The First Sunday of Advent - 27 November 2011

Isaiah 64:1-9
Psalm 80:1.7, 16-18
I Corinthians 1:3-9
St. Mark 13:24-37

Background: Advent
Advent was originally a penitential season that lasted six weeks, with fasting on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.  It seems to be in its fullest measure in Gaul in the fifth century.  In Spain and Italy, however, it seems to have been structured around a period of five weeks.  As the Roman rite began to incorporate the Sundays of Advent, its conservatism limited the season to four Sundays.  Although it precedes Christmas, it is not tied to that Season as Lent is to the Triduum.  Advent was a season of preparation for the Second Coming, and its reading give evidence to that emphasis.  Advent today, if it is known or celebrated at all has been totally subsumed in the Christmas festivities.  The liturgical churches attempt to keep the original emphasis, but the surrounding culture looks elsewhere.

Isaiah 64:1-9
O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
so that the mountains would quake at your presence--
as when fire kindles brushwood
and the fire causes water to boil--
to make your name known to your adversaries,
so that the nations might tremble at your presence!
When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect,
you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.
From ages past no one has heard,
no ear has perceived,
no eye has seen any God besides you,
who works for those who wait for him.
You meet those who gladly do right,
those who remember you in your ways.
But you were angry, and we sinned;
because you hid yourself we transgressed.
We have all become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.
We all fade like a leaf,
and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
There is no one who calls on your name,
or attempts to take hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us,
and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.
Yet, O LORD, you are our Father;
we are the clay, and you are our potter;
we are all the work of your hand.
Do not be exceedingly angry, O LORD,
and do not remember iniquity forever.
Now consider, we are all your people.

This psalm, a work from an unknown author, was included in the collection of Isaiah, and is one of the most beautiful readings in the Bible.  The attitude is sometimes anxious, for the psalmist takes a stand for the people in a forthright conversation with God.  The author is clear about the human situation, but is equally clear about the capacity of God to have mercy.  The word in which the author characterizes his hoped for response is in Hebrew hesed.  It is not easily translated, but it indicates a relationship of love that is bound in the bond of blood between two parties.  It is in the context of this relationship that the author pleads his case. 

Breaking open Isaiah:
  1. How is God your father?
  2. How has God moulded your life, like clay in the hands of a potter?
  3. How would you describe your relationship with God?

Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18 Qui regis Israel

Hear, O Shepherd of Israel, leading Joseph like a flock; *
shine forth, you that are enthroned upon the cherubim.

In the presence of Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh, *
stir up your strength and come to help us.

Restore us, O God of hosts; *
show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.

O LORD God of hosts, *
how long will you be angered
despite the prayers of your people?

You have fed them with the bread of tears; *
you have given them bowls of tears to drink.

You have made us the derision of our neighbors, *
and our enemies laugh us to scorn.

Restore us, O God of hosts; *
show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.

Let your hand be upon the man of your right hand, *
the son of man you have made so strong for yourself.

And so will we never turn away from you; *
give us life, that we may call upon your Name.

Restore us, O LORD God of hosts; *
show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.

This is a psalm that is focused on the Northern Kingdom.  We know that because the author describes God as the one who “drives Joseph like sheep” and goes on to refer to other northern tribes: Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh.  The phrase “enthroned on the cherubim” refers either to the Ark of the Covenant, or to the Canaanite practice of enthroning the god on a bull or a mythological cherub.  The concern of the poem is about the difficulties of Israel.  In the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures) the superscription adds “concerning the Assyrians”, who indeed troubled Israel, and in the eighth century conquered the northern kingdom and deported most of its population to other areas of the Assyrian Empire, and repopulated it with other peoples.  That is why the Samaritans were so suspect to Jews – they were a mixed race.  The psalm pleads with God for rescue during these dire times.

Breaking open Psalm 80
  1. What threatens your life today?
  2. How do you talk to God, or others about this?
  3. How might God restore you?

1 Corinthians 1:3-9
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind-- just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you-- so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

In this introduction that St. Paul makes to the Christians in Corinth in his first epistle, Paul gives thanks for the spiritual life that has been made available to this congregation.  It’s choice as a reading for this Sunday perhaps rests on the closing phrase, “on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ”, referring to Christ’s second coming.  Paul is in hope that these Corinthians will be prepared to receive the coming Christ.

Breaking open I Corinthians.
  1. How do you prepare yourself for worship?
  2. How do you prepare yourself for life?
  3. What are the differences?

Mark 13:24-37
Jesus said to his disciples, "In those days, after that suffering,
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
Then they will see `the Son of Man coming in clouds' with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.

"From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

"But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake-- for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake."

This pericope is closely tied to Mark 13:3-8 in which Jesus talks not only about the destruction of Jerusalem, but has the disciples look beyond the fate of the city to a much wider apocalyptic vision.  In these passages which are full of allusions to the Hebrew Scriptures, Jesus uses stark imagery to convey his sense of urgency and of time.  Here is painted the “Coming of the Son of Man”.  A quick reading of Daniel and other such literature of the Hebrew Scriptures would be helpful in gaining a sense of not only theological but literary context and meaning as well. It is hard to know what the readers of Mark perceived in these words other than something astonishing was about to happen.  It fits, then, in the Advent season to not only picture but to feel the sense of anticipation and expectation that Jesus injects into these descriptions.  It finally comes down to very human terms – “keep awake!”

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. Many Christians think that we live in the end days.  Do you?
  2. How would you describe the times in which we live from a theological perspective?
  3. What are your anticipations about these times?

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:

Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.


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