November 30, 2008/Advent 1B * Isaiah 64:1-9/Mark 13:24-37
The Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek, Saint Peter’s at Ellicott Mills, Maryland
Where Are You?
The Gospel of Mark is believed to have been written after the year 70 ce – that is after Rome destroyed Jerusalem, the Temple and pretty much all that matters. Isaiah chapter 64 is written after the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem (586bce), the Temple and pretty much all that matters. And both periods marked a time when the land – think agricultural farm land – was under foreign occupation and control – that is by people who did not know how to farm it.
Consider the reality that Jerusalem and the Temple were not just the center of Israelite religion and Israel’s capitol city. Jerusalem and the Temple were the Economic Center of all Israel. So as those to whom Isaiah writes who are returning from exile to see the land in ruins, and those to whom Mark writes are seeing the same destruction all over again, it is difficult for us to imagine just what this might represent in modern terms.
It would be, however, on a scale of the Stock Market not simply losing value, but all of Wall Street and New York City lying in rubble on the ground, while Washington D.C. also lies in ruins. Also imagine all useable farm land rendered at least temporarily useless since it has been exploited and not at all cared for by the foreign occupying forces.
So followers of Jesus want to know who will put Humpty Dumpty back together again and when? While those in Isaiah’s time are still stuck in trying to assign blame, going so far as to suggest that God’s absence – “…because you hid yourself we transgressed…” – is not only to blame for the Exile and Destruction, but that God’s absence is also to blame for their sins! Perhaps giving birth to the very notion of chutzpah!
And isn’t it fascinating that both Isaiah and Jesus, over 500 years later, respond by observing a change in the seasons. I see leaves fallen off the trees as work to be done – raking, chopping, moving, clearing. Isaiah sees a faded leaf blowing in the wind and sees the truth of the situation – our iniquities, our sins, our evil ways, our greed, our wickedness, our injustice, our poor stewardship of the earth and everyone and everything therein “take us away.” What our behavior takes us away from is God and God’s way.
Perhaps God is not hiding from us after all. It is more likely that we are hiding from God. Is this not an echo of the story of the first two people in the garden? The minute they sinned, they hid from God, as if that were somehow possible. God, walking in the cool of the evening, came into the garden and called out, “Where are you?” Instead of blaming me for your poor stewardship of the good earth I gave to you and all the resulting predicaments, where are you? It’s a pivotal question for all of us really.
Jesus makes a similar observation with the fig tree – those who are paying attention will know when it is time for a new season, new growth, new life. And then can we hear him virtually shouting the conclusion of his little story about the man on a journey coming home: KEEP AWAKE!!! Which five hundred years later is surely another echo of God’s plaintive and heartfelt cry, “Where are you?”
I had a Yoga teacher, Sally Rich, who would periodically throughout each class ask us, “Where is your mind?” This, I believe, is pretty much all God really cares about – where are we, and where are our minds? It is a matter of what some call mindfulness, awareness, even consciousness. What are we thinking? What are we doing?
So God is not hiding from us. We are hiding from God. It is more likely that we have ceased to be those people who are attentive and waiting for God. Often we no longer allow ourselves to be the clay in the hands of God the potter. We no longer allow ourselves to yield to God’s shaping and molding us.
Do we even see ourselves as the “work of God’s hands?” Or, do we think of ourselves as self-made, pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps sorts of people? Do we strive to be, as we say, “self-made”? Maybe we don’t see God at work around us because we are not looking, have no time to look; because we are too busy Wanting, Having and Doing to take time out to be with God and to wait for God and be ready for God to arrive. Are we too busy to see God in our midst?
Years ago, my Aunt Virginia sent me this box – it’s from Austria where her two brothers, my father and uncle respectively, served in WWII. In it is a leaf, preserved now for several decades – perhaps like the leaf that inspired Isaiah. A few years after she sent this to me, I was walking up a stream-bed with an artist friend, Gerald Hardy. He had removed the silt one bucket at a time to re-store a babbling, bubbling brook in his backyard where before there had just been a trickle. As we made our way along, he stopped, pointed to a leaf such as this one, but wet and sticking to a rock in the stream-bed. The sunlight glistened off of it. “See this….it wasn’t here yesterday, and probably won’t be here tomorrow. We can only see this right now.”
The urgency of Advent, the Christian New Year, means to convey much the same truth. We can, like the ancient Israelites, put off waiting upon God now, distracting ourselves with all sorts of things like assigning blame for current crises like the economy, the war, the health care system, failed banks, failed relationships, failed friendships, failure all around! We can turn our attention to the endless Wanting, Having and Doing of the Christmas shopping season to try to fill the emptiness that lies at the belly of our souls with stuff – lots and lots of stuff. We can attempt to make something of ourselves, by ourselves, to prove what? That we can do things on our own? That we are rugged individuals who depend on no one else? We can stand around and speculate, like those with Jesus, as to just what day and what hour God might make another spectacular intervention like the Exodus, the escape from Exile, or the Resurrection, as if those mighty acts of God were not enough to get our attention, jump-start us and get us back on track.
Or, we can turn our hearts to God – or better yet, turn our hearts over to God. We can let ourselves become clay in God’s hands.
This is where the ancient Christian tradition and discipline of Contemplative or Centering Prayer means to put us – back in God’s hands. It is our way of saying to God on a regular basis, Here I am, Lord. It is a kind of Sabbath time – a time to do nothing but sit quietly with God. It is a place where we might discover that God is always willing, like the wind, to blow all our iniquities away so we might begin again. It is a place to discover that the branch of the fig tree is tender and that new growth and new life lies just around the corner. Contemplative prayer means to put us in touch with the one who placed us here.
Advent is a time for placing ourselves in God’s hands – a time to gather ourselves up into meditation and contemplation of the mighty acts God has done throughout history. We have here and now only a moment for this. But that is enough – even if our time of Contemplative prayer is almost immediately overwhelmed by all the other busyness and details of the season. It is enough, because once we learn to go to that deep still place where God is waiting for us, we always will know the way back. From the beginning of time God has been calling, Where are you? Imagine just how pleasing it is for God when we take the time to reply, “Here I am, Lord – shape me in your hands - in your Way.” Amen.