First Sunday of Advent
Advent is the season of waiting: of promise and patience, of presence and absence, of fullness and emptiness. The seed has been planted but the growth is invisible and fragile. In the midst of the growth process, threats abound. Will the seed burst forth into the sunlight? Will thorns choke its life and stunt its growth? Will it receive adequate nourishment to grow into a great tree, giving shelter and fruit for all around? Will we and our congregations survive – and better yet flourish – amid the white water rapids of today’s religious pluralism and postmodernism?
Advent is a month long “Holy Saturday.” The great news of Christ’s birth is on the horizon and we want to sing, “Joy to the World, the Lord is Come.” But, we must first spend four weeks with “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” before we greet the child in Bethlehem! In Holy Saturday, we don’t know the outcome for ourselves or the crucified Jesus. In Advent, we have the same impatience with ourselves, history, and God – we live “For the Time Being,” as W.H. Auden asserts. Two thousand years later, we may still recite, “Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again,” and wonder what this coming of Christ means when we struggle with congregational survival, the growing pluralism and the displacement of Christianity, and the uncertainty of where our nation or the world will be tomorrow or when our children and grandchildren grow up. Advent is filled with hope, but not certainty. If God is omnipresent, God is frustratingly subtle, barely recognizable in our world unless we awaken to God’s movements insinuated in the plethora of personal and corporate activities.
Isaiah captures the Advent spirit with words of impatience, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence.” Isaiah interprets the dissonance between the stories of God’s previous mighty works of liberation and the current situation of divine absence and national turmoil in terms of God’s anger at the people. God’s anger appears, at least to Isaiah, to have a causal relationship to current circumstances: “You were angry and we sinned…. we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.” The people have turned away from God, but God’s hiding is complicit in their sinfulness.
I read Isaiah’s words as an existential confession rather than a theological treatise. It feels to Isaiah like our pain must be God’s doing: God must be punishing us, withdrawing God’s presence, because we have gone astray. God is angry at us and God’s anger takes the form of apparent abandonment. Isaiah and his community are going through a severe case of “separation anxiety,” assuming that God’s distance, which allows for freedom and creativity, is tantamount to God’s abandonment and anger. Perhaps, as later Jewish mysticism suggests, God must withdraw for creation to burst forth in creativity and freedom. God does not overfunction or micromanage, despite God’s moment by moment presence in our lives. There is risk in God’s withdrawal – we may fear that God is gone forever and may also misuse our freedom, but the emergence of new possibilities demands that God give us space for growth.
Perhaps, the divine absence is the reflection of our responses to God’s overtures to us and the world. God comes to us within the welter of experience as a vision of possibilities and lure to new horizons. Yet, God’s naturalistic revelations in our lives come clothed in creaturely clothing and gentle inclinations. We can easily assume God is absent when our actions have, in fact, limited God’s presence in our lives and communities. Still, we hope for greater inspiration and energy and this hope opens the door for new revelations of God’s love.
Psalm 80 presents this same contrast of presence and absence, and desperate hope for divine revelation in power and love. “Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.” We need restoration and God must be part of the process of renewal. We need healing and only God can give us the energy to find wholeness. Our cry of help may open the door to a greater influx of divine possibility and energy in our lives and communities. Both Jeremiah and Psalm 80 assume that our cries make a difference to God. God hears our pleas and prayers and they create a field of force that opens the door to God’s presence in healing ways. They do not change the character of the liberating and healing God but make God’s presence more palpable and energetic. God needs us to answer the knock, to open the door, and to seek and to ask. The dynamic and interdependent divine-human call and response bring novelty to both God and the world.
Paul’s words to a struggling community are intended instill hope in a time of waiting “so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Perhaps, written in light of Paul’s image of the body of Christ (I Corinthians 12), Paul is reminding the church at Corinth that when they operate as an integrated and interdependent body, unified and vision-inspired, they have everything they need. God is generous with revelation and is working through the many gifts of community to bring forth something of beauty that will give light to the world.
Paul’s words give hope and, more than that, energy and agency to persons and communities. God wants us to flourish. God has given us the gifts we need to be faithful and to share good news. God is growing in our lives, despite the external circumstances and deferred fulfillment.
Mark’s mini-apocalypse describes both terror and fulfillment. Nature will be transformed prior to the coming of God’s Chosen One. Many of us can identify with such apocalyptic thinking, although we view it in naturalistic rather supernatural terms. Our planet is in trouble: we see signs of destruction, of dying species and collapsing glaciers, and fear a random collision with a meteor that will alter our planet forever and put an end to the human enterprise.
Mark sees the suffering as obstetrical, the birth pains of new creation. We need to observe the signs of the times and act accordingly. No one knows the hour or day. Prognostication and numerological calculations of the Second Coming are misguided and foolish, Mark asserts. What is needed is wakefulness and self-awareness.
Cosmologists suggest that in a de-centered universe, every place is the center. Theologians assert that divine omnipresence means that God is wholly here in this present place and time. Accordingly, if no one knows the moment of Christ’s coming, then every moment is a call to transformation. Every moment, whether at dinner table, working on your laptop, answering e-mail, or praying at church meeting, is a moment of encountering divine possibility. No need to look into the future, for God is fully present in the here and now. Possibilities for transformation are ever-present for those who seek to be awake to the divine. Any moment can be transforming and transfiguring: theophanies abound!
Fulfillment may always be a receding horizon. The heavens may not be torn open, but the daylight my slowly emerge. In the midst of waiting for a revelation that is beyond our understanding and exceeds our imagination, we have much to do. We are called to stay awake and choose to be people of a future which we can’t fully fathom, a future of holy relationships, healed persons, and transformed ecology and economy. We can be citizens of the emerging realm of God right now. We don’t need angelic visitors or natural disasters to know what time it is – for it is always God’s time and the advent of life-transforming possibility. Open to possibility, we can sing “O Come, O Come” with the lively spirit of “Joy to the World” for God is here!
Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, pastor, and author of twenty one books, including Process Theology: A Guide to the Perplexed, Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, Philippians: An Interactive Bible Study, and The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age. He is available for lectures, workshops, and retreats.