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29th November 2020

The Countdown

Passage: Isaiah64;1-9


SONG CLIP- “Round the corners of the world I turn; more and more about the world, I learn. All the new things that I see, you’ll be looking at along with me. And it’s from the old I travel to the new. Keep me travelling along with you”

We are still Walking the Way- one more step. But now we are going to think about turning corners, seeing new things. And that song says to God- “All the new things that I see, you’ll be looking at along with me.”
It sounds like an excited child opening her presents on Christmas morning, “look, look, Grandma, look at this!”
It is as though all the new things in life will be good and it will be so great to have God there to share it with. “All the new things that I see, you’ll be looking at along with me. Wow.”

But what happens when the new things in your life don’t look good? I called this Sunday in Advent “The Countdown” because normally we would be starting to get excited about Christmas now, getting ready to open our Advent Calendars, each piece of chocolate taking us nearer to the big day itself. But we are still not quite sure what Christmas and New Year are going to be like this year. Life has been unpredictable and chaotic since March. We have had mini countdowns all year- wait till July/ wait till September/ wait till December/ wait till January and everything will be OK again. Only it won’t.

Chaos and upheaval are nothing new. Life has always been like that. The Bible never pretends otherwise. There are floods and famines, earthquakes, pandemics, brutal dictators, pathetic Kings, false religion, widespread corruption, all of which cause huge devastation, leaving far too many innocent victims. But the causes of chaos are complex. You cannot identify just one particular cause or point a finger at one particular person like Caesar or Hitler or Trump. There are many reasons for our pandemic right now, most of which go back years and in which we have all been involved- we know that.

The first candle on our Advent Wreath is for the prophets. Good prophets, did not speak at their people, they spoke for them. They put into words their anger, frustration, fear and pain- God, will you just look at what is going on in our lives! We are not excited. We are **** furious. All the new things that I see, you’ll be looking at along with me…so why are you not doing something about this?

I invite you to read with me now some words of the prophet Isaiah. He is speaking for his people whose world had been turned upside down by enemy invasion. It is not the kind of reading you read very politely in church. It is the kind of reading that needs shouting. You may not feel comfortable shouting, especially if there are other people or an innocent dog in the house but try to enter into this anger and pain.
Let us read together:
God, why do you not rip open the heavens and come down?
Make the mountains shudder at your presence, as when a forest catches fire, as when fire makes a pot to boil.
Shock your enemies into facing you! Make the nations shake in their boots! Once you did awesome things we never expected; you did descend and made the mountains shudder at your presence.
Since before time began no one has ever imagined, no ear heard, no eye seen, a God like you who works for those who wait for him.
You meet those who happily do what is right, who keep a good memory of the way you work. But how angry you've been with us! Yes, we have sinned. We have been going wrong for a long time. But can we be saved?
We're all sin-infected, sin-contaminated. Sin dries us up like autumn leaves – and we are blown off by the wind.
No one prays to you or makes the effort to reach out to you. Because you've turned away from us, left us to stew in our mistakes.
Yet still, God, you are our Father. We're the clay and you're our potter: All of us are what you made us.
Don't be too angry with us, Lord. Don't keep a permanent account of wrongdoing. Keep in mind, please, we are your people - all of us.

Good religious leaders do not try to pretend that everything is OK when it is not. Nor do they make out that God has some kind of magic solution up his sleeve that will put everything right again in an instant if you just say the right words or follow the right rituals. What they do, I suggest, is help people see things from a slightly different perspective.

There was a time in the Gospels when Jesus was warning people of terrible, destruction to come. And he was right. (Google Emperor Nero for the details) But Jesus was not trying to scare people and nor was he trying to blame them. Let’s face it, neither fear nor guilt are positive, creative feelings. They just leave us emotionally and mentally paralysed. I think that Jesus was trying to show people life from a slightly different perspective.
First, he told them to watch for the signs of trouble. We have a natural tendency, don’t we, when life is going OK for us, to create our own little bubble of happiness, success, prosperity and, apart from a few charitable donations, turn a blind eye to the rest of the world. Or even when life is hard for us, personally, we sometimes withdraw, turn our back on the world and declare that we have enough troubles of our own. And this stops us from noticing the signs of the times.
How many wars might never have happened if enough people had noticed in enough time that there was serious social injustice stirring up increasing political unrest? Or that ancient racial prejudice, far from being forgotten, was being stoked up again?
How many signs of ecological crisis did we ignore for years?
How many signs of a forthcoming worldwide pandemic might have been there, and we did not see them? Jesus’ “social Gospel” was not only about feeding the hungry and healing the sick- important though that is. It was also about being aware of what was going on in people’s lives and admitting that we are all inter-connected. You cannot just delete certain groups of people right out of your life map because you are connected in some way to them whether you like it or not.

Second, Jesus told people that, even though chaos would come, they would be OK. Not because God would somehow whisk them out of harm’s way when bad times came but because God would give them every gift they needed to come through the chaos into something new. Chaos would not be the end of their story.

I am ploughing my way through this hefty book called “Maps of Meaning” by Jordan Peterson. I should have finished it by 2023…. Peterson is exploring the foundations of human understanding of life as expressed in ancient myths and religions. In the chapter I am reading now he talks of the place of chaos and of how we have learned that from chaos comes creation. And from chaos comes re-creation. If everything in life remains static, nothing new will ever be learned or discovered. Life needs upheaval in order to move forward. Chaos, then, might bring new life and new understanding if we only handle it in the right way. Maybe this is what Jesus meant when he said that God’s Spirit would hold and empower his people through times of devastation. All the new things that I see, you’ll be looking at along with me. And you will help to make them good.

So first, what do you think this way of looking at things means for us as a world?
We are more aware now than ever before that we are a global community and that if we do not cooperate with each other to beat this virus, we shall be in increasingly serious danger. And if we choose to ignore the needs of poorer nations, they will become a permanent source of disease. And if we do not address the ecological crisis with very different modes of living, another pandemic will be on the way and may a far worse one.
So, it could be that that justice, peace, and integrity of creation which the World Council of Churches has been trying for years to get higher up on both political and religious agendas will become a top priority and that we may just see our world becoming more like the world the prophets dreamed of, where weapons of war were hammered into farming tools and each person had a home and a food supply and every opportunity to live in peace.
We learn from chaos. Can we then hope for a Countdown on Government Agendas, plans and policies to create justice, peace and the integrity of creation? Can we ourselves look for ways to help this Countdown get started and ways to keep it maintaining the impetus?

Second, what does this mean for us as a church?
Isaiah voiced the angry, frustrated prayers of his people. OK they had done wrong. OK, they had not been as faithful in their religion as they might have been and now it was all falling apart. But would not God do anything to help them?
Isaiah promised God’s people renewal. But it would not be a simple restoration to where they had been before in the good old days. In the wake of devastation his people needed to rediscover their true vocation which was to be a light to the nations and, as Jesus was to say, you do not hide light in a safe, locked space. You hold it high for everyone to see. You make God’s ways known to the nations. You demonstrate God’s ways in the places where you live and work.
Isaiah also spoke of the faithful coming back together. God would gather his people; he would bring them back from the places where they had been scattered. And, although there might be few left in terms of numbers, even from the tiniest remnant; the smallest shoot, God would bring new life and growth.
And Isaiah promised the gift of God’s Spirit in his people. I have every sympathy with Christians who become weary and frustrated in their faith and church life. And right now, it is so very easy to walk away. Switch off the screen or don’t bother switching it on in the first place.
But there is a countdown for us- a countdown to renewed strength, renewed commitment and renewed mission if God walks with us through the chaos.

And finally, what does this mean for us as individuals? Years ago, I remember seeing a picture drawn by a teenage boy in a church art session and it was intended to depict the way he saw modern life. And basically, it was a cartoon of a pot-bellied man, clutching a can of beer standing belligerently in a street filled with piled up litter and coarse graffiti. The leader of the art session was getting a little depressed because all the teenage artwork presented a totally negative view of life. She asked if they could not add just something slightly positive….. This boy took a highlighter pen and drew the outline of the cross over his picture. You could still see the litter and the graffiti and the uncaring man but now you were seeing them through the light of the cross and I realised that this is how God sees the world and this is how God sees each one of us. Yes, He sees the devastation, the irresponsibility, the mistakes, the draining of faith but he sees it through the light of Jesus Christ who came to live in a broken world amongst despairing people yet found faith, goodness and hope.
God has not given up on you. God sees all that is good and true and strong and faithful in you. Our Countdown to Christmas is to welcoming the one who comes to welcome us into God’s family. Look forward. Look forward in faith.