Isaiah 64. 1-9
Psalm 80, v1-8, 18-20
1 Cor. 1, v39
Mark 13. 24-end
May I speak in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen
A few years ago, two great actors, Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart came to the Theatre Royal in Brighton and performed a play in which nothing really happened. They played the parts of two men waiting by a roadside for someone who never came, or at least they didn’t come withing the timeframe of the play on the stage. It’s a play in which, as one of the characters says, ‘Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it's awful!’ As a member of the audience even with two great actors there on stage in front of you you couldn’t help wondering when it was going to end. In the stage directions the only thing that changes as the characters wait for time to pass is that a tree which is leafless in the first act has leaves when the second act begins. Lots of people have pointed out that there might be an echo here of the leaves on the fig tree that Jesus refers to in today’s Gospel. Central to the play is the idea of waiting, and the idea that we spend huge amounts of time waiting for something in the future rather than being alive in the present. It might be that we’re waiting for a hospital appointment, or for a windfall, or for something else we hope will change our lives forever. It might be just waiting for a train… I thought about this play when I read our Gospel for today- because the differences between the waiting that the two men are enduring in Samuel Becket’s play and the waiting described in our readings today are profound and go to the heart of what ought to make Adventsuch a creative and transformational time.
When we think about waiting, we think about time- the way when you’re on a cold station platform and your trains been cancelled and the next one isn’t for another 20 minutes that twenty minutes feels like an hour, and you fall into a sort of stupor, watching the rooks in the trees or thumbing through messages on your phone. Time as we experience it in that sort of waiting seems endless and mind-numbing. But our readings today tell us to see time differently- ‘Keep awake’ says Jesus in Mark’s Gospel. ‘Beware. Keep alert. For you do not know when the time will come’. This isn’t the sort of waiting in which we sink into ourselves in a sort of empty limbo-it’s a time, as Jesus Himself tells us today, to be actively alert to ways of developing our own spiritual gifts.
‘God works for those who wait for Him’ says Isaiah in today’s OT. reading, and Advent is the one time in the year when we’re invited to discover for ourselves how God can work for us through our waiting. In Mark’s Gospel Jesus invites us to think of ourselves as being like workers in a household where each of us has their own role- the doorkeeper on watch, for example. I think Jesus is inviting us to think about what we can do as members of His household whilst we wait for His return- how can we use the gifts we’ve been given in his service? These are the same gifts that Paul tells the Corinthians they have received from their knowledge and understanding of Christ at work in the world. Hearing Paul’s letter today enables us to share with the Corinthians a question. How is our own Christian faith evident in our waiting, in the work we do every day?
That sense of using our waiting as a time to grow, like the leaves on the fig tree, brings us, entering this time of Advent here in Lewes in 2023 into a common fellowship with the author of Isaiah, of Mark, who was writing 700 years or so later, and with Jesus himself. Our readings may cover two and a half thousand years or more of earthly time, but their message transcends time because the message for us is the same as it was for the disciples listening to Jesus on the Mount of Olives and to the Corinthians reading Paul’s letter; waiting for Christ isn’t the same as the mundane and dreary business of waiting for earthly things like trains and hospital appointments. The time we experience, and which weighs so heavily on us when we wait without hope is presented to us in all our readings as something wonderful and transformational.
Christian waiting, Jesus tells us, isn’t about enduring the passage of time in the way the characters do in Waiting for Godot. It’s about engaging with the world. And at Advent it’s about using this time of waiting to grow spiritually. The Corinthians did this through learning about Christ- Paul tells us that their spiritual gifts come from the knowledge they had of Christ. That’s something we can share-our own knowledge and understanding of God is growing today as we listen to the readings and take part in the service. And so,Advent for us shouldn’t just be about waiting for Christmas- it should be a time for being fully awake, fully alive to the transformational possibilities that such knowledge brings with it. ‘Beware, keep alert!’ Jesus tells us today ‘Keep awake!’ Advent is a wonderful time for discovering new ways of experiencing this spiritual wakefulness. Keeping awake in this sense could involve going to our advent series on Genesis, or visiting someone we haven’t seen in a while. It might lead us to try something new, like silent prayer on a Tuesday or by giving some time each day to praying for the world and all its divisions and conflicts.
The challenge for us this Advent is to use our waiting for Christmas as a time for discovering what our own personal spiritual gifts might be. And through putting those spiritual gifts to use in ways which bring our faith into the everyday the promise of today’s readings is that we will discover for ourselves what Jesus means by being fully awake!
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, amen.