The First Candle

 A Sermon for the 1st Sunday in Advent: Isaiah 64:1-9, Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18, 1 Corinthians 1:3-9, Mark 13:24-37

 

It happens every year. Still, it has been a long time coming. The fall equinox was Sept 22 and the nights started getting longer and longer. And then on November 5, we fell back, and the dark came even sooner. This past week I’ve been finishing spring choirs around the house; I worked until dark; when I got it was 5:30. The dark is here.

Last week a truck hit a power pole on Division St. right where W. Pecan intersects. Everyone was fine, but the power pole was not. We did not lose power; but, we did lose the street light; it is even darker. Now seems as if they are not going to replace that street light. That means I can’t see my driveway in the dark. The street light down the street works just fine; I can clearly see those driveways, but they aren’t my driveway.

So yes, it has been getting darker. And yes, it is really dark now. And I know there are months of darkness to come. Where do I find light?

Six or seven hundred years before Jesus’ day Israel was a Persian vassal. They were kind of independent, but they had to pledge allegiance to Persia to stay kind of independent. Life as a vassal state raises questions about who is really in charge? Who is in charge of political life, our economic life? Who is in charge of our religious life? It leaves you to wonder “Where is God?” It leaves you wondering about the peoples’ hopes and dreams. It is a stark reminder that Israel is not in control, which might lead us to ponder Are we in control (Carvalho)?

The self-reference to being like a “filthy rag” is a confession to being ritually unclean, which means Israel does not think of herself as worthy to come before God. And yet, they refer back to God’s self-revelation on Mount Sinai in a daring to hope that God will tear open the heavens and come down. Israel hopes the God they know (Seitz) will once again be the God of Judges and take the need course of action (Gaventa and Petersen).

We hear an echo of that plea in the Psalm, which repeatedly asks God to restore us. There are references to Israel’s past history. And those verses read like a request for a sign that God’s light will return, and Israel will, once again, be saved.

We hear another echo in Mark’s recounting of Jesus’ apocalyptic prophecy. At the beginning of this chapter, the disciples see the Temple and marvel at its sight. And it was stunning. It sits atop the highest the hill. The Temple soared some 164 feet high above the hill top and its sides plated in gold. It was a wonder of the world in its day (Gaventa and Petersen). It is helpful, probably even necessary, to know that by the time Mark wrote his Gospel account the Temple had been destroyed. The very center of Jewish life: political life, economic life, and religious life was gone (Jacobsen). Mark may well be using this particular story to give hope to a community whose life is now completely un-hitched.

Following the tradition of the prophets Jesus refers to celestial terrors in his apocalyptic imagery; the stars falling from the sky. Indeed, he makes references to Israel’s traditional apocalyptic prophecy (Keener and Walton; Gaventa and Petersen). Jesus’ use of ancient prophecies connects his ministry to God’s previous acts of salvation. Mark’s use of Jesus’ prophecy reminds his readers, including us, that Jesus’ death is not end of the story; that there is promise and power in the resurrection, that there is ancient truth in the promise of salvation (Perkins).

When Jesus finishes his apocalyptic, end of time, prophecy, the disciples also want to know when it will all happen. We get that, we are still waiting; we want to know when is all this going to happen. The depth of our curiosity is revealed in the commonness and popularity of end of time predictions (which popup every now and again) stories, and movies. Only Jesus won’t tell the disciples, or us, and he can’t, even if he wanted to because even he doesn’t know (Mark 13:32).

Jesus’ teaching continues with a common reference on how the servants of an estate should behave when the master is away. They cannot know when he will return. The only way to please their master is to get about their assigned responsibilities (Perkins). And so, it is with the return of God in Isaiah’s day, in Jesus teaching in Mark’s day, and today.

Today is the 1st Sunday in Advent. We are already looking to Christmas. I expect some of you are like us, we already have boxes piling up in closets. We may even be looking ahead to the celebration of Jesus birth. And that is a good thing, in a time of short days and long nights, when the darkness feels more and more prevalent, almost domineering. In the darkness Advent calls us to see beyond Christmas, to look at the world around us, to seek out the faint but strong light of Jesus (Tew). In the darkness we are called to be about continuing Jesus ministry of transforming the world and making the Kingdom of God known on earth right here, right now, where it is (Epperly).

When I was a kid coming home from my grand-parents’ house was a long all-day drive. There were twin water towers just outside Norcross, they were these big cylinder type towers, they had “Norcross” written across both of them. They are etched in my memory, because, they were reliable. When we saw them we always knew we had gotten almost home. They still are reliable, when I see them I know I am almost to my dad’s home. The path is a different, it certainly takes more time get there, none-the-less the sign is true, I am almost there.

Now days I am beginning to understand those towers to be a different kind of sign. They are not predictors of what is ahead, I know that. But, they are reminders, powerful, steadfast, firm reminders.

Today we lit the first Advent candle. It is a small light in the deep darkness; certainly, of the winter night, and perhaps the darkness of another source. It is the first reminder of the light that shines in the darkness (John 1:5). It is the first reminder that the world around us needs the revelation of the transforming gift of resurrection grace. It is the first reminder that the Kingdom of God on earth is right here, right now. It is the first reminder that the light will not be overcome (John 1:5).


References

Carvalho, Corrine. Commentary on Isaiah 64:1-9. 3 12 2017. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 3 12 2017. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Jacobsen, David Schnasa. Commentary on Mark 13:24-37. 3 12 2017. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

Keener, Craig and John Walton. NKJV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible Notes. Nashville: Zondervan, 2017.

Perkins, Pheme. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary The Gospel of Mark. Ed. Leander E. Keck (NIBC) Bel and the Dragon. Vol. VII. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. XII vols.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

Seitz, Christopher R. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary The Book of Isaiah 40-66. Ed. Leander E. Keck (NIBC) Song of Songs 8:8. Vol. IV. Nashville: Abingdon Press (NIBC) Song of Songs 8:8, 2015. XII vols. Olivetree App.

Tew, Anna. “Keep Awake!, Advent 1.” 3 12 2017. Sermons that Work.