In our end is, our beginning
Rev. Gerald Hobbs
Psalms 122:1-9, Isaiah 2:1-5, Romans 13:11-14, Matthew 24:36-44
University Hill United Church : Sun, December 2, 2007
Last Sunday morning I stepped from my motel room in Thompson, Manitoba, into a crisp winter morning, and caught my breath in a moment of pure wonder. Not just the Powder snow that had fallen, light as down on my vehicle; not the minus 32 degrees, 41 with windchill ! But in the west, the perfect orb of the full moon, faintly pink against a powder blue sky, while facing the moon, in the east, the orange ball of the rising sun. A wondrous reminder on that Sunday, November 25th, that as we were just come to the end of the three-year cycle of Scriptures, like the moon, ending its monthly cycle, so facing us in equal splendour in the heavens was the rising sun of an approaching Advent, and the beginning once more of the three-year cycle of the Scriptures in whose re-telling our story is spun. The cycles of nature, earth, sun, moon & planets; the turning of our own years, the cycles of our institutions – whether political parties or church congregations - the seasons of our living. All represented well in this week of turning, of end, and of beginning. With the simplicity of the greatest wisdom, the poet T.S. Eliot wrote: In my end is my beginning. In fact, the first of Advent can be a difficult beginning, at least in our hemisphere. The turning of the year is not yet complete, and our bodies note the yet-increasing daily darkness. Many of us rise before daybreak, and return from work in the dusk of early evening. Our heads know, how could they not with the raucous litany of canned carols over store loudspeakers? We know that Christmas is approaching – “only 21 more shopping days” – now that our society counts Sundays within this sequence! - and we know – again headwise – that the long, slow ascension of the sun will commence that same week. The turn of the season will only slowly, subtly appear as good news. The Scripture readings for this day were set long ago to speak of time, and of endings. There is good news, Gospel in all of them, even if subtly disguised at moments. It is the task of the preacher to attempt prayerfully to open it up, in what Eliot also called, “a raid upon the inarticulate”. To begin, here at U Hill this morning, the external gaiety of the season may resonate feebly for many of us. We begin this Advent season painfully aware of recent Sundays marked by absent friends, of sisters and brothers beside whom we have sat week after week, whose voices have mingled with ours, with whom we have studied Scripture, broken bread at the table. The last lesson read, from Matthew’s Gospel, with its words of broken fellowship, of communities coming dramatically to an end, or being sharply divided one from another, may feel reminiscent of us here. It may also feel so, for our sister and brother Anglicans, whose denomination is this very weekend breaking into factions, that are becoming separate denominations. Jesus’ words here are sobering. They remind us that Christians have always faced times and passages when “some are taken, and others left”. The coming of God’s anointed One, the presence of Jesus Christ in our societies, if good news at heart, will also at moments bring division. To seek to discern and follow the path of discipleship will divide at times even good and sincere people. It was so in the community of the first generation of Jesus’ disciples, the community to whom Matthew writes; when Jewish friends and even families split from one another, and synagogues divided, over the claims of the resurrection. The good news, the Gospel I see in this somber passage, is the assurance that if our times are not our own to control and manipulate to even good ends – and this is certainly true - our times are in God’s hands. Our responsibility, says this Matthew text, is to seek to be alert, to be watchful for the demands each day puts upon us, to respond to the presence of Christ among us. To conduct ourselves, individually and as a congregation, with that generosity of spirit, that honesty of speaking, that quality of life, character, habitus, that style of living that in the Romans passage the apostle Paul calls, “wearing the Lord Jesus”. Living daily a love that in its unselfishness and vulnerability recalls the love Christ once lived, and now seeks to live anew in us, as individuals, as a congregation of his people. In the second place, the good news for us this December morning is that all appearances to the contrary, the future is in God’s hands. That note was sounded eloquently, with a dazzling image, in the first lesson from the prophet Isaiah. He too, living in a day when the communities of the faithful suffered discouragement, and even violent oppression from powerful neighbouring empires, could sing of a day, an End Time, when things would be radically different. Let me invite you, in passing, to notice how, during Advent, every week is accompanied by a song from the Hebrew Scriptures. This is an important note, so to speak, for our Advent faint-heartedness. For song can break through where logical speech finds nothing convincing to say. Today’s song is no Hallelujah Chorus. Reminiscences of The Messiah only gradually work their way into our Advent journey; listen for them on the third and fourth Sundays! But there is a song of hopefulness there nonetheless. The first part of the song celebrates a future when all the earth will flow, stream, flood (such is the imagic power of the verb in Hebrew) to the mountain of Zion, to the Jewish Temple, in Jerusalem, and all learn the ways of God from Jewish Torah. That sense of religious unity is powerful, even if it may imagine that the whole world will become like them. Actually not an unusual dream for communities of faith. I think I can recall words that named University Hill as a prominent destination congregation for all Vancouver. What the song does in fact celebrate is not quite that. It sings of the End Time when all the earth will desire to hear the word of God’s Torah, God’s direction for living, to hear it and to seek to walk in this way. And that way will change radically the ways of this world. Peoples shall beat their swords into ploughshares, Their spears into pruning hooks; Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, Neither shall they learn war any more. “Gonna lay down my sword and shield, down by the riverside, Gonna study war no more.” Not the Messiah, I grant you. And definitely not where our lost world lives today. But a song that carries a sustaining vision of the End, that points us ahead as well to the birth celebration of the Prince of Peace. But how shall we live, who find ourselves in this liminal space and time, in the threshold place between End and Beginning, on this first Sunday of Advent 2007, at University Hill congregation? For this word, for a Gospel note in the grey of in-between time, in the place between memory and hope, I turn us to the ending of the Psalm. (In this I confess I am doing what I regularly tell my students never to do, that is, using all four Scriptures in one meditation! You won’t tell them, please. But sometimes, in hard moments, we need all the Gospel good news we can scrape together!) The speaker of the Psalm is a pilgrim who has come to journey’s end – there you are, another Ending – and recalls the joy with which the journey was begun. No word of the hardships, of the discouragements, of sore feet and scratchy straw pallets, of thirsty days and cold nights, on the journey. Now in the personal wonder of standing in the Holy Place, of the destination, the singer makes a new beginning. She or he thinks of the community of God’s people, and asks a blessing. Pray for the peace of Jerusalem! May those who love you prosper. For the sake of my kin and friends I say: Peace be with you! For the sake of the house of our God, I will seek your good. On this first Sunday of Advent we carry with us our story, our awareness of old endings, and perhaps this gray morning, a renewed awareness of how tentative can be the in-between time, the liminal place where new beginnings seem uncertain. But we are not left orphans, nor without resources. We are as always invited to gather about the Word and the Table, here to find a fresh glimpse, a reminder of the vision of God’s final reign of peace. Here also nourishment for the steps we as individuals and as congregation will take into whatever direction this new Beginning will take us. And here finally, the invitation to take up in our prayers, in a spirit of mutual love, our sisters and brothers here and elsewhere, and seek the blessing of peace, of wholeness for us all. “In our end is our beginning”. Thanks be to God.