THE new church year begins with the end of all things, as the universe crumbles away, and the angels gather in the faithful. In the passage of Daniel (7.13-14) which underpins Mark’s account, the Son of Man ascends before the throne of the Ancient of Days. In Mark, the Son of Man descends instead, from the clouds to earth, and there he gathers his chosen.
“They will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory.”
Jesus foretells a time of destruction going beyond any plague, poverty, or oppression — a glimpse of the end of the universe. Creation returns to what it was in the beginning: primordial darkness; formless, chaotic void — not because God’s sovereignty has failed, but because it is being fulfilled. Sun and moon are cast-aside creations: “The city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light and its lamp is the Lamb” (Revelation 21.23).
The reading from the end of Isaiah reveals the Advent experience as one of contrasts and mysteries. The Lord is powerful; so why don’t we reverence him, and turn to him? Even if we did not do so out of devotion, you would think fear of judgement might get us to the point of obedience. There is no simple tie-up between our individual sins and the cosmic judgment that is being pictured; we are one body (Romans 12.5) as well as individuals, and relate to God in both those identities.
The word for justifying God to humankind is “theodicy”. Everything else about faith depends on it. If God’s dealing with us is anything but fully righteous, why would we want to serve him? No one wants a God who is just the biggest bully in the celestial playground. Isaiah’s “longing” for God’s coming makes no sense without a belief in God’s mercy. It might even seem like God is responsible for our wrongdoing — we hid ourselves, sure, but only because he was angry. Like little children who know they’re in for a telling off. Like my son who, when small, “wanted to see what would happen if he threw stones at the car window”. He, too, ran and hid. Being afraid of anger is like being afraid of pain. What really hurts, in both cases, is the fear.
Isaiah’s remedy for such foolish behaviour is “calling on the name” of the Lord. It is often said that knowing a name gives you power over that person. Even speaking a loved one’s name can be an act of love, embracing your feelings for them and your appreciation of their qualities. It can also give you, to be frank, leverage. Look how much easier it is for scammers who have found out the name and identity details of their target.
In the case of God, too, there is leverage. We know his name because he chose to trust us with it. When we call on that name, we know he will not ignore us. That’s why Isaiah reminds God of their relationship: a bond that not even wrongdoing can break entirely.
When Paul writes to the Corinthians, he treads a careful path between praise and criticism. Like Isaiah, he sees the people of God as trying and failing, wavering between trust and control. He takes the same path as Isaiah and Daniel, encouraging his listeners (his letters were passed between congregations to be read aloud) in what they are doing well. He mingles praise and criticism so that they keep listening, and have the courage to face up to failures as well as recognise spiritual successes.
This kind of balancing act is always part of the preacher’s calling. Too much emphasis on failure, and people will give up; too little, and righteousness shades into self-righteousness.
When Jesus warns us to keep awake and be on the watch, it could seem as though he were recommending hypervigilance. It is a fine line between expectation and anxiety. But, like the servants, we take on that vigilance as a community. When the doorkeeper needs to sleep, another servant will take his place. Christians don’t need to be always on the alert as individuals: it is as the Church that we keep watch — which means that, when prophetic voices say, “Here he is!”, we need to listen.
The Revd Dr Cally Hammond is Dean of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge.