The signs of the Kingdom

By Rev Elizabeth Raine

This week, we enter the new church year and the season of Advent. Advent is the time that we spend reflecting on the stories leading up to the birth of Jesus. It is also the time we prepare for Christmas and reflect on what it is like to wait.  You might like to set up a worship space at home for the Advent season, with a purple cloth, an advent wreath (four purple candles and one white one) or a single purple candle. Other symbols you could place in your space could include a handbell, a dove to symbolise peace, a star to signify hope, a heart to signify love and an angel for joy.

Opening Prayer

(adapted from Spill the Beans Iss.37)

Place the cloth,
prepare the table;
look for hope
and light the candle.
Ring the bells,
bring out the cradle;
look for peace
birthed in the stable.
Sing the songs,
through starshine’s sparkle;
look for love:
in manger’s marvel.
Deck the halls
and ‘hark!’ with angels—
look for joy:
Come, all ye faithful!
Amen.

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, 25and 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.”

Reflecting on the Word

Few people, whether professed Christians or not, spend much time thinking about the Parousia, which is the word we use to describe what is known as the second coming of Christ. Apart from a few over-zealous prophets who think they can pinpoint such a happening, no one really thinks much about what, when and how this coming will be, or how best to prepare for it.

We might come across some hymns containing references to the ‘Second Coming’ in the Advent part of the hymn book, or some of you might remember the t-shirts bearing slogans such as ‘Jesus is coming—look busy’! A lot of time has passed since these words were written, and none of the would-be prophets has successfully predicted such a coming to date. 

So what are we to make of this apocalyptic passage on the predicted end of the world in our modern era? Sadly, predicting the end of the world as we know it is no longer the preserve of would-be prophets and eccentric preachers in streets on soap boxes. Scientists, conservationists, and many world leaders are clear that we are in the ‘end times’ as far as our planet is concerned and the future of all living species, including homo sapiens, may well be in jeopardy.

Climate change and accompanying natural disasters, world pandemics such as Covid 19, the refugee crisis, the terrorist threat, the ever-widening gap between rich and poor… these are just some of the apocalyptic drivers of our time. For many people they are a source of worry and fear; for some they are an opportunity to take stock of their lives and to choose to live differently and more responsibly from now on; and, of course, for a tiny few they represent a chance to enrich themselves even further at other’s and the world’s expense.

So why, on this first Sunday in Advent, are we being asked to think about these things at all? Why, as we prepare to celebrate the birth of the child who will bring “peace and goodwill” on earth, are we reading about his coming back “in power and glory” to bring it all to an end?

One question the reading raises is that of God’s presence on earth. What is God’s involvement, if any, in human affairs? In what ways does God intervene when things are at their most desperate? Advent then becomes about more than just remembering a miraculous birth in the past or anticipating future judgement. It invites us to reflect on what we mean when we say “God is with us”—not then, but now. It challenges us to look for signs of God’s presence in the midst of all the chaos, and to expect the unexpected.

If God can appear among us with the vulnerability of a child, or invisible and silent as a presence that is felt not seen, or be heralded by stars and angels in the heavens, nothing can be ruled out as to where and how our next encounter with God might be.

What is required of us is to live fully in the present, but with an awareness that everything could change at any moment. We should be prepared for God’s slipping in among us or bursting in upon us at any time, and watch for the face of Christ in those around us, for they may just turn out to be Immanuel, “God with us” in the encounter.

Reflecting on the passage

• What do you think of today’s bible passage?

The first part sounds even worse that 2020 has been! It has perhaps been a year like no other we have experienced in many generations.

• What have been the best things about 2020?

• What have been the worst things?

• What have you learned or discovered about yourself that you want to take with you into 2021?

Sometimes it is difficult to look ahead when time are uncertain or when it seems like bad things just keep happening.

• What do you think the rest of the reading has to say to us in our circumstances today?

• What signs have you noticed?

• Have you seen people being kind, generous, going out of their way to help?

This week and through the whole season of Advent keep watch, try to be more observant of what is happening around you and also of you own actions.

Try and notice the times when you are a sign of the Kingdom of God by your actions (of caring, speaking out for others, kindness, compassion).

Prayer for ourselves and others

(adapted from Spill the Beans, Iss.37)

Creator God,
we bring our prayers from a world in deep distress.
There are signs and portents all around us, and no-one to tell us what they mean:
fires and plagues and pestilence; a shaking up of all we thought we knew;
leaders who are corrupt, or foolish, or just as helpless as we all feel
in the face of forces we cannot control.
And yet we dare to believe that it is your world.
We go on asserting that you care, not just because to do otherwise
is unthinkable, but because the old stories have a hold on us
and we hold on to them.
We kneel with shepherds and sages by the straw-filled crib and we worship.
We listen, spellbound, to the stories told on hilltop and sandy shore,
and we are hooked.
We watch, aghast, as softly the agony ends, and the final breath escapes.
We grieve and we despair.
We wake early and we wonder if maybe, just maybe,
new hope may come with the dawn.
God of birth and growth, decline and death,
God of whatever came before and whatever may come after
the brief, troubled lives that we know, we commit to your care and keeping
our lives and our loved ones…
our world and our worries on its behalf…
We long for you to come and save us.
May we be ready when you do.
Amen.

Blessing

(adapted from Spill the Beans, Iss.37)

Go with your heart and soul in eager expectation,
awaiting the coming of Good News.
Be a living witness of that hope,
sharing the blessing of God in word and action.
And may the God of timeless gifts,
surprises and revelations,
be with you and bless you on your journey.
Amen.

Photo of Rev Elizabeth Raine

Written by Rev Elizabeth Raine

Elizabeth is minister at Tuggeranong Uniting, beginning her ministry here in December 2018. 

Over the years, she has had a number of diverse and interesting placements, such as a school chaplaincy, a tenancy worker with UnitingCare, a congregational minister, a lecturer at UTC, a Presbytery minister, and as an Intentional Interim minister. 

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