Preacher: The Very Rev’d Frank Nelson

Isaiah 64: 1 – 9, Psalm 80: 1 – 7, 17 – 19, 1 Corinthians 1: 1 – 9, Mark 13: 24 – 37

Many years ago someone used picture language to explain the Gospel. Like all images and metaphors this one too has its limits. But on Advent Sunday, at the start of a new church year, it may be a helpful way into making sense of this morning’s readings. Here is the picture.

Imagine two mountain tops with a deep chasm between the two. On one mountain is God – seemingly far away, aloof, unreachable. On the other mountain is me, and you, and every other human being. We desperately want to reach God and try all manner of different things to do so. But between us and God is this deep chasm. There is no way across it. Every effort on the part of humans comes to naught. We are stuck on this side, while God is on the other. On our own, we cannot get across to God’s mountain.

At much the same time as hearing this illustration, I learned of a man called Sundar Singh. Born in the late 19th century into a Sikh family he received the best education. But he was left feeling inadequate, dissatisfied, always looking for something more. Having tried everything on offer – philosophy, religion, drugs – he found himself at the bottom of a deep well, drowning in the filth of his life. Try as he might, using all the education, the techniques of self-help, and clever arguments he could muster, there was no way Sundar could climb out of the well on his own. And then, he wrote, an unknown saviour climbed down into the pit with him and pulled him out. “Follow me,” the stranger said.

In the mountain picture God builds a bridge across from one mountain to the other – it is a cross-shaped bridge made in the form of Jesus. God gives God’s Son to make the way for us to get to God. Or better, God becomes a human being, becomes as one of us, a man called Jesus – of Nazareth, and so the chasm is crossed – not by humans, not by me and you, but by God. In the deep well picture of Sundar Singh, God also takes the initiative. Jesus climbs down into the well and helps Sundar out. In each case, the initiative comes from God.

As I said, this sort of picture language has its limitations and greatly over-simplifies what is ultimately a profound mystery. But it may help us to understand something of the reading from Isaiah. Today’s reading opens with a plea to God to ‘tear open the heavens and come down’. It’s vivid language describing a distant, forbidding and disinterested God. The language is addressed to a God who apparently is indifferent to the way in which the speaker is being treated. It’s a cry of despair. It’s a cry for help. It’s the sort of cry Sundar Singh might have uttered. The cry that goes up from those marooned on a cliff top without any way of getting off safely. The cry of a people returned from Exile in Babylon, full of great enthusiasm and vision, who find the reality is nothing like their dream. It’s the cry from a people who feel abandoned by their God. They cannot understand the silence of God to their predicament.

So bad is the situation that half way through the reading from Isaiah 64, in verse 6, the writer describes the righteous deeds of the people as being like a ‘filthy cloth’ – a cleaning rag, worth only to be thrown away; and like a leaf, blown this way and that by the wind. There is a ready recognition that of their own, and judged by what they have done, or not done, these people deserve nothing more. The writer acknowledges that no one calls on God’s name anymore – with good reason. Their own iniquity, their own sin, their own abandonment of God to follow other more exciting gods, means that, to quote verse 7, ‘you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of iniquity.’ Sundar Singh would agree with that.

So would St Paul, especially in his writing in the Letter to the Romans and in a verse that Martin Luther and other Reformers found seemed to jump out at them five hundred years ago. Romans 3: 23 “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Without God the chasm between God and human beings, the muck at the bottom of the well, remains and we remain in it.

So the great cry goes up – from the writer of Isaiah 64: “Oh that you would tear open the heavens and come down”; from the Psalmist in the refrain in Psalm 80: “Restore us again, O Lord of hosts: show us the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved”; and Sundar Singh from the bottom of his well: “Help, save me, someone, please.”

The saviour is, of course, Jesus of the Christian Gospel. But don’t rush too hastily to the obvious and almost bland conclusion of the car bumper sticker: Jesus saves. Stay with today’s biblical texts. Go back to Isaiah 64, this time verse 8 and the little word beginning that verse, “Yet.” Six lines from the end of today’s first reading a change is brought about by that word. Yet. “Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are the potter, we are all the work of your hand.” These imperatives – you are, we are, we are – signal an important understanding of the relationship between God and those who recognize themselves as God’s people. God as father suggests an easy and loving intimacy of parent and child; while that of the potter and the clay a dependency of the clay on the potter to be moulded into the required shape. In short, Isaiah is recalling the ancient covenant relationship made between God and their ancestor Abraham.

The psalmist knows the despair of being forgotten, of being isolated, mocked and scorned, made to feel an outsider – victims of our neighbours, laughed to scorn by our enemies (Psalm 80: 6). And yet the psalmist also has a suggestion for God, one that will feed its way deep into the New Testament thinking about Jesus. The final section of today’s psalm, verse 17, says this: “Let your power rest on the man at your right hand; on that son of man whom you made so strong for yourself.” This appeal to the ‘one at your right hand’ is an appeal to the kingship of God, and will find its fulfillment in Christian teaching that Jesus is the King of kings, the one seated at the right hand of the Father. It is this ‘man on your right hand’ who gives us life.

What we notice in both Isaiah 64 and Psalm 80 is that human beings, on their own, are helpless; they can do nothing. They remain stuck on their mountain. Sundar Singh remains stuck at the bottom of his well. Until, and unless, God intervenes. And this is where we bring in St Paul, the First Epistle to the Corinthians and the concept of grace. In Paul’s understanding ‘grace’ is God’s unmerited gift of salvation given to those who turn to God. Paul rejoices in, and gives thanks for, the grace of God given to the Corinthians in Jesus Christ. He will go on to spell out some of the benefits of grace – especially the rich variety of spiritual gifts – and the responsibilities that come with grace – including a genuine sense of unity based on faith, hope and love.

But in today’s passage Paul reminds the Corinthian Christians that their lives have been immeasurably enriched by God’s grace – enriched, he says, in every way, in speech and in knowledge. These people are not the impoverished isolated people of the psalmist or Isaiah. Not at all. They have been richly endowed with many and varied gifts – not unlike those we are blessed with in so many different ways at St Peter’s Cathedral. In and through the Holy Spirit, God has come among them, showering the gifts of the Spirit upon them.

But wait, there is something interesting going on here. For Christ has come among them already, they have already received the gifts of the Spirit, they are already enriched in every way. And it is all so that they may be strengthened as they wait – wait, strengthened and living blameless lives, for the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. St Paul was quite clear that the people he was writing to were living between Advents – between comings of Christ. Yes, Christ has already come and the Corinthians are the recipients of God’s grace through Jesus Christ. But Christ will come again – and to this end, they must live their lives blamelessly in love for one another, putting into practice the two commandments known for centuries before the time of Jesus, yet pulled together by him in his response to the question: What must I do to gain eternal life? Love God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. That remains our task.

Sundar Singh in his well, the people trying desperately to get from their mountain to God’s, those who, like the Romans, recognized that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, to all of them – and to us – God pours out God’s grace in Jesus Christ.

No wonder that, in the very strange reading from Mark’s Gospel, part of what is called the “Little Apocalypse,” Jesus warns his followers to keep watch, keep awake, be ready to greet the bridegroom. As we move into Advent, this lovely, but challenging time, of expectation, let us be ready to meet, again and again, the one who is at the right hand of God, the one known as Emmanuel, the one whose birth we celebrate on Christmas Day. In the words of a very old Advent hymn: “Hark, a thrilling voice is sounding; Christ is nigh, it seems to say; cast away the dreams of darkness, O ye children of the day.”