The First Sunday of Advent, Year B

December 3, 2017 | by David Grant Smith

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Isaiah 64:1-9 Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19 1 Corinthians 1:3-9 Mark 13:24-37

Sometimes the worst person in the world to have angry with us is the one we love the most. Often, when someone we love is angry with us (or we think that they are), it feels like that person is angrier than they really are. Part of the human condition is that we want to rebel against those who are angry with us. At worst, part of us wants to lash out or get even and to be reactionary to the anger, rather than to engage it relationally and honestly. At best, we become defensive and begin blaming the other person for whatever we did to anger them. Though the author of this passage from Isaiah isn’t trying to make excuses for any misdeeds of ancient Israel, the author is saying that a perception of God’s anger toward them, as well as a perception of God’s absence among them, was the reason for their transgression – “But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed.”

To acknowledge God is to be relationally oriented to and with God. And ultimately, the poetry of the prophetic author turns towards a different kind of reality as the way by which the ancient community of faith could reframe their relationship with God – “Yet, O Lord, you are our [Parent]; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.” The ancient world saw present day calamity as evidence of a strained relationship with the Divine; but the prophet proclaims to both God and the people an ongoing relationship in which both God and the people of God’s creative works are intimately interrelated. God’s presence is always among us; it is our perception and awareness of that presence which is shifting. In our own day and contexts, how might we stay attuned to that loving omnipresence which we call God? How can we affirm the way that God is shaping and reshaping us in the same way a potter creates and reshapes a pot?

Those two questions can lead us toward a consideration of our spiritual practices – both as a faith community and as individual children of God. The verses from Psalm 80 selected as a response to the Isaiah reading can serve as an invitation to be intentional in our ongoing methods of keeping our relationship with God vital, fresh, and evolving. Though the psalm is written from a posture or repentance and penance, it affirms the relationality between God and humanity. God hears us. God leads us. God shepherds us. God helps us. God restores us. And we seek after God to be with us in those roles.

Restoration is part and parcel of the salvation experience; God continually brings value to our human experience, and adds to our experience an ongoing sense of grace in each moment of life. The continuing refrain of the psalm, “Restore us, O God of hosts; show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved,” could work well this week in shaping a litany response in the prayers of the community gathered. This refrain also can work to shape our ongoing practice of being open to God in new ways, new experiences, new revelations, new epiphanies. As the Season of Advent attests, that restoration is both present tense and yet-to-come. How can we live in greater expectation of how the present-tense moments of transformation will come to be the building blocks of future transformations? How does our faith that God’s light will shine on us inspire us to live our lives in the world?

It is that ongoing work of transformation which Paul was commending in his friends in Corinth when he affirmed that they have “been enriched in [God], in speech and knowledge of every kind… not lacking in any spiritual gift” as they await the revelation of Jesus. An intentional life or prayer, meditation, scripture reading, and reflecting on God’s love will help to build up the ways in which we can exercise our spiritual gifts in the world, working with God to bring about change in the world. Being “blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” need not be only an anticipation of some critical moment in the future; it can also be the way that we make each day a day in which we embody the life, message, ministry, teaching, and the resurrecting work of Jesus in and through our lives. This calls for a heightened sense of awareness of each and every opportunity in which we can merge our present opportunities with God’s initial aim to lure the world toward beauty, truth, adventure, zest, peace, love, and justice.

Heightened awareness – being “awake” – is what this week’s reading from Mark is about. Though often interpreted as a set of “signs” which will announce the coming of the Messiah (or the return of Jesus as the Christ), these stark and jarring sayings of Jesus can also (and perhaps more aptly) be taken as metaphors of mindfulness. In the face of any kind of calamity or suffering, there are pregnant opportunities for us to embody the initial aim of the Divine. Such concrescences help to continue God’s ongoing shaping and reshaping of the world. Whether as Providential Potter (as with Isaiah) or Poet of the World (as with Whithehead), God is eager for us to continually be awake to moments of holy opportunity in which we may join with God in the holy work of creation and re-creation. Whether in a catastrophic theodicy or in a crisis of existential angst, we are called to join God in being holy companions with those who are suffering, with those who are in need, and with those who are marginalized by injustices. Our spiritual practices of prayer, scripture reading, meditation, and communal gathering for worship aren’t so much for our edification as they are to help us become more aware of  and in in sync with the needs of those with whom we come in contact on a daily basis, as well as those we happen upon in chance and random encounters.

Missed opportunities to participate with God in the holy adventure of creative transformation can lead us and others to perceive that God is absent from our midst (vis a vis Isaiah’s witness this week); whereas attentiveness to both the opportunities and the Divine call to step with God into the fray with compassion, love, and hope will empower us to make good use of the gifts we have been given (vis a vis 1 Corinthians). And those spiritual practices which help to keep us open to God’s restorative light (Psalm 80) work to keep us grounded and attentive to the present needs of the present moment (Mark 13). May this Advent Season be a time for us all to work intentionally toward an increasing sense of mindfulness so that, as Jesus invites us, we might always “Keep awake.”

Below is an Advent song composed by David Grant Smith based on the images in this week’s readings. Originally intended as an anthem for children’s choirs, it can also be used by youth or adult choirs and (if taught gradually over the Advent Season), perhaps by the end of Advent it could be used as a congregational hymn. This piece is offered here with permission granted for copying and use by congregations, provided that the composer’s name and the copyright notice are included in duplication.

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The Rev. David Grant Smith is a priest in the Episcopal Church, and is presently pursuing the D.Min. degree at Claremont School of Theology, focusing his studies on process theology as a resource for parish ministry and spiritual care. While at CST, David is thrilled to be currently working as the student assistant for Process & Faith. He has served in both parish ministry (Episcopal Diocese of Rochester) and as a hospital chaplain (Christiana Hospital in Newark, DE; and the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, MD). Prior to ordination, David worked for many years as a lay professional, serving as pastoral associate, choir director, organist, and minister of music. In addition to his interests in weaving Process Theology in and through preaching, liturgy, teaching, and pastoral care, David enjoys travel, writing, tea, wine, and spending time with family & friends.