A sermon for the First Sunday of Advent, November 27, 2011. The lectionary readings are Isaiah 64:1-9, Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18, 1 Corinthians 1:3-9, and Mark 13:24-37.
If you’ve been in my office, we might have been in a conversation and you might have looked up to the top of a bookcase. There you would have seen pottery with faces looking out at you, North Carolina face jugs, to be exact.
Face jugs, these pottery jugs with faces on them have an uncertain history. Most of mine come from the Piedmont and Mountain areas of North Carolina. Some say the practice of making jugs with faces on them came from African slaves and had to do with burial rites or memorial practices. Another tradition suggests that the ugliest face jugs were made to keep moonshine, and they were made ugly so they’d scare children away.
I like them because they come from the earth near where my people are from and they make me laugh.
And sometimes, they make me think. I wonder about the faces. Was the potter thinking about a particular person? When the face is especially ugly or contorted, was the potter using the clay as a kind of exercise in aggression-- making a version of someone in particular’s face, and then making it look really ugly? Or was the potter somehow conveying something the potter felt deep inside?
If anyone has ever worked with clay, you know that the object made really does come from the potter. It is shaped by the potter’s hands. Its image comes from the potter’s mind. The potter’s time and talent are expressed in the object. And sometimes, given the ingredients of the glaze or paint that might be used (especially in the old days of using lead glazes); the potter actually risks his or her personal health in crafting the object.
In firing up a kiln, in overseeing the process, sometimes the potter bears marks or wounds that result directly from the process of making pottery. For all of these reasons, it makes sense that Isaiah would use the image of the potter and the clay to express an aspect of our creation and existence from God.
In today’s reading Isaiah begins by lamenting the condition of the world. “O, that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence . . . to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!” Isaiah is tired of people ignoring God and God’s ways, and so he’s asking God a question that comes up again and again in the scriptures, and maybe comes up in our own prayers—“Get ‘em, God. Make them pay. Why do you let the wicked prosper? Why don’t you do more for the poor and the oppressed?” Isaiah goes on for a bit, ranting and railing at God. But then, in the midst of his prayer, Isaiah begins to reconsider. Like a little child who throws a tantrum and then finally, exhausted, falls into the arms of her mother, Isaiah falls back into the arms of God. “Yet, O LORD, you are our Father.” And then, the line I like so much, “we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand."
Isaiah begins in a vengeful, angry place and eventually moves to one of compassion. We might expect that in a prophet from the Hebrew Scriptures, but we may be surprised when we encounter language of wrath and vengeance from Jesus. But that’s what it sounds like in today’s Gospel.
Jesus speaks out of a tradition of Jewish apocalyptic literature, an old tradition in which people of faith looked to God to come and save them, especially when things in this world looked bad. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Joel, Ezekiel, and especially Daniel, all contain sections though of as apocalyptic literature—literature that looks for the end of the world as we know it, as God ushers in a new reality for those who have kept the faith. The New Testament also has apocalyptic literature, most famously in the Book of Revelation, sometimes called simply, “The Apocalypse.” But there are also “little apocalypses,” Mark 13, (Matthew 24, and Luke 21). Biblical scholars debate which parts of this chapter might be original to Mark the Evangelist, and even which portions might accurately be attributed to Jesus. But in the general tone of his words, and in the context of our reading and hearing this Gospel on the First Sunday of Advent, I think Jesus is, indeed, speaking.
Christ tells us that everything has a process. Baking a loaf of bread has a preparation time, a time in which changes can be made and the actual bread formed and set, and then a time when the bread is baked and either must be eaten, given away, or will go bad. Everything has a process. People are born, grow mature, and eventually die. The world itself is created, groans and grows through maturity, and will one day come to an end. Jesus is saying simply this: God is not finished with us yet. The end is not quite here. It may be tomorrow. Or it may be hundreds or thousands of years away. We don’t know, and it doesn’t accomplish much to muse on it. It will come when it will come. The point is—we’re in the middle now. There is still time.
It’s as though we’re a jug being fashioned into something by a potter. The clay has been dug, we’re being shaped and formed and molded. Once we’re put into the kiln and glazed, it’s too late. Like those face jugs I have—their faces, whether they sneer, or laugh, or have an evil grin, or gracious smile—once they’re fired and glazed, they’re stuck. We’re like those jugs, except that we’re still on the potter’s wheel. We are still in God’s hands, able to be shaped and changed, and formed for good, formed for love.
Today we begin the season of Advent, a season of waiting and watching, a season of God making and remaking things new. The symbols are all around us. The blue reminds us that part of the early church used this season is special. It is different. The Advent wreath is another symbol of our waiting for increasing light, as each Sunday, another candle is lit. Those who keep Advent Calendars wait actively, as they open one window or door each day-- a reminder that every new day brings a surprise from God.
The lessons we’ve heard today are not meant to scare us into right living or to make us so preoccupied with the Christ’s coming that we miss the holy right before us. Just the opposite. The intention is that we treasure each day, live it as best we can, and rejoice in the fact that we are all in process.
The world may seem beyond repair, but the good news is that God isn’t finished with it yet. Our families may seem broken, but God isn’t finished yet. Our relationships may seem completely out of shape, our own lives might seem like a badly formed clump of clay, but the good news—the really great news, is that God the Potter is not finished with us yet.
May this season bring us increasing light, increasing joy, and increasing love.
In the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.