Sermon - Advent 1 - Year B - | DB Home | RCL Resources Index |

Waiting for Justice

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence-- {2} 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! -- Isaiah 64:1-2

The plea for God to intervene, to show his presence in human history, was a cry from the heart in this prayer of the prophet. There are times in all of our lives, and in the lives of families and nations when God seems remote. In these times of darkness it seems as if the glorious light of the presence of God, the source of all life and light, is all shut up in heaven, and we long to tear open the heavens and let the light come down. It was like that in the life of the nation of Israel, as it was in the dark days of war in the past century, that some of us can still remember. Post-war migrants from Europe and more recent arrivals from South East Asia have known what it is like to live in a conquered country after or during a war.

The background of war and desolation, from which the prophet cried out O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, is shown to us in the verses which followed today's Old Testament reading:

Theirs was not complete despair. There might have been times when they felt like crying out, "Where was God in this?" Yet they confessed his continuing care and his rule. The prophet confessed their faith in him is spite of their difficulties and declared their belief that he would ultimately show his hand to those who wait for him.

Waiting in faith

So it has always been to people of faith. We wait in faith and hope for the revealing of the One in whom we believe, but we do become impatient: O that you would tear open the heavens and come down. When you look around the world and see the terrible things that happen, when you see how unfair and bleak some lives are, when we can't see over the hill or out the rut; when the hole we find ourselves in seems like a grave and we cannot see out, do we not look up to heaven and wish that God would come down and put things right? Then, do we actually have the faith the call on him to come, and to wait for him to appear?

Last week I spoke about the coming of the Lord at the end when his kingdom will be established, so that while people might fear judgement and must expect to be accountable for what they have done or not done in caring for others, we should nevertheless expect to welcome his coming because it would be a time when evil would be banished and those who trust God in Christ could expect to find a place in his kingdom. There is much the same message in the Gospel for today (Mark 13:24-37 -- they will see the "Son of Man coming in the clouds"):

While Jesus was talking there about the coming of the end when the Kingdom of God would be finally established, it is the same faith in God and the One who will come to save his people and put things right which inspired the ancient people of Israel on whose behalf Isaiah called to God come down from heaven. This faith is expressed in waiting.

The Millennial Hope

The was a special interest in the coming of the Kingdom which come to us in prophesies about the end of the age as we neared the year 2000, as there had been 1000 years before. There are strange texts in Revelation about periods of a thousand years. It deserves special treatment even if much nonsense may be being spoken with such concerns in view. After all, we do have all those warnings in scripture about being ready for the end. Even if you are not inclined to believe it literally, let's not be carried away with cynicism. It is easy to dismiss as "religious nuts" those who are convinced that old prophecies point to great dangers in our present situation. Objectively, we do live in a dangerous world in which humanity has the capacity to destroy itself. We should never be complacent about that, and we have had a few reminders of our insecurity since those millennial concerns appeared.

One thing can be said for enthusiastic proclaimers of the coming of the kingdom and the judgement of God, they do at least believe that God will not be mocked, that he will not be deceived nor overcome, that in the end God will rule, that he has not gone away and that he is concerned about this world in which his promises will be fulfilled; that is they do least believe that God the Father is God, the Lord of heaven and earth. We can, indeed must, remember also that Jesus said,

Yet, while this saying about no one knowing the time might be used against enthusiasts who think they know, it does not mean that it will not happen soon and that it will not happen in history as we know it even if scholars debate that interpretation. Certainly the early Christians had a sense of urgency about the coming of the Kingdom and it was based on the teaching of Jesus, including the gospel reading for today. However it is understood, there is an unavoidable message in the teaching of Jesus, that we should be ready at all times and in all places,

The contrary pressures on us

At this time of the year as we prepare for Christmas we too would express the same faith in God as the ancient prophets who proclaimed that the Lord comes to those who wait for him. Waiting is not something we are very good at these days. In many ways we not encouraged to wait. More than that, we the message of the commercial world is don't wait, you can have it now! "When to we want it?", they chant in demonstrations, and "Now!" is the answer. That is the common attitude. So, for example much of the time people do not plan and save for what they want, but spend and go into debt. Why is it the rate of savings in Australia (and similar Western countries) today is lower than it has ever been and household debt is very high, in contrast with many of the countries of Asia? Why is it that people make shallow commitments in personal relationships and have little regard for loyalty or self denial when they might wait for a new relationship to be firmly established? Waiting is not a game that is played very well in contemporary Western society. Why is that? Could it have anything to do with a lack of faith, of not being able to trust in anything much beyond oneself. Waiting for good things to happen requires some faith in the ordering of life to bring them about. Do you think it possible that losing faith in God has something to do with our loss of ability to play the waiting game? Or could it be the other way around? Do we find it difficult to wait because we lack faith in God?

Our Christmas rush is out of character with what Christmas celebrates. Actually that busy time coincides with what we celebrate in the church as the season of Advent, as we look forward to a happy celebration at Christmas itself which begins on Christmas Day a feast day after a period of waiting. Advent, leading up to Christmas, used to be like Lent, a time of fasting and quiet preparation, when people anticipated the great feast with a time of contrasting restraint. Now in our consumer society the idea of restraint is the very opposite of what is forced upon us at this time. Spend! Celebrate! Have it now! The joy of Christmas is no longer enhanced by a period of quiet preparation, but Christmas is made almost into an occasion for relief that the time of busy-ness is over for another year. That is especially so in Australia where Christmas marks the beginning of the summer holiday season when many people have their annual vacations from work or study. Of course it could be part of the culture to observe the coming of the Lord in a time of recreation, but I fear it is not.

It is almost impossible to escape the pressures that are all around us, but we can all make some deliberate decisions to preserve time for the theme of Advent, of looking forward to the coming of the Lord, and being prepared within ourselves to greet him gladly. It can at least be done in the Sunday services and other special occasions when the church will be focussing attention on the real meaning of Christmas -- that is, that through the birth of Jesus God reached out to form a new relationship, or new covenant, with humankind.

That is the faith with which we wait: that God will come and make a new relationship with us. That relationship, the new covenant that Jesus came to establish, is be expressed in our worship and equally, it is to be expressed in the service of God in the world. The faith that God will overcome the darkness and show his light is to be seen in the acts of kindness to which Jesus referred in the parable of the sheep and the goats [Matthew 25:31-46] that we read last week. Can you see how it is that hopeful waiting depends upon a belief in justice, that the oppressed can cry out to God in faith, that they need not despair, that in the end justice will be done? That is the faith in which we seek to serve God in the service of others. To put it the other way around, what would be the point in trying if justice will not in the end be done? To do justly and love mercy affirms the faith in which we stand.

Something we can do about it

It is because we hold that faith in a God of justice, who will come to us, that we are encouraged into acts of caring for those who may see little light in their darkness. It is in that faith that I want to encourage you to contribute to the Christmas Bowl. Special envelopes for this appeal by the National Council of Churches in Australia are being distributed over the next few weeks. Let me share with you some examples of the kinds of projects which have been funded through the Christmas Bowl.

Bangladesh is one of the poorest countries in the world. At the head of the bay of Bengal, and very low lying, it has suffered regular floods and cyclones. In 1991 it suffered a devastating cyclone which led international agencies to find ways of providing more long term relief. The Christian Commission for Development in Bangladesh has successfully built many cyclone shelters which each hold 1000 people and have thus demonstrated the value of an International Red Cross design for such shelters. The shelters are also used for informal schools for children whose parents cannot afford government education. In addition to the flood relief program the Christmas Bowl supports other programs in Bangladesh, including over 400 literacy training centres to provide women with new opportunities. This is part of a rural development program run by our Christmas Bowl partner in Bangladesh now covering 782 villages.

The story of one young woman in Bangladesh illustrates the real difference these programs can make. Mrs. Josnara Begum married in 1983 at the age of 14 and had three daughters. Her husband worked away from home and for some time she worked herself grinding spices for a local hotel and received no cash, only two meals a day, in return. With the help of the local church program supported by the Christmas Bowl she joined a local samity (village organisation) where she learned and received encouragement to manage her own affairs. With two other members of the samity, she took out a loan through the churches savings and credit scheme and commenced papaya (paw paw) cultivation. After a period of time this project was sold for four and a half times the original cost, and she invested her share of the proceeds in another project from which she has purchased more land for papaya, replaced a thatched roof house with a tin roof one and established a rice business and a livestock enterprise, and other ventures which continue to grow. Josnara is now able to send her daughters to school and she dreams of building a brick house for her family.

The news of strife and suffering in Africa seems to be never ending. Support for the All Africa Conference of Churches from the Christmas Bowl helps to meet the needs of refugees displaced by conflict and disaster. As the regional interchurch bodies seek to mediate or resolve potential conflicts, international Christian aid is directed to dealing with the causes that lead to refugee crises. The aim is build a "culture of peace". The process of conflict resolution is beginning with the churches in Rwanda, Burundi, Congo, Sudan, Liberia, Sierra-Leone and Senegal. Reconciliation between ethnic and religious groups is being strengthened in countries which have entered into formal peace agreements, including Mozambique and South Africa. The Council of Churches also co-ordinates 15 programs of assistance to refugees in Africa. Now we have special responsibilities in this part of the world in East Timor.

The Australian Churches aid worker, Rev Dr Malcolm McArthur, who reported the case of Josnara in Bangladesh visited Sudan, a country where the Christian minority has suffered severely under a hostile government. He met with Fr Raphael Riel who lives with besieged people in Southern Sudan and Bishop Solomona who lives and works with refugees. Malcolm writes, "I was both proud of the resilience of the church and people of Sudan, and ashamed of my own life in Australia." One of the greatest concerns of the southern Sudanese is that a whole generation is growing up without education. The Sudanese Council of Churches has opened about 3000 schools and each has an average of ten teachers, all volunteers. The schools have to move around in the bush to avoid government and rebel troops. You might have heard news a while back of Australian Catholic missionaries being captured from a school by rebel troops. About 1500 of the schools are still going. Malcolm reports that the church and the people are "troubled but not destroyed".

These examples are from experience over several years, but the needs continue in one way or another and they are only a few of the many points of action in which you can share through the Christmas bowl. The contributions you make to the Christmas Bowl go directly into local programs managed by our partner churches around the world. There can be no better expression of the hope for justice with which we await the coming of the Lord. So in deed as in word we witness to faith in the justice of God as we share with people in need, and still with the ancient prophet who cried out:

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence-- {2} 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!

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