Watching and waiting to catch a different glimpse of reality

Mary Copping, 8 December 2019

Romans 15: 4–13; Matthew 3: 1–12

A commercialised, materialistic Christmas often forgets the greatest Christmas gift of all. In preparations for Christmas – buying presents, putting up decorations, sending out Christmas cards, families preparing to get together knowing that relationships might be fraught – there’s often a lot of stress, pressure. Some can’t afford to buy much, so Christmas emphasises the lack of money. For many, it’s not a happy time. We can all get caught up in the drive for a good Christmas, yet we can forget what it’s all about: the coming of Jesus as a baby in that quiet stable.

The other day I said to the man who came to fix the office printer, ‘Have a good Christmas if I don’t see you before’, to which he replied, ‘It’s not here yet’. Good point; for me as a priest, Christmas, with its planning for all the services involved, seems present already. It made me think again about finding time, in all the preparations, to watch and wait.

In our gospel reading we hear how John the Baptist was preparing people for Christ’s coming. He is an extremely bold and forthright preacher, telling – almost warning – people about the coming of Christ. And in his preaching he tells the people how to prepare. He emphasises the repentance needed to prepare, the change of heart, the turning away from wrong ways of doing things. He was offering a baptism of repentance and was preparing for Jesus’ coming, saying that Jesus would baptise people with the Holy Spirit and with fire.

He was particularly harsh on the Pharisees and Sadducees and called them a brood of vipers. I wonder what they thought of this, these upright leaders of the temple, being told by this lowly man dressed in camel’s hair that they were in the wrong – the Pharisees, the Law-keepers and promoters of tradition, and the Sadducees, who were the wealthier ruling class. The viper, its venom deadly, was seen to be an evil creature, and it was also devious. John did not mince his words; he spoke with authority and courage.

John called for repentance – not only being sorry for the wrong we do, but turning things around and doing things better, differently. How would we feel if we were brought to task by John for our wrong ways? Many would respond, ‘Well, I haven’t murdered anyone, haven’t stolen anything, so I’m quite good really’. And yet, in the light of the holiness of God, all fall short; none of us is perfect.

In this Advent time, how are we preparing for Christ’s coming in our hearts, how do we make room for him to live in us? We can approach this in many ways: through prayer, Bible reading, spending quiet time in God’s presence. John Draper, a Christian author who often speaks on Thought for the Day, encourages us in an Advent meditation to find quiet with God – specifically, to find a bench to sit on and gaze out at the world. He describes how he did that and saw the world from a completely different angle.

He also makes the point that the phrase, ‘God is nowhere’ can, with the help of a little space, become ‘God is now here’, courtesy of a bench or a quiet corner. God’s absence, when resting in his presence, be it on a bench or at home in a quiet corner, becomes, ‘God is now here’. But it takes some watching sometimes, like the shepherds, to catch a different glimpse of reality. For us, is there somewhere we can sit and be and watch, taking time out of our busy worlds to spend that time with God? It’s not arduous and could be good; we might notice things we would not otherwise.

‘God is nowhere’ can, with the help of a little space, become ‘God is now here’.

We’re waiting for the baby to be born but also, at this Advent time, waiting for God to bring in his new kingdom, as spoken of in the Bible, where there will be no more pain or tears. How do we wait?

Someone described it as a bit like waiting at a bus stop. If we know the exact time that the bus is due, we can relax, check our watches occasionally and wait. However, if we don’t know when the bus is due, we are on the alert all the time, looking out for our bus – no relaxation here. Is this how we wait for the Lord, as in the Taizé song, ‘Wait for the Lord, whose day is near. Wait for the Lord: keep watch, take heart’?

If we are aware of Jesus with us now, are we happy for him to see how we are living, or would we want to amend our ways? Of course, we don’t live our lives completely on the alert, looking at our watches all the time (unless we lead really stressful lives). But we need to be aware of how we live as Christians, how we live our lives to honour Christ, how we wait for his coming. Of course we’re not perfect and do things wrong, but we have forgiveness through Christ, and we can start afresh every morning. Advent is a time when we can watch and wait, take time to think on how we live and how we could live better, especially in relation to how we use the resources of the world. We can make time to be with God – in prayer, in waiting, in patience.

Advent is a time when we can take time to think on how we live and how we could live better, especially in relation to how we use the resources of the world.

Liz Stuart and I did a couple of hours last week at the Churches Together chalet at the Christmas market. There was a real sense there of watching and waiting: watching the people milling around, some avoiding us (we both had our clerical collars on), some looking interested. We were praying and waiting for an opportunity to be friendly with people, talk, engage them, ask if they wanted to tie a ribbon and think of someone or say a prayer. It was a great experience but felt quite passive, waiting on the reactions of others – a real sense of watching and waiting.

One of my favourite verses in the Bible is the last one in today’s reading from Romans: ‘May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit’.

As we prepare to receive Christ, as we wait for his coming as a baby and in his second coming, however we understand that, we wait in hope. This is not the hope that hopes that something may happen but also might not, but the Christian hope – our hope in God through Jesus Christ. This is confident affirmation that God is faithful, that he will complete what he has begun. It is also, therefore, confident expectation, which waits patiently and ardently for God’s purposes to be fulfilled.

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.