcrowded town in a backwater like Galilee.
And Herod, too, was watching for the wrong thing. He expected a rival, a brutal king like himself. What else could such a birth mean? And so he was consumed with fear and violence. The coming of the light brought judgement for him, for it revealed what Herod was really like, and his choice to turn away from the light.
But the coming of the Son of Man is also something enacted in various ways throughout the ministry of Jesus. Always unknown and unexpected, Jesus enters the scene for judgement and salvation. 
Salvation for so many. Usually, for the outcasts, the sinners, the excluded and unclean. All those who had no reason to hope, no thought that the world could ever change, suddenly found themselves, with Jesus, touched, healed, forgiven, embraced. Hope unlooked for entered their lives and opened the way into the Kingdom of Heaven.
And judgement too. Usually, for the powerful, the content, those who were sure of themselves. For Pilate and Herod (the second one), for the religious authorities, the Pharisees. All those who judged and cast out and condemned  so that they could be secure and safe. In the unexpected coming of Christ the light shines on them, revealing them for what they really are. And suddenly their security and safety are taken away, for Jesus reveals a new way of being human in which condemnation and casting out have no place. The way they respond, to embrace the message of Jesus and the life it offers, or to reject it, is their own judgement.
Then, too, there is the darkest and most obscure coming of the Son of Man, the road to Calvary. And that is just over the page at this point in Matthew’s Gospel. We are near the end of the story. Here too is something unknown, unexpected: the Messiah goes to his death on a cross. Here the coming of the Son of Man goes beyond comprehension. No wonder at this point Jesus says to be watchful and awake.
For the Cross reveals, in the starkest light, what human life has been like from the beginning, what has always been driving the world. A false security built on the exclusion of the innocent victim. A violent society displacing its violence onto a scapegoat to avoid its own self-destruction. And in all of this the illusion, the lie that seems so terribly real, that the victim deserves what he is getting. Be alert, be watchful, for this is an hour that you do not expect.
But all that is the prelude for the most unexpected coming of the Son of Man. When all was over, finally and definitively, when the victim was dead and buried and tidied away. What could be more unknown than that the victim should rise from the dead? And what could be more unexpected than that the victim should return, not to seek revenge on those who had betrayed and killed him, but to forgive them? Indeed, to empower them to go and spread his forgiveness throughout the world.
And all of this is bundled together in an image that Jesus also used, and which we repeat in the Creed, that he will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.
At the end of the Gospel, after the resurrection, Jesus ascends into heaven in the cloud of God’s glory, and the disciples are told that he will come again in the same way. Which is to say, that Jesus, the risen victim, is the supreme power that rules creation. Jesus is Lord, and the powers of this world that put him to death are not. 
The world can be re-imagined in hope, because the way that things always were turns out not to be the final truth. Condemnation, violence and casting out are not the principles behind the universe, although the human race has been living up to now as though they were.
The final coming of Jesus in glory to judge the living and the dead is of course apocalypse, that is, unveiling. It is that moment of universal seeing, when the truth that Jesus is Lord will be known and realised in all things. But this is the truth that is already established in heaven and is breaking in to the here and now. 
This therefore means that hope is not displaced to some remote end point that we aren’t at yet - whether that be millions of years from now or the day after tomorrow. For the coming of the Son of Man is the way in which God is redeeming the world, here and now. And, as in the lifetime of Jesus, it is experienced by many people in many ways. 
For us, as for those in the time of Jesus, hope is the rupture in the system. Hope is what happens when things don’t carry on as they always have, the new and unexpected thing breaking in where human life seemed hopelessly death-bound and lost. We cannot save ourselves, for salvation is God’s initiative, God’s interruption and disruption of how life has been up to now. 
So we are called to be watchful for the coming of the Son of Man. The unknown and unexpected breaking in to our lives. The sudden fissure in our hearts, letting in the light from which we might shrink, for it brings judgement, but which also brings healing and forgiveness. Brought into God’s light the truth about ourselves is no longer told as judgement and condemnation but as part of God’s bigger story of mercy and love. So too are the ruptures in the world where forgiveness, reconciliation and peace suddenly break out where before there seemed no hope. 
Watch, therefore, for the signs of the Kingdom. Signs that Jesus the risen victim is the Lord. Signs that the one who was cast out and killed is on the throne of the universe, to judge and to save, to forgive and to heal. Watch and stake awake, because if we think that everything is always going to be the same we will not see the unexpected place where the Lord breaks in, the unknown way in which he is making known his Kingdom. 
“For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armour of light.”

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