Advent: aching for God to act

Stephen Adam, 13 December 2015

Zephaniah 3: 14–20; Luke 3: 7–18

Today we’re in the midst of Advent, one of the richest seasons of the church year, with its really big themes of penitence and judgement, expectant waiting and looking for the coming of God’s kingdom. The trouble is that, as humans, we’re not very good at waiting. Christmas is the supreme example of this: we live in a culture of instant gratification, often based on the principle of ‘taking the waiting out of wanting’.

And yet if we rush too quickly to Christmas we lose so much of the depth of this season of waiting. Our waiting isn’t casual or passive; our worship is imbued with a sense of urgency, of longing expectation for the new life in Christ and for the new and just ordering of God’s creation.

That sense is captured marvellously in the 12th-century Advent hymn ‘O come, O come, Emmanuel’, where each of those seasonal antiphons or sentences begins with ‘O’. The very shape and sound of the ‘O’ convey an emptiness longing to be filled, an ache for God to act – an ache expressed by the psalmist in his yearning cry, ‘My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God?’ (Psalm 42: 2). This ache is as potent today in our world of oppression, injustice and suffering as it was in the time of the exile to Babylon or in John the Baptist’s time under Roman occupation.

The Advent collect [short prayer assigned to a particular day/season] where we pray, in the words of the Book of Common Prayer, ‘Give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness and put on the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility’ – this collect reminds us that our waiting isn’t about inactivity. We’re called to be decisive and determined, and there’s no escaping the connection between the glorious Advent hope of this season and how we live, day by day.

For some reason the word ‘visit’ is gratuitously omitted from the modern Common Worship version of the collect; but that word ‘visit’ is important because it carries an intentional ambiguity. There is ‘visit’ as in a guest visiting and staying awhile and bringing a blessing – which is what we look forward to with the babe in the manger at Christmas, the mystery of the incarnation, the Word made flesh – but there’s also a deeper meaning, as in ‘visitation’, that is altogether more daunting. When the archdeacon has his visitations he’s holding the churchwardens to account for their stewardship; when a government inspector visits an establishment there’s an expectation of judgement.

And so our Advent season is imbued with both these senses of visit: of blessing, but also of judgement.

The theme of judgement runs deeply through the prophet Zephaniah. Anticipating the exile to Babylon, he proclaimed a largely gloomy, unrelenting message. The first two chapters are full of dire warnings, of how God’s people had been rebellious and not heeded his ways; war and destruction is prophesied, Jerusalem will be razed.

But then in chapter 3, our first reading this morning, Zephaniah’s tone changes really markedly. ‘Sing aloud!’ he says. ‘Rejoice … do not fear!’ Even in the face of widespread disaster there is still hope and the promise of renewal and restoration – not because of human goodness, but because God is a God of hope and of love.

Even in the face of widespread disaster there is still hope and the promise of renewal and restoration – not because of human goodness, but because God is a God of hope and of love.

‘He will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love’, the prophet proclaims. Zephaniah’s insight, which was fulfilled with the return of the Israelites from exile, is a reminder that when we’re fearful or apprehensive about what’s happening in the world – and perhaps especially in the darkness of this year with the mass migration and displacement of millions, terrorism and violence, political instability in many parts of the world and the threats posed by climate change and our poor stewardship of the environment – at times like this our real hope is grounded on a faithful God who never gives up on us, a God who enters into the depths of our human condition in the person of Jesus Christ. Our Advent hope is that a light shines in the darkness, and the darkness will not overcome it.

And then, in our gospel reading, the focus shifts to John the Baptist, a man on a mission to herald the arrival of the Messiah. John is a disturbing figure, this roughly dressed hermit quoting the prophet Isaiah, who had spoken words of comfort and proclaimed a vision of a new and restored creation.

Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough places made smooth;
And all flesh shall see the salvation of God.

John’s message is rigorous and uncompromising. Not many preachers would dare to start a sermon by calling their audience a brood of vipers! John challenges the comfortable and complacent, the pious religious leaders who thought their background – being part of the establishment, if you like – was enough. But it’s no good pointing to Abraham as your ancestor and thinking that’s enough; no, John’s ethic is down-to-earth and direct, absolutely uncompromising and practical.

‘What shall we do?’ the crowd ask him. And he tells them straight: ‘Share your clothes and your food! Don’t fiddle the books! Don’t bully! Don’t demand the pay rise you don’t need!’ In short, change your ways and your behaviour.

I remember one of those dreadful Christmas cracker jokes. How do you get holy water? Take ordinary tap water and boil the hell out of it! What’s that got to do with John? Well, it doesn’t entirely misrepresent him and his message of impending judgement.

John is a beacon, a herald of the Messiah, pointing in his exhortations to someone greater than himself. When we reflect on the difference between John and Jesus, the answer often given is that John marks the end of the old law, based on temple worship and ritual, and Jesus introduces the new law, founded on God’s grace.

St Thomas Aquinas offers us an intriguing insight in recognising the shift from John to Jesus. ‘John chose the way of austerity but our Lord chose for himself the way of gentleness.’ Whereas John imposed answers on his audience, Jesus invites us to enter in to the new life he offers through the example of his teaching and ministry – a selfless love that offers us a window into the essence of God and also shows us what it is to be truly human.

Michael Mayne has written of how, in one telling detail, John the Baptist gets it both right and wrong. John talks of someone more powerful than him who is coming, the thongs of whose sandals John will not be worthy even to untie. In this John rightly recognises the majesty and glory of the Messiah.

But Michael Mayne also reminds us of a scene to be played out three years later in an upper room in Jerusalem – a scene we re-enact each year on Maundy Thursday, when Jesus stoops to the lowliest and most humble position and, in a startling action that would have astonished John, he washes the dusty, dirty feet of his disciples. In the most powerful, symbolic way imaginable Jesus reveals the compassion and love of God –` a servant love that will be taken to the uttermost limits on the cross.

As we move through this Advent season and prepare to celebrate again the mystery of the incarnation – this window into the nature of God, who in the Christ child combines in the deepest way both majesty and compassion, glory and utter selflessness – our response surely can be one only of silence, lost in wonder, love and praise. Amen.