Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Best of Times or the Worst of Times?

RCL Advent 1B
30 November 2014

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church
Vancouver BC

Focus texts:  Isaiah 64.1-9 and Mark 13.24-37
        In 1859 Charles Dickens published one of his most well-known novels, A Tale of Two Cities, which describes, among other things, the oppression of French peasants by the aristocracy before the French Revolution and the exodus of French aristocrats into Britain during the Revolution itself when the same peasants avenged themselves.  The novel begins with words that many people may have memorized at some point during their education.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

I remember the novel primarily for its tale of conversion.  The less than admirable Sydney Carton, an English barrister, becomes a heroic figure.  At the end of the novel he takes the place of a young man who is to be executed by the guillotine and dies in his place.

         Conversion is a word that we frequently use to describe the movement from being a sinner to being a righteous person.  It’s the word that comes to mind when we sing ‘Amazing Grace’ with its famous phrase, ‘Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.’  There is another way of looking at this word that I think is helpful as we enter into a new liturgical year, but let me set the stage.

         Twenty-six hundred years ago the Babylonians conquered the kingdom of Judah and transported most of the leadership back to Babylon to live in exile.  A remnant remained in the two former kingdoms of Israel and Judah, but they tended to be peasants working the land overseen by appointed Babylonian officials and a few collaborators.  During the seventy years of the Exile, the Judeans in Babylon longed to return but dared not hope.  To the east of Babylon a new power was rising in that geographic area we now call Iran:  the Persians.  The Persians moved west, defeated the Babylonians and established a new empire.

         One of the first acts of the new emperor was to permit the Judeans to return to the ancient kingdoms of Israel and Judah.  They were permitted to rebuild the city of Jerusalem and to enjoy a degree of autonomy.  The portion of Isaiah we heard this morning was written during this time of rebuilding and renewal.  The visible ruins of their previous kingdom were still visible and many Judeans despaired as they remembered the Jerusalem of old.  But others, led by Ezra and Nehemiah, threw themselves into the task, believing that God had given Judah a second chance.  What others saw only as ruins, Ezra, Nehemiah and their colleagues saw as an opportunity to renew the people of Israel and to return to the covenant God made with their ancestors.

         Jump forward some five hundred years.  The ancient kingdoms of Israel and Judah had been absorbed as provinces in the Roman empire.  Religious unrest was fuelling fires of violence in what was now called ‘Palestine’ as well as in the city of Rome itself.  In Rome riots between the followers of the way of Moses and the followers of the way of Jesus had led Claudius to ban both groups from the city.  His successor, Nero, would blame a disastrous fire on the followers of Jesus and begin a violent suppression.

         In Palestine Judean nationalists were beginning a campaign of guerilla warfare against the Roman forces.  Soon this campaign would ignite an actual rebellion that would end with the destruction of the city of Jerusalem and the Temple.  Roman troops created ‘no go’ areas throughout the province and restricted religious groups primarily to the north and to the east.  It was a time filled with uncertainty.

         Among the followers of Jesus there were stories circulating about his last week in Jerusalem as well as his acts of healing, his parables and his controversies with the religious authorities.  An unknown follower, living in Syria, whom we now call Mark, assembled these stories into a document we know as ‘the Gospel according to Mark’.  Many scholars believe that this document was written sometime between 64 and 72 ce, some thirty-five to forty years after the events of that last week in Jerusalem.

         His readers were frightened.  They had heard the stories of Nero’s persecution of the Christian community in Rome.  They had experienced the hostility of their neighbours, many of whom were followers of the way of Moses, some were even family.  These early sisters and brothers of ours were looking for the return of Jesus and the coming of God’s kingdom in their lifetimes, but all they saw was oppression, violence and destruction.  To them the author of the Gospel wrote, using images drawn from the popular imagination and encouraging them to ‘keep awake’ even though the coming of the kingdom seems so far off.  ‘Look at the current situation differently,’ he says, ‘and you will find reasons to carry on with the ministry God has given you.’

         Conversion, you see, is ‘seeing with new eyes’.  It means looking at the ruins of Jerusalem through the eyes of Ezra and Nehemiah.  It means looking at the unrest in the Roman Empire through the eyes of Mark.  It means looking at the tensions and challenges of our own times through the eyes of prophets such as the Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu and Jean Vanier. 

        Whether this is the best of time or the worst of times is a question that will be answered by our descendants.  Whether we are being wise or foolish is a question that our great-grandchildren will debate.  Whether our times are times of darkness or light, filled with hope or burdened with despair, our task, even in these ‘last days’, is clear:  we continue to witness to the kingdom of God, present in our midst, present throughout the whole world. 

         That kingdom is present when those who have much freely give to those who have little.  That kingdom is present when those who have been hurt or abused forgive those who hurt and abused them.  That kingdom is present when the followers of the way of Jesus dare to proclaim the good news even when the world around us seems filled only with the voices of hate and destruction.

         As our preparation for the celebration of the birth of Christ draws near, let us also ‘see the world with new eyes’.  Let us share with our neighbours and our families the good news that there is another vision for humanity, a vision of compassion and love rather than of greed and self-interest.  This vision still has power to transform the heart --- if one keeps awake and watches carefully.  Amen.

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