Bible readings for First Sunday in Advent :
Isaiah 64:1-9 (NRSVA)
Mark 13:24-37 (NRSVA)
So it's Advent Sunday, the first in the Church's year. The story begins as we look to the future and wonder when God will come, and when God comes, what it will mean for us. And whence comes hope.
The secular Advent seems to entail sitting in 2-hr queues for Bicester Village in preparation for a season of unremitting jolliness and goodwill to all — if you can afford it (and maybe just a little bit of goodwill if you can't). Christmas is going to be fun.
Christians, if they're doing Advent properly, don't profess to know what's coming, or assume it's going to be fun. Instead we ask, "If God were to come — and ultimately we can be sure God will, because God is the source and goal of all things created — what would God do with us? And if we don't like the thought of what God might do with us, what do we need to do to make the future more hopeful? And who might lead us into that future?" That's Advent in a nutshell.
Now, if you ask me to look to the future and ask about hope — and I guess you have asked me, because you've asked me to preach on Advent Sunday — I have to tell you that as I look into the future I am filled with foreboding about the very future of our species.
The coming climate crisis is the elephant in the room that noone wants to talk about in polite company for fear of spoiling the party. We don't want to believe that climate change is a catastrophe round the corner, so we don't believe it. Or we believe it in a way that doesn't challenge our lifestyle, so we tame it. But Advent is a penitential season — it's a time for asking "How do we need to change?". Not just as individuals — that's more a Lenten theme — but as a society. Advent is more a time for reflecting about the kind of world leadership we need.
Let's go for a moment to the world that the writer of Marks' gospel knew.
The Judæa of Jesus's day was a powder-keg waiting to blow. Did the people of Jesus's day poke fun at the doom-mongers like Jesus and just get on with daily life? If they did sense danger, what if anything did they do about it? The authorities, we know, dealt with it in different ways — some tried to adapt to Roman rule (in the hope of mitigating the disaster), a few resisted violently, a few retreated into personal piety, most (I suspect) kept their heads down and got on with it.
Jesus's warnings were fulfilled, I suppose, in the year 70CE. After a final decade of social collapse, with abuse and corruption in high places, Jerusalem was obliterated. The prophecy was fulfilled. (That's probably why Mark records it). The Christian Church emerged out of the wreckage as a frail remnant of its Jewish ancestor.
Our 21st century crisis is of a different order. The first difference with climate crisis is that without a real repentance from the Powers That Be — that is, an about-turn in policy — there won't be any 'elect' being gathered from the four winds; there won't be any Noah's Ark, there won't be any promised land to escape to beyond the wilderness. Blood on the doorpost will be of no effect when the angel passes over.
The second difference with the climate crisis is that unlike Jesus's hearers who don't know when 'the Master of the house is coming' and are being told to hold themselves ready for who-knows-what — hold themselves in a Passover-like state, shoes on feet, staff in hand, ready to cut and run for the promised land leaving Egypt to drown in its sins — unlike them, we do know what our crisis will look like. We can measure at what pace the crisis is coming — indeed with grim fascination we can watch it coming, we know largely why it is coming, even if we don't understand all the mechanisms. What's more, we know in great detail what we need to do to limit its impact so that our great-grandchildren may not be the last humans on the planet.
And yet, far from holding ourselves in a state of readiness (as Mark urges us), we push the thing to the back of our minds. It's as if it's just too big to think about.
Daniel Kahneman won a Nobel Prize for his work on the psychology of human decision-making. He was interviewed by George Marshall for Marshall's recent book Don't even think about it : why our brains are wired to ignore climate change. He quotes the psychologist as saying :
This is not what you might want to hear, but no amount of psychological awareness will overcome people's reluctance to lower their standard of living. So that's my bottom line : there's not much hope. I'm thoroughly pessimistic. I'm sorry.
Well, I'm pessimistic too, but I'm not so thoroughly pessimistic, because he's wrong about one important thing :
We don't need to lower our standard of living. We don't need to persuade everyone to go about barefoot and eat nothing but broccoli. Don't need to cover ourselves in sackcloth and ashes. It's more party-going Jesus than the austere John Baptist. Though I do occasionally wonder whether the prophet Jeremiah's symbolic protest in refusing to have children might not have some wisdom in it.
In order for our race to survive, our way of living will change, but far from being a lower standard of living it might actually be a higher one. We all know, deep down, that quality of living isn't about having more and more stuff, running harder and harder to stand still. It's about a secure roof over our heads, it's about warmth, healthy food on the table, dignity in useful labour, it's about family and community, its about health care. These things are perfectly possible to achieve, provided we give them priority, which we don't. It often feels to me as if these things are seen as the by-products of some other objective, like 'economic growth'.
Sure, some things will have to change. We will need to rely less on imported goods and severely ration our air travel, of course. I have a daughter in Canada. But we probably have more and longer conversations with her on Skype than we did when she was with us. We'll probably need to build with wood not concrete, and build better. Eat much less meat; farm differently. We'll need to get used to different technologies around us. (Mostly, they'll be quieter and won't have such hefty bills attached to them). It's not 'rocket science' — indeed, it's the very opposite of 'rocket science'!
It's not all totally mysterious, either. Turning to today's OT reading, Isaiah accuses God of 'hiding his face from us' :
because you hid your face from us, we transgressed
. . . as if God, angry with us, has left us unguided to make terminal mistakes. But God is not 'hiding his face' from us! There are plenty of people shouting out warnings, calling for a global repentance, showing us a better, more hopeful way. God has sent many prophets amongst us wearing all sorts of garb, some maybe a bit rabid or smelly, some upright and sober as judges (assuming judges are upright and sober). Many of the prophets are scientists, of course.
And there are plenty of so-called 'sustainable' communities of hope living the life of the future now, and many more that would like to if they could get the money monkeys off their backs. Communities of hope, living out a different way : not a 'lower standard of living' way at all. Living the Kingdom, if you like. Some of them may even be churches.
In case this makes the 'Kingdom' sound a bit ordinary, and well, unreligious, remember that we are asked to pray "Your kingdom come on earth, as in heaven".
Heaven . . . what's 'heaven'? I think 'heaven' is a word the Bible uses to talk about 'potential' — the potential glorious fulfilment of what things were created to be; and that potential is always there, trying to break through. Think 'heaven', think 'potential'. God's potential is here, now. The Kingdom of Heaven is amongst us. Hope is always with us if we know where and how to look.
And actually, I dare say that many of you are already changing your ways in readiness for the Kingdom, so that when it comes (as come it must) it will not be destructive. Had you ever thought that checking how much water you put in the kettle, or taking the train instead of driving was an act of Advent hope?
It is our collective choice whether the coming of the Kingdom — the fulfilment of the Creation's potential — will be painful and finally destructive of the human race, or whether it will be a joyful pilgrimage to a better life. Mark Chapter 13 reminds us that Jesus himself thought it would be painful and destructive, but he also demonstrated that even if self-inflicted suffering is to be our choice, God would not totally abandon us but enter into the suffering with us. But that comes later in the story. For now, let's peer into the future and choose to act with hope. Choose life that will last.