Toorak Uniting Church

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Reading the Signs of the Time

Mark 13: 24 – 37
Rev. Dr Christopher Page
27 November 2011

Perhaps it is my personality, but I have noticed that I am often more excited by the anticipation of an event, than I am in the actual event itself. From the time I was a small child, my imagination of what might happen was most often grander, larger and most intense than the actual event itself. I must have passed this on to my children. I recall my eldest son being disappointed with his Christmas presents one year when he was about 12 years of age. They didn’t quite match his expectations. A little later in the day he said that he didn’t blame us, his parents, but perhaps next year we should just give him the money and he could buy his own Christmas gifts. The reality didn’t quite live up to his expectations.

Of course one area in the contemporary world were the expectation/reality dilemma is most obvious is often in the political realm. For example in America the remarkable oratory of hope, proclaimed by Barak Obama has in the US, lead to disappointment. The titled of his second book Audacity of Hope, and his whole presidential campaign, centred on engaging a spirit of hopefulness and change that would benefit all Americans:

Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek!

Inspiring and powerful words. Here’s a fantasy of mine in my times of daydreaming I have wondered that if Barak Obama had become the 21st century version of Billy Graham that he may have had more success in translating these words of life and hope into action. Maybe it is the change of the human heart alone that brings about true transformation and it is only faith that can do that. Yes it is more complex than that.

But in the political realm, at the end of the day, words must be translated into action. That’s the reason for the disappointment we all have with politicians and politics in general. We thought that we had an agreement, a kind of covenant with our representatives. We trade one of the most valuable things we have – our trust – and convert it into a vote, but then our hope is not realized. And hope not realized or unfulfilled can lead to despair, cynicism and despondency.

But we all know that the future is unpredictable. A promise made today might not be possible tomorrow. And the present moment – the only one we have – is forever changing and therefore at times adaptability maybe of a higher value that certainty and promises made. Joseph Campbell said:

"We must let go of the life we have planned so as to accept the one that is waiting for us."

We often say in this season of Advent that we are waiting for the one who is to come to save us. And that’s the reason for the season, but what if the message is also that the one who is to come is waiting for us; waiting for us to open our eyes, to open our hearts, to open our lives. Waiting for us to become the one we are waiting for –now takes a bit of imagination.

A Vision of the one to Come
It may seem strange to begin this journey toward Christmas with the reading we just had from the Gospel of Mark. This ancient story seems to be projected into a visionary future. And the symbols and images in the narrative are difficult for us to comprehend.

"But in those days, following that great suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.
At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens."

The easiest way to deal with these images and words is to collapse them into the literal and project them into the future. But that doesn’t help us come to terms with the meaning of these words and how they might feed our need for hopefulness today in the 21st century

We know that it is important to recognize that these words were formed and shaped by the world view of those first century follows of Jesus. After the death of Jesus they had a very tough time. They were reject and persecuted by their own people; for many by their own families and particularly by the political and religious authorities of the day. And yet they hung on. That message of hope, freedom and life that Jesus of Nazareth embodied had captivated their hearts and minds. At times it seemed as if the light of the world that Jesus had shown them was only a flickering candle. But they still had a vision that even when all the lights went out; the sun, the moon and the stars that there would remain one light that would come to them; come to them as the one who comes with power and glory, "For heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words will never pass away."

That’s the heart of faith. Not believing the impossible, but living into a hope that will sustain us when life is crushing us or crashing all around us. And I can tell you that that’s a message I need to learn and to live by.

Vaclav Havel the poet and political dissident, who became the president of the Czechoslovak, wrote a lot in his life about hope. He is often quoted, distinguishing between hope and optimism. He says:

Hope is a feeling that life and work have meaning. You either have it or you don't, regardless of the state of the world that surrounds you….Hope is a state of mind, not of the world. It is a deep and powerful…ability to work for something because it is good. Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.

A Vision for the 21st Century
I think we all need a message of hopefulness today not just optimism although there is nothing wrong with be positive. But we need to go deeper than that. The Gospel of Mark’s visionary narrative kind of collapses time in some sense. I’m no "Einsteinian" – as in Albert Einstein that is. But I do know that he concluded in his later years that the past, present, and future all exist simultaneously. That’s a religious vision of the world. A thought often explored by the poet TS Eliot in his Four Quartets:

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present

And the end and the beginning were always there
Before the beginning and after the end.
And all is always now.

What I am trying to illustrate is what the theologian Paul Tillich called "the eternal now," and that the presence of the cosmic Christ is here, now in our midst and present in all God’s fullness but not yet fully realized.

So there is little point running up the closest hill and sitting there waiting for the return of Jesus on the clouds. Instead, we stay awake to the coming of the spirit of God in our lives, now. We watch for the coming of the Spirit of Christ into our daily experience, now not in some future time but today, in this moment and in this place at this time.

Reading the Signs of the Time
Living in our modern world can lead us to despair. The enormity of human suffering around us our beyond our shores can lead us to a kind of despondency. The wars being fought around our globe; the poverty that haunts the lives for so many makes us feel powerless. And natural disasters that wash away the lives of millions of our fellow human beings. It can lead us to the simplistic desire to throw our hands up in despair and horror and wait for someone to come and make everything right.

But a better way is to embrace the beauty and the terror; the rose and the fire in this life and to be alert and awake to the power of the Spirit of Christ within us. Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek!

TS Eliot had a vision of life transformed by the Spirit of that Christ. He was a poet and his language did not tread the well-worn path. Instead, in my words at least, he had a poetic vision of Jesus who was the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. He says it like this at the end of his poem Little Gidding:

With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always–
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

And all Shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.

© Rev. Dr Christopher Page, 2011

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