Isaiah 64:1-9, Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18, 1 Corinthians 1:3-9, Mark 13:24-37
This week Britain’s Chief Rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks, caused a media firestorm. He launched a hair-raising attack on one of our culture’s dearly beloved - and recently deceased - icons: Steve Jobs; co-founder of Apple Computers and creator of wildly popular devices like the iPod, the iPhone, and the iPad. Jobs died of cancer just last month at the age of 56, and his death triggered a flood of international grief and emotion. For many, his death was practically a religious moment because this guy shaped the way so many people live. Jobs mastered the concept of intuitive and elegant gadgets that just work. Not only that, but like many spiritual gurus, he also had the ability to seemingly alter reality and to make you believe you needed his products. (I have several.)
But for Lord Sacks, Steve Jobs also represented something different. This week, speaking at an interfaith reception attended by no less than the Queen, the Chief Rabbi said: “Consumer society was laid down by the late Steve Jobs coming down the mountain [like Moses] with two tablets, iPad one and iPad two, and the result is that we now have a culture of ... i, i, i.” (Daily Mail, UK)
Did he really say that? Just one month after Steve Jobs died? Yes, he did. And some people went nuts. It was either incredibly brilliant, incredibly insensitive - or both. I mean, it’s not uncommon to hear people attack the gap between rich and poor - the rich get richer, the poor get poorer - but we don’t usually hear one person blamed for laying the foundation, let alone someone who’s just died, let alone by a prominent religious leader.
Lord Sacks got people talking. And in the middle of that firestorm, one of the unfortunate results is that some people didn’t hear the point he was trying to make. His method may have been questionable, but his message was pretty good. His point was that modern culture has a way of making us focus on what we don’t have - instead of being grateful for what we do. And he warned that a culture where people worry so much about getting things for themselves can’t last very long.
Whether or not we agree, Lord Sacks couldn’t have given any better introduction for the season of Advent, the season we start today in the Christian Calendar. Advent means “coming”. It’s a season to get ready for God’s coming in Jesus. And if we listen to our Scripture readings today, then part of getting ready includes crying out for what we don’t have. We begin Advent with an invitation to cry out, to plead for everything that’s missing not just in our lives, certainly not just in our pocketbook, but for everything that’s missing in our world.
For better or for worse, consumer culture is a pretty good context for Advent; it helps make Advent familiar because we’re always being reminded of what we don’t have. No matter how trivial, no matter how small, we’re always reminded to notice what’s missing from our lives. According to Lord Sacks, “If in a consumer society, through all the advertising and subtly seductive approaches to it, you've got an iPhone but you haven’t got [the latest] one, [then our society becomes] the most efficient mechanism... for… unhappiness.”
Consumer culture may trivialize and profit from our constant longings, but it can still help point us in the right direction. Because for Christians, Advent shows that our longings - trivial or not - have purpose. We’re invited to enter Advent desperately aware of what we don’t have. In our first reading the prophet Isaiah cries out: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!” (Isa. 64.1). “Make the mountains shake like you did in ages past and make the hostile forces of this world tremble at your presence!” The prayer that we’re invited to make our own at the beginning of Advent is the cry of the poor, the needy, and the oppressed. It’s the cry for God to be revealed like the Exodus when he tore open the heavens and delivered Israel from slavery.
And I think we’d all agree, that even if our consumer culture helps make that desire familiar, crying out for that prayer is a whole different story than simply keeping up with the Joneses. Waiting for that longing is a whole different story than waiting for the newest version of something we already have. It’s more like waiting for water in the middle of a desert. It’s the kind of waiting that makes people so anxious they start looking for signs – any signs of hope to let them know rescue is near. After all, the signs we’re looking for say a lot about what we’re hoping for in this world.
In today’s Gospel Lesson (Mark 13.24-37) Jesus himself has launched a hair-raising attack on one his culture’s dearly beloved icons: the Temple; for most people the very heart of ancient Israel’s social, economic, and religious life. During Jesus’ lifetime it was still being rebuilt on a scale that had never been seen. It was by far the newest and most impressive version of something they’d already had. Not only that, this Temple shaped the way many people lived. And even though Israel was subject to the Roman Empire, this magnificent Temple was theirs and it had the ability to seemingly alter reality, making them believe that God needed them to keep it going.
But for Jesus this Temple had also come to represent something different. At the beginning of the same chapter we read from this morning, the disciples - sounding a lot like country boys visiting a big city - walk out of the Temple and say, “Look, Jesus, what incredible bricks and what an incredible building!” (Mark 13.1). They’re impressed, perhaps somewhat smitten. And Jesus, a country boy himself but not nearly as impressed, says, “You guys mean this building? This beloved icon of our culture? It’s corrupt and it’s going to be destroyed as an event that shakes both heaven and earth” (Mk. 13.2ff). It’s all of that symbolic language about the sun, the moon, and stars falling from heaven.
Not so different from Lord Sacks, Jesus (another fine Rabbi - among other things) saw one of his culture’s beloved icons becoming a stumbling block and an idol. And an institution that worried so much about getting things for itself could not last long. According to Jesus, if people kept following a path that consumed widows’ homes (devouring them for the sake of Temple glory; Mark 12.41-44) and warmed up to dehumanizing empires (appeasing them for the sake of Temple security; Mark 12.13-17), then they shouldn’t be surprised when the whole thing came crashing down. Destruction would be sudden, but not surprising.
His basic message is something like this: lightning will strike, but only after storm clouds flash. It will happen suddenly, but only after plenty of warning. Because God will destroy any icon that becomes an idol. And one day God will replace all icons with God’s own Self. So, “Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come” (Mk. 13.33).
For much of our history Christians have heard this reading – along with the reading from Isaiah – as lessons about our Christian life throughout the year. They’re readings that make us think about what we’re hoping for in this world. What are we waiting for, what signs are we looking for? What kinds of things do we spend our time and money trying to get? Advent highlights these questions but they’re the same questions we live with every day of the week. After all, we still find ourselves waiting for a time when the mountains and hostile forces of this world tremble and shake at God’s coming. We still find ourselves struggling to make sense of a world that is both beautiful and brutal, a world where people from Mother Theresa to Adolf Hitler have both left deep and lasting legacies.
We still wait in longing for the Advent of God’s rescue from evil and death. And Advent reminds us that it’s a longing with purpose because we believe it grows out of the work already accomplished in Jesus. Isaiah prayed for God to tear open the heavens and come down. The Gospels tell us that, in the baptism of Jesus, the sky was torn open and God’s own Spirit came down (Mk 1.10); in the crucifixion of Jesus the veil separating heaven and earth was rent in two (Mk 15.38). The Psalmist prayed for God to show the light of His countenance (Psa. 80.3, 7, 18), and each Gospel shows Jesus as the very face of God. So, yes, we wait – it seems in this life we never escape the longing and the waiting – but we do not wait without hope. “Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come” (Mk. 13.33).
In a statement released later this week, the office of Lord Sacks said: “The Chief Rabbi meant no criticism of either Steve Jobs personally or the contribution Apple has made to the development of technology in the 21st century. He admires both and indeed uses an iPhone and an iPad on a daily basis. The Chief Rabbi was simply pointing out the potential dangers of consumerism when taken too far.”
So we can thank Lord Sacks for another good reminder about the potential dangers of any good thing when taken too far. Ironically, we Episcopalians don’t have a reputation for taking anything seriously enough to go too far. But perhaps we can learn. Because one of our invitations at the beginning of Advent is to take all of our longings and desires extremely seriously; to not simply treat them like consumer goods, but to take seriously those longings we live with throughout the year, longings for everything missing in the world: God’s own justice and peace and joy. God’s own life. We’re invited to not simply surrender these longings to the first good thing we find, whether it happens to be consumerism, our jobs, or even our family or friends. These are all good things. But, at Advent, we’re invited to take our desires and longings even more seriously, to follow them even further - believing that if we surrender our longings and desires to anything but Jesus, we haven’t yet followed them far enough. Amen.