Rev. Susan M. Hudson, St Pauls Presbyterian Church, November 30, 2014
Saved from What?
[Isaiah 64:1-9; Mark 13:24-37]
Let us pray. Lord of heaven and earth, on this first day of the new church year, this first Sunday of Advent, we begin with the “end” in sight. Both Scriptures speak of your coming to our rescue. Where are you, God? Where have you been? Are you close…or far? Will you come sooner… or later? What can we expect in this coming season…in this coming year? Will you come at all? Come, Lord Jesus, we need you and pray in your “saving” name, whatever that means. Amen.
A strange way to begin our new year! Yet every church year begins with meditations about the apocalypse, or end times. It’s a unique form of literature: imagining what doomsday will be like. The T.V. movie, Apocalypse, was set in the year 90 AD when Christians were being persecuted in the Roman Empire under the Emperor, Domitian. Apocalypse Now produced way back in 1979 depicted the horrors, ambiguities and darkness of the Vietnam War and how it affected people – driving them mad… or driving them to all kinds of addictions and delusions to escape the realities they were living on the ground.
The context of our lives helps to define what “salvation” means in practical terms. To the Christians in Domitian’s time… salvation meant an end to the persecutions and martyrdoms they were facing. In the days of the Vietnam War, “salvation” meant an end to the madness and hypocrisy of that effort and the rescue with dignity of our troops from a horrific, unsolvable quagmire.
In times of great stress, apocalyptic literature THRIVES, because it focuses on an “end” to the pain, an “end” to the madness, an “end” to suffering. The worse things are in this life, the more we long for the next one to replace it. Some people call this “escapist” or fantasy literature. Perhaps it is.
At the time Isaiah 64 was written, the people of Israel were in severe pain… and trying to make sense of their losses. Written after the Babylonian conquest, the people of Israel were defeated and disoriented, shaken to the core. Their sanctuary was in ruins, Jerusalem was desolate… and they cried out, in lament, to the God they thought they knew. Where are you God? Why has this happened to us?
The Book Club recently finished One Hundred Years of Solitude, about a fictional town in South America which ended in complete destruction. Despite moments of exaltation and apparent progress in “the city of mirrors (or mirages)… the city was wiped out by the wind and exiled from the memory of men…because races condemned to one hundred years of solitude did not have a second opportunity on earth.” (p. 417)
The author of Isaiah reflects on the fact that one thing we need deliverance from is our own sinfulness. He says: “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities (a fancy word for “sins”) like the wind, take us away.” [In fact] the writer continues: “there is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.” (vv. 6-7)
Certainly, the iniquities of the main characters in One Hundred Years of Solitude, caused me to feel almost “unclean” simply by reading about their thoughts and behaviors. Each character seemed “locked up” or isolated within themselves and unable to connect, collaborate, accept or forgive. Countless uncommitted & superficial sexual encounters leave them empty. Although the Catholic Church existed in the town… it was a shell without substance. People waged wars to escape boredom and to find an “outside cause” to which they could attach their hunger for meaning and significance.
I have heard people ask recently, even in our country, given the reactivity and grid-lock we see and hear about every night on the news from Washington, D.C. to Ferguson Missouri, is there an “end” in sight? Edwin Friedman, a brilliant man who lived and worked with 8 presidential administrations, writes in his final book, A Failure of Nerve, published posthumously, that we are living in a regressive society, which seeks a “quick fix” to complex problems, and lacks a healthy immune system, which is what preserves the integrity of the organism or system.
Friedman’s work suggests that a healthy system focuses on strength rather than pathology; it is inherently anti-victim and anti-blaming. Unfortunately in our culture and society right now the focus of most journalism and most dialogue arises out of either “blaming” someone else for the situation we are in… or claiming the role of “victim.” True survival of any system lies in preserving integrity, which is a whole different approach.
When our worlds collapse…what is our hope? Who is our salvation? Is there salvation, or only wishful thinking? The writer of Isaiah rightly focuses on taking responsibility for our own sins, confessing them to God and then MOVING on by offering ourselves as clay to the Divine Potter, allowing God to shape us and use us for the greater good… for our highest calling, which exceeds our own imaginations! In the final verse of this passage, Israel calls on God, saying: “Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider we are all your people!” (vs. 9)
Shane Hipps, one of the emerging young theologians of the 21st century, featured in our Animate Faith series, challenges us to think more deeply about the meaning of salvation as abundant life now. He asks: “Are we willing to wake up to the possibility that the 25, 550 days we have are actually the main course, rather than the appetizer?”
The word “Salvation” appears between 120 and 180 times in the English Bible. The Hebrew and Greek words that are translated as “salvation” in English often mean rescue from some kind of peril. Shane’s emphasis on salvation as present tense reality… originates with Jesus’ words and encounters with individuals during his earthly ministry. Jesus tells Zacchaeus in Luke 19:1-11: “Today salvation has come to this house.”
When Paul and Silas were thrown into prison in Acts 16:16-40, a place that was a hellhole on earth: underground, crowded, surrounded by disease and lacking light: Paul and Silas sang about salvation and offered it in the present tense to the Philippian jailor. An earthquake came and the walls came down, but the prisoners did not escape, because they stayed to offer salvation to the jailor and his household in that moment.
Who can “sing praises to God” in an ancient prison, as Paul and Silas did? Who can find joy even in horrible circumstances… or find a purpose in the midst of chaos? A person who knows she is held in the hands of the Divine Potter and is being shaped for a glorious purpose, regardless of outside circumstances, CAN keep on singing!
Another question Shane invites is this: “Are we being saved FROM something… or TO something?” The Bible clearly speaks of being saved “from” peril, exile, devastation, corruption, sinfulness, meaninglessness. The people in Isaiah’s time were desperate to hear God’s voice and find God’s purpose, as were the people in Mark’s audience. Mark writes about a time of suffering, when the sun is darkened and the moon will not give its light and when stars will be falling from heaven. When these cosmic events take place, Mark suggests they are the “signs” of a new beginning, of the Son of Man’s return.
When the rest of the world is prophesying doom and gloom, a believer can see these crises as signs of God’s arrival, not God’s departure. Mark compares these things to the fig tree. As soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. When the world cries “Apocalypse!” the Lord is nearer than we imagine!
No one knows exactly when or how the Son will arrive, but we are urged to live in readiness to receive our “calling” from the Lord Jesus Christ in the here and now. We lean forward, not backward, knowing we are saved to be a part of a new world that begins today, as Shane suggests.
We are vessels of the Lord’s great mercy, shaped for a significant purpose that only we can fulfill, with God’s help. Some people live their lives “sleeping” in hopes that they will awaken to eternal life when the die. Others realize salvation is now…it’s time to wake up to who we are and what God is calling us to be and do in the 25,550 days we have. Shane reminds us that many of those days are already behind us.
I want you to reflect quietly with me about the present context of your life. Salvation never happens in a vacuum, but comes to a person in a way that is customized to his or her unique, unrepeatable life story.
What imprisons you? Where do you feel trapped, caught, confined, or bound? Do you believe God knows where you are? If God knows, does God care? If God cares, are you prepared to be set free? Do you have the courage to walk out of your comfortable bondage into God’s magnificently higher calling, whatever it is?
Where is God wooing you to move forward into uncharted waters or unfamiliar territory? For some people, this may literally be… the land of the great unknown…eternity itself, a promise Shane never denies, but for most of us, there’s work to do on this side of the 25,550 days.
As Advent 2014 begins, we are watching and waiting to experience today’s salvation: from addiction to freedom, from insecurity to renewed courage, from cynicism to hope, from a living death to a re-born life, from haphazard priorities to renewed vision and focus, from victim to victor, from pointing the finger of blame, to picking up our own responsibilities.
We are saved for a purpose: higher than our highest dreams, deeper than our deepest intuitions, broader than our widest panoramic visions. Can you read the signs of the new beginning which pushes & presses to break through the hard ground of your life? Let us pray. Life-giving, transforming God, tune and sharpen our senses to this new beginning, to the mysterious growth underground, to seeds germinating, leaves becoming tender, all whispering: “God is near.” May all God’s people say together, “Amen.”
Gabriel Garcίa Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude
, trans. by Gregory Rabassa (New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 1967), 417.