Chaos and destruction

Sermon – Advent 1 2011

Mark 13:24-37

Marian Free

 In the name of God who forms and re-forms us. Amen.

A chair

An egg

Uncut cloth

This chair needs repainting. I could just buy some new paint and apply it over the existing paint. However, if I were to do that, the original paint  would continue to peel and flake and the new paint job would not look good for very long. I would achieve a much better result if I carefully sanded the chair back to the original before I began to paint it afresh.

This is a piece of fabric which I can turn into something to wear, but it is really no use to me unless I cut it into appropriate shapes and sew it together to make a dress or some other garment. The final product will have been considerably cut and put together and will only look like the original in colour and texture.

This egg was laid this morning. It is perfect. The shell is hard and perfectly formed. However, as it is, it is no use at all, it will eventually rot and smell, so I will at some point have to break it and eat it. Even if I hard-boil the egg, it will have to be broken in order to be of any use.

So often it seems, destruction precedes building. Chaos and order are opposites yes, but very often it appears they are simply different sides of the same coin, one precedes and is necessary for the other to occur. Rotten timber has to be removed before the new can be installed. The ground has to be broken up before seeds can be planted and produce. Forests have to be burned before the banksia seed can be freed from its cone. Rivers have to flood so that the rich silt can enrich the land.

Images such as these abound in the Old Testament – grapes have to be pruned if they are going to yield a good crop, clay that doesn’t form into the correct shape has to be pummelled down into a lump so that it can be re-thrown and re-shaped and silver and gold have to be refined in fire to rid them of impurities.

That said, the promised violence and devastation of today’s gospel – both human and cosmic  – can still cause us some disquiet. Mark 13 describes a cataclysmic end of the world which will affect humanity, the world and even the cosmos. Brother will betray brother, nations will make war on nations. The earth will experience famines and earthquakes and, more startling, the sky will be darkened, the stars will fall from the sky and even the heavens will be shaken. Everything that we know and don’t know (in heaven as well as on earth) will be devastated if not destroyed. This is not an event to be eagerly anticipated as Paul would have us believe, but an event to be awaited with fear and dread.

It has always fascinated me that the lectionary writers should choose to begin Advent in this way, that the beginning of our church year is filled with such a sense of foreboding. Just when we feel that we are about to focus on the wonderful events surrounding the birth of Jesus, we are hit over the head with the threat of Jesus’ second coming and reminded that the end will be dramatic and violent, sudden and unexpected. We are terrified by warnings to keep alert and to stay awake so that we won’t be caught unawares when he comes. Jesus’ coming as an infant and his return at the end of time are thus confused or at least brought together. It seems that before we even begin we have come to the end.

There is, however, some sense in approaching the Incarnation in this way. Just as my old paint must be dealt with before I can apply the new and just as my cloth must be cut before it can be useful, so God’s new creation cannot come into being unless the old has been properly dealt with and even removed. God cannot make something new, without some pain or without breaking the old. There needs to be a clean sweep before the kingdom can come in. God’s kingdom cannot simply be plastered over the world as it is. The old, damaged creation would eventually break through the new and everything would return to waht it was before. In order to perfect creation, the old and the flawed has to go – at least figuratively speaking.

God is so distinct from anything earthly, that it is in fact impossible to imagine God entering history without creating a massive disruption to the whole of the natural world. The world, even the cosmos, is not sufficient to contain God, therefore it is not surprising to learn that God’s coming will involve some tearing and breaking and burning, even as the coming of God heralds renewal, restoration and re-creation.

All of which makes the birth of Jesus so surprising. Jesus is born without any fanfare. He slips into the world unheralded and largely unnoticed – only the magi notice a new star in the sky. For thirty years Jesus will live inconspicuously among us, before he makes his presence known and even then his public ministry will be carried out in the obscurity of Galillee before his dramatic and fatal trip to Jerusalem. Even so, the same pattern is evident – destruction before re-creation, death before resurrction.

Before the new can come the old must go. In order for something beautiful to be wrought out of something plain, it must be cut and re-shaped. This in part is the journey of faith, allowing ourselves to be formed and re-formed such that we will indeed be part of the new creation and therefore will have nothing to fear and everything to anticipate when Jesus comes again to gather us to himself.

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