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

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Sermon at Parish Mass Advent 1 2014

Isaiah 63:16-17, 64:1. 3-8
1 Corinthians 1:3-9
Mark 13:33-37

I don’t know about you, but I had never heard of Black Friday until last week. This strange discount day, connected with an American holiday that we don’t have over here, led to scenes of frenzied consumption, and pictures in the papers of people fighting over televisions. This is part of the apparent dominance of consumer culture around the world. A culture that wants us to believe that this is the way the world is. Desire more stuff, get more stuff! But is that really what life is about?

On Monday I was at a lecture by Lord Green, former Chair of HSBC and also a priest, on leadership and culture. It was a thought provoking lecture but I was struck by his unchallenged assumption that there is something called “the market” that has an objective existence of its own and determines what things are worth and where trade goes and who it benefits. But is there really such a thing as “the market”?

In Britain politicians of all parties seem to be getting very anxious about immigration, in response to a kind of resurgent British nationalism which seems to see the ills of our society as originating anywhere but here. Fear seems to be the name of the game in politics at the moment. But what should we really be afraid of?

In all these things, and other areas of life, it’s good to ask, is that really the way the world is? The world wants us to believe that this is how things are, but is it true? Or is there something else going on behind the scenes?

Today we begin reading through Mark and as it is Advent we begin near the end in what has been called Mark’s Apocalypse. Apocalypse means “unveiling”, showing what is really going on behind the scenes.

Mark is the earliest Gospel to be written and part of its message is to challenge the way the world understands itself, and present an alternative, which is the Kingdom of God.

Mark reflects a period of great political tension and threat. On the one hand there was the Roman Empire, the global superpower and dominant culture of its day, which held power in Judea and all round the Mediterranean world. On the other hand was a militant Jewish nationalism that wanted to throw off Roman rule. Rebellion in the year 66 led to Roman reaction and brutal repression, culminating in the total destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70.

These two competing worldviews could see nothing but themselves and the other, in opposition. But the gospel challenges both worldviews, and proclaims an alternative, the Kingdom of God.

It’s clear from the sayings of Jesus recorded in the Gospels that he foresaw the destructive collision of the Roman Empire and Jewish nationalism. He saw the direction in which his society was heading, and warned of its consequences. And this is what he has been talking about just before the story is taken up in today’s Gospel reading. This is what is meant by “in those days, after that suffering”.

After that suffering, what? Well Jesus goes on to talk about the “coming of the Son of Man”. That is to say, the appearing of Christ in his glory, and the fulfilment of his reign. He is talking about the Kingdom of God becoming the reality by which the world lives. When will that happen?

That must have been a question of great importance to the followers of Jesus who had lived through the terrible last days of Judea and Jerusalem. Just as it has been to people down the ages when great disasters and wars have devastated their world. When will this end? When will the just and peaceful reign of God appear?

But instead of giving a direct answer, Jesus warns the disciples that in fact this is not something that can be pinned down with a day or a time. “Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.” Instead, he answers with a parable.

All of which reinforces Jesus’ point that we do not know when the Kingdom is happening. Which is also to say that we don’t control it. He doesn’t tell us that we will know, he does not instruct us to find out. He simply says, you don’t know. It’s God’s doing. Our part is not to know, but to stay alert, to be watchful. To be attentive, so that we can see.

Being attentive means being ready to question the worldviews that compete for our allegiance. Whether that be Rome and Judea, in the days of Jesus; or in our own day consumerism, “the market” and nationalism.

If our minds are trained to be attentive to the Kingdom of God, then we will be alert to what is false in the way the world interprets itself.

And we need to be alert, because the way the world wants things to be is about domination and control. It is about defining the “insiders” by casting out and excluding the “outsiders”.

Just after Jesus gave this teaching about the Kingdom, he himself fell victim to just such an attempt to control human destiny. In his betrayal and death he assumed the place of the outsider. He became the victim of those who thought they knew what the world was about and could impose its values by force.

But the words of Jesus hover over the scene of his passion and death: “Keep awake!”. Be attentive. Look. It is in and through the death and resurrection of Jesus that the Kingdom is happening. It is in the death of the innocent victim, and his being raised to the glory of the Father, that God is acting to put right what is wrong. Like the master returning when no-one would expect, the Kingdom is happening in the last place you would think of looking.

This is not, of course, what the world expects or wants. The Kingdom of God is happening amid betrayal and loss and death. The Kingdom is happening where human beings lose control and become victims. It is happening among the dispossessed, for they are the ones who have seen through the illusions of the world.

The coming year will see a general election, amid what seems to be a general escalation of fear. Politicians are giving assurances about what they think people are afraid of, and making promises about what they think people desire. It is good that Christians will be reading Mark’s Gospel this year, for it is the Gospel of the dispossessed, the Gospel that consistently challenges our fears and desires, the assumptions that the world makes about what is important and what is right.

We do not know the day or the hour of the Kingdom. But in this day and hour Jesus calls us keep awake, to be attentive, for the Kingdom of God is very near.

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