Advent Sunday 27.11.11 Appropriate Alertness

20 11 2011

Mark 13:24-37   (The full text is below)

Two things shout out at me from this passage: space and time.

Space

‘Sun and moon shall darkened be’ wrote Christopher Wordsworth in his hymn ‘Songs of Thankfulness and Praise’.  And the hymn goes on: ‘stars shall fall, the heavens shall flee.’ This passage was on his mind. And it was in his heart.  Is it in yours?

The Venerable Bede was calmer about it in a homily: ‘the stars at the day of judgment will seem to be dark, not by any failure of their own luster, but in consequence of the increase of true light throwing them into the shade.’

Augustine’s reading of this is terrifying.  It warns us that all will be tested to the limit. ‘The many who seemed to shine brilliantly with grace will yield to the persecutors and will fall, and even the strongest of the faithful will be shaken’.

The context for the coming of the Son of Man is deeply troubling. To say, ‘it’s going to get worse before it gets better’ hardly does justice to it. So – how are you going to put it?

Time

What is the lesson of the fig tree? It suggests that we are talking days here, not thousands of years of waiting. We know from the Psalmist that God’s sense of time is very different to ours (Psalm 90:4) and maybe that needs to be brought into play. A millennium to God is just another day.

Nonetheless, what matters to people is not the actual time that passes – or how long they have to wait – but what the experience of waiting feels like.  Might the message about time here be that while the end is not in doubt (it is simply a matter of time), the task is to work out how to live well in that time?

If so, the message is to ‘watch’.  But how? Vigilantly – yes – but also actively. The night watchman’s duties do not involve idly watching people steal things or abuse property or engage in vandalism or violence. It is careful and responsive watching. It is appropriate alertness.

Ministry and Time

I have been thinking a lot about ministry and time recently… One of the puzzles to be resolved is how a generation of clergy who have too much to do in too little time can continue to devote themselves to practices which simply and inevitably take a lot of time.  Two of them are core to ministerial life and identity. One is spirituality: that is prayer, worship, liturgy, contemplation, reading and meditation.  The other is pastoral care: that is deep, patient and loving attention, companionship with those who are suffering or in difficulty, and real listening to those who need to be heard. Neither can be rushed. (Which is why feeling busy or calling yourself busy can be so destructive in ministry.)

Might it be that as we think about what to do with time the question is not ‘how effective were you in achieving your goals?’  But, ‘how deep and sincere was your watchfulness in prayer and pastoral care?’ Some clergy will cheer to hear that question put like that. But I only express the issue  that way for polemic purposes.  My own view – for what it’s worth – is that it is wrong to play these two questions off against the other like this.

Is it too simplistic to say that we have two types of time and that while chronos is for getting work done, kairos is for spirituality? I think it is too simplistic, probably. But getting these into sustainable and invigorating balance is the challenge of ‘Time Wisdom’… Of which more anon.

The task for today is to encourage appropriate alertness.

Stephen Cherry

Mark 13:24-37

24 ‘But in those days, after that suffering,
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
25 and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
26Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in clouds” with great power and glory. 27Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.

28 ‘From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. 29So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. 30Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. 31Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

32 ‘But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. 34It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. 35Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, 36or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. 37And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.’

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