Sermon by Rev Sydney Maitland for Sunday 3 December 2023.
• First Reading: Isaiah 64: 1-9 (‘We are the clay, You are the potter; we are all the work of Your hand. Oh, look on us we pray, for we are Your people’)
• Epistle: 1 Corinthians 1: 3-9 (Paul’s thanks for the grace of God given them in Christ Jesus)
• Gospel: Mark 13: 24-37 (Learn this lesson from the fig tree: when these things are happening you know that it is near. Therefore keep watch)
The performance is about to begin and the stringed instruments are tuning up. If their strings are too tight then their notes will be sharp and the effect will be spoiled.
Equally, if they are too slack, then the notes will be flat and again the effect is undermined.
But when properly tuned up and at the same pitch then the music can be uplifting, even glorious.
But it is the tension in the strings of the instruments that makes the music work, regardless of the quality of the playing or of the conductor.
But there is an unbelievable level of tension in our lessons.
Isaiah starts with a sigh that resounds down the ages. Oh that God would appear, that He would come down and save the innocent and rebuke their enemies.
The land and the people have rebelled and they have departed from the Ways of the Lord, and yet the writer sees it and is keenly aware of the tension.
The people knew what the Lord required but would not do it. And even their rather self-referenced acts of mercy were a form of performance art, to be seen and applauded by others.
But Isaiah knew that even their righteous acts were pathetic, even pitiful. No more in the sight of God that a pile of filthy rags. God was never going to owe them anything on the strength of their self-determined works of charity. But then He was never going to owe them anything anyway. Merciful, but not in debt.
A few acts of kindness were never going to offset their general disregard of the things of God. Mercy, honesty and straight-dealing to all – and not just the photogenic and appealing images for the glitterati to be seen performing for a few selected fashionable just-cause individuals.
Isaiah was in profound distress as he witnessed these kind of self-referenced good works, knowing that they would never honour the Lord.
And so his passage ends with another great sigh: ‘Oh look on us we pray, for we are your people.’
This was a people who would always need to abide in the mercy of God – if only they could be brought to seeking it.
Jesus was also looking at a time of great distress.
Wars close at hand and far way. Environmental upheaval and wholesale abandonment of the blessings of the Gospel in favour of the more dramatic images and a most gripping entertainment.
The gospel seen as backward and its believers pitiful.
Surely the salvation of humanity lay in its science and engineering and politics. Who was ever going to need the freely offered forgiveness of sins, when the alternatives were so much more appealing, even exciting? Certainly enticing?
And so Jesus was telling His people – in every land and generation – to watch and wait. Times would change and even the wars of their grandparents would seem tame in the face of what might be in the offing.
The disciples already had the gospel message and they were not only believing it but they were seeking to live it as well.
They might have their personal issues but they had also been endowed with the Holy Spirit, to lead and enrich them.
They already knew the freedom that comes from acknowledging their sins before the Lord and receiving His forgiveness.
They already had the scriptures, of both ancient Israel and of the disciples who were reflecting on the life and work of Jesus Himself.
What they had to do was to hold fast and not be dismayed or distressed.
In this sense they were like that orchestra, living in unspeakable tension as they waited for the fulfilment of Jesus’ promise to come back.
But even that tension of waiting on the promise and living in a deepening sense of their need for Jesus within their lives was a thing of beauty.
It was their gathering together before Him where He might renew and conduct their lives in the fulness of His mercy and power that was a message of glory.
I have spoken before of the church as a candelabra, with many lights: big ones, small ones, coloured ones all bringing beauty and light to the space.
So also are the people of the Lord as an orchestra: living in and with a tension – but one in which Jesus Himself is the One who composes, conducts and leads, and who does so having lived and died under that unspeakable tension Himself.