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Title: “If you prick us do we not bleed?
Preacher: Canon Maggie McLean, Canon Missioner
Readings: Isaiah 64. 1–9, 1 Corinthians 1. 3–9, Mark 13. 24–end
Date: 3 Dec 2023, First Sunday of Advent
There is no doubt that the people of Israel have a troubled history. As we know, part of that history of antisemitism and violence lies in the past of this city. It was very moving recently to be at Clifford Tower, here in York, to hear the actor Tracy-Ann Oberman speaking about her experiences of growing up and experiencing discrimination. She was speaking just before dashing to the Royal Theatre to star as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. Before leaving, Tracy-Ann recited one of the most famous speeches of the play when Shylock pleads the case of our common humanity. ‘If you prick us do we not bleed?’
Tragically, the Jewish people also have a deeply troubled present. Standing beside Tracy-Ann was Rabbi Elisheva, the first resident Rabbi in York for 800 years. Rabbi Elisheva prayed for peace – an intercession made all the more poignant and as it was spoken on the site where so many of the Jews of Medieval York lost their lives.
Understandably, the experiences of the people of Israel and Judah often left them asking where God was in their time of need. More than that, on occasion it led the people to blame God for their misfortunes. A few verses before the passage from Isaiah we heard read this morning, the prophet portrays the people questioning God as follows:
Why, O Lord, do you make us stray from your ways and harden our heart, so that we do not fear you?
It is out of this sense of abandonment and desolation that Isaiah addresses God at the beginning of chapter 64 – begging for God to come down, tangibly and powerfully, to intervene and save the chosen people. It is almost as though Isaiah is reminding God of what it means to be God. That God is like a small fire becoming a blaze; still water beginning to boil; the steady ground that begins to shake. Isaiah wants God to be stirred up and present in the midst of trouble. This is the God who does unexpected and awesome deeds. Without God the people are like autumn leaves, and their iniquities are the wind that strips the trees bare.
Isaiah’s plea and petition for God to return to the people is a fitting start to Advent. The prophet appears to imagine an apocalyptic appearance of the Divine: ‘O that you would tear open the heavens and come down’. It is a theme which continues in our Gospel reading from Mark. Here the Son of Man is seen as coming in clouds with great power and glory, with the sun darkened, and stars falling from heaven. It is an overwhelming image. Both Isaiah and Jesus call us to be awake and watchful, conscious that all our striving and anxieties will come to an end. In time, God’s time, history will be completed and both heaven and earth shall pass away.
But I think that there’s also another message woven into these prophesies of the end time. Because the end time has already begun. The fruits of the Kingdom of God can already be tasted ‘now, in the time of this mortal life’. The Risen Christ is present and active in the world, not yet appearing in clouds of splendour, but appearing in the acts of love and peace, the acts of forgiveness and reconciliation which are the works of grace. Wherever women and men recognise their common inheritance as children of God – to recognise, as Shylock says in the play, that all people are: Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means.
At the end of our reading from Isaiah the prophet writes in words notably similar to those of Shylock: We are the clay, and you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand.
As we begin Advent, and journey towards Christmas, we think of the end times and also the acts of love now that are a foretaste of what is to come. At the most basic level it is simply to recognise and act upon our common humanity. To remember that we are all made in the image of God and that God’s love is for each and for all.
In both our readings today there is an explosive sense of God’s mighty descent to us in power and splendour. Yet in the Christian faith God does something completely unexpected. Perhaps the almighty potter recognises that stubborn humanity is going to need a bit more than another turn on the wheel. Remarkably, the days of Advent bring us to the moment when the potter becomes the clay.
God enters our world as a baby and knows that when we are tickled, we laugh; that when it is winter, we are cold and when it is summer, we are warm. And to know, in the bitter agony of Good Friday, that when we are pricked, we bleed. God in Christ dignifies the experience of being human. The gulf between the maker and the material of making, is closed.
Isaiah speaks repeatedly about the ‘presence’ of God and in Advent we are called to be alert to God appearing in ways that both challenge and surprise. And we are reminded, powerfully, of the sacredness of our common humanity.
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