Saturday, December 8, 2007

Advent 2: A Time of Waiting and Searching


Isaiah 11 v1-10
Psalm 72 v1-7 and 18-19
Romans 15 v4-13
Matthew 3 v1-10

This is the time of not yet, not yet.
The stable is yet empty of human company,
the star is not yet risen,
shepherds mind their own business,
sages divine nothing unusual in the heavens,
and babies in Bethlehem sleep soundly in their cots.

Soon it will be the time for bated breath,
for a sense of the world beginning to stir from hibernation,
for a tingling down the spine of the soul,
for the feeling of being on the brink again.

Yet now is still the time of not yet.

(Imagining God: Trevor Dennis)

ADVENT: a time of waiting and searching:

In the first year of the Premiership of Gordon Brown, in the fifty fourth year of the reign of Queen Elizabeth the Second, in the second term of president George W. Bush, when Walter Jagucki is Bishop of the LCiGB and Rowan Williams is the Archbishop of Canterbury, a man is waiting and prophesying the coming of a King who will usher in God’s Kingdom, another man is waiting quietly in the wilderness, asking that we change, and that in turn we change the world, and yet another man is waiting and instructing his flock in unity and hope so that the Kingdom of God will be realised.

I am going to tell you an Advent joke. I feel compelled to tell you that it is a joke so that if you don't find it funny, like my daughters didn't, you can pretend and laugh in the right place. Work with me here. So, two new ordinands were at theological college and giving the lecturer problems because they didn’t seem to have a very sound grasp of their Lutheranism. (Neither of them were me, by the way.) The lecturer had tried everything to get through to them. Finally the ordinands were sent to see The Bishop. The first went in and sat in a chair across the desk from the Bishop, who asked, "Do you know where God is?" The ordinand just sat there looking perplexed. The Bishop stood up and asked again, "My Son, do you know where God is?" The ordinand trembled a bit but said nothing. The Bishop leaned across the desk and again asked, "Do you know where God is?" The ordinand bolted out of the chair ran past his friend in the waiting room, and legged it back to his room. He got into bed and pulled the covers up over his head. His friend who had followed him back to the student hostel asked, "What happened in there?" The ordinand replied, "God is missing and they think we did it!"

O.K. Maybe "joke" is an overstatement. Anyway, we could say that God isn’t so much missing at this time of year as expected in Jesus. We are in the season of Advent, the season of waiting and searching, waiting and searching for God, waiting and looking to the second coming of Jesus. As much as we are waiting and searching for God, can you imagine how much God, as represented by the Father in the parable of the lost son, is waiting and looking out for each of us, waiting and searching the horizon for our return to him during this season of reflection and preparation, which we call Advent? We have heard so often of God’s love. Do you ever think about God’s love searching for you, longing for you, wanting no hindrance or obstacle between you and him?

As much as we are waiting and searching for God, God is waiting and searching for us far more. Do I wait for the Lord or is the Lord waiting for me? Is the Lord something like the child who hides in an obvious place like behind a branch without leaves and is all excited when found? Am I the one searching? Am I the one being sought? Where would Jesus hide? An inn? A barn? A cave? A crib? I think we need to ask that question about ourselves. Where and how do we hide? At work? Busy, busy, busy? In the church? Busy, busy, busy? At home? Not busy enough if you ask Hannah, but you get the idea. We could focus on any of those. Advent should be a prayerful time of waiting to see who finds whom? Would you not wait so that the Lord might meet you?

Another year winds down; the days grow ever shorter, and this Advent seems especially grey. Despite exhortations and efforts to get on with life as usual, it is difficult to be people of hope as St. Paul exhorts us to be, when our consciousness is flooded with one warning or dire prediction after another: terrorism, runs on banks, tsunamis, earthquakes and so on all marketed for popular consumption by the slick editorials of the media, leading to panic, doomsday fantasies and conspiracy theories. And yet it was in a period just like this that Isaiah forged the beautiful poem of hope in today's first reading, a vision of a messianic age in which the wolf shall dwell with the lamb.

A more recent Jewish "commentator," Woody Allen, has cautioned: "And the lamb and the wolf shall lie down together, but the lamb won't get much sleep." Even Margaret Thatcher used an adaptation of this Isaiah prophecy in an after dinner speech in Germany. She told the story of the Western visitor to a Soviet zoo who was very impressed to find a wolf lying down with a lamb, with a sign above them extolling this example of peaceful coexistence. He asked the keeper how this miracle could be achieved in the Soviet Union. "It’s perfectly simple if you have a fresh lamb every morning" he replied.

Well, cynical comments apart, Isaiah is reminding the people that real peace comes from God: this is an image, a metaphor of the Kingdom to be ushered in by the one who was to come.

So as we begin the church year, we not only have Isaiah's prophecy of the ideal ruler for whom they waited, but we also have St. Paul's letter to the Romans, with its revolutionary promise to include the Gentiles in God’s covenant.

Paul addresses the Roman Christians in the spirit of Advent. He reminds his hearers that the Scriptures were given to invite enduring hope in God. This hope points them to a waiting time in expectation of future promises, while providing assurance that they already experience God’s grace now because God is the God of steadfastness and encouragement. Paul articulates his longing for harmony among believers and that has to be a lesson for the Church today.But Paul’s readers know exactly what he means when he calls them to live in accordance with Jesus Christ. The desired unity among diverse people (at his time Jews and Gentiles particularly) can be found in Jesus Christ, whose faithfulness in accepting crucifixion dramatically revealed God’s love for all people.

How does this speak to us in Advent, then? Few of us face deep disagreements like the Roman Christians over food choices, circumcision, or the proper day on which to worship, so we need to bring this into the present to have relevance. Like the Roman believers we are part of a church with jarring diversity. The lines of division change through the years, and from generation to generation; but there are always divisions: human sexuality, the authority of scripture, women bishops have all grumbled on in various parts of the church in the last year. Yet in the midst of disagreement, the life of the church goes on and we have no choice but to continue to get on with it while others have the big conversations of the day.

Advent calls us as Christians to rest from focusing on our differences, to wait and to search. There is a time to discuss the issues that sometimes invigorate and sometimes threaten the bonds we share. For this season, though, we look instead to the legacy of faith that we all share. The promises of the past and the promises for the future are bound up for us in the coming of Jesus, the Messiah of the Jews, the Christ of the Gentiles, in whom we place our hope. During Advent we anticipate Jesus’ coming, knowing that Christ is already in our midst, yet awaiting also the completion of what God in Christ has begun, and participating, hopefully, in a worshiping and welcoming community of hope! We wait and we search.

And, finally, we have St. Matthew's account of the beginning of the ministry of St. John the Baptist. John the Baptist, another Advent figure of expectation: In all of these passages, signposts of Advent, we are being directed to recognise that something unique has been accomplished and yet we wait, too, for its fulfilment.

Every Advent we hear the story of the beginning of the ministry of John the Baptist and it is always a ministry in the real world of his own time. Matthew's words for today set us in a particular time and a particular place. The reader and listener find themselves with John waiting and searching in the wilderness after being told in a very challenging way about the world of their time. And, John is proclaiming that the particular world in which Matthew has just placed us is about to change. To be ready for that world to change, people must themselves transform and be changed. John invites people to do this by proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (not John's forgiveness but God's forgiveness), and then, in the words of the prophet Isaiah, he calls out for a change in the natural world, for a modification of the earth, so that all shall see the salvation of God because only when we know the reality of our need for forgiveness, for the action and the grace of God in our own lives, can we be in any way prepared to understand the reality of Jesus’ coming into the real world, into flesh exactly like ours.

This year, like every year, we celebrate that Christ, the salvation of God, is coming. And, in Christmas, we celebrate the reality that Christ really does come. So, we are merely weeks away from celebrating the truth that Christ will indeed come again. Christ will come again, this year as in all of our liturgical years. Christ is coming soon and the conviction of God’s presence in our midst is the basis for the peace of which we speak at Christmas, the peace for which we all so earnestly yearn.

Isaiah's vision, John's prophecy and Paul’s hope were not fulfilled in the way they expected. They lived in hope and died in faith. Despite all the progress on social justice the light of hope for those who suffer throughout the world seems dimmer day by day. There is work to do: Isaiah prophesied the coming of a new kind of king who would be “a signal for the nations.” John points to a mighty one who will baptize and renew people with God's spirit, and in Romans St. Paul exhorts us to that work. Our unity and love for one another and for those around us brings the long awaited return of Christ nearer.

In the first year of the Premiership of Gordon Brown, in the fifty fourth year of the reign of Queen Elizabeth the Second, in the second term of president George W. Bush, when Walter Jagucki is Bishop of the LCiGB and Rowan Williams is the Archbishop of Canterbury, a man is waiting and prophesying the coming of a King who will usher in God’s Kingdom, another man is waiting quietly in the wilderness, asking that we change, and that in turn we change the world, and yet another man is waiting and instructing his flock in unity and hope so that the Kingdom of God will be realised.

Let us learn from each of them how to wait and search and how the waiting and searching should move us on.
Amen.