Today we begin the season of Advent. It is the season, we know, in which God invites us to reflect on our faith in this age of waiting and watching. The Gospel lessons through the four Sundays before Christmas tie together the themes of preparing for the arrival of Christ with exhortations to prepare for his apocalyptic coming again “in a cloud with power and great glory.” So if Advent is about preparation and anticipation, that is, about waiting, how are we meant to do this? What exactly is this activity of waiting upon God’s grace?
Surely, this must be one of the most pressing of questions, how we hold ourselves open to Christ’s coming, open to the presence of him who is the end and the hope of all things. For this activity of ‘holding ourselves open’ to grace, what is that but what we call faith? The truth is, how we believe, how we are faithful, is more important than what we believe. Ideally, of course, the ‘how’ and the ‘what’ of our faith match up perfectly. But I know in my own life how considerable and confusing gap there is between how I believe and what I believe. ‘What’ I believe may be perfectly orthodox, perfectly correct. Perhaps when I arrive at the gates of heaven St Peter will say to me, “On the written exam you get a gold star. But unfortunately, the written exam doesn’t count toward your final grade! For the only mark that matters in the end concerns the practical portion of the test, how you lived what you knew in faith.”
So the question concerning how we practice our faith is the same question as the question concerning how we wait upon God and His grace. In the carol Once in Royal David’s City, we sing of our expectation that we shall meet Christ in heaven, “Where like stars His children crowned/ All in white shall wait around.” As a boy this conjured up the image of a bunch of extremely bored angels loitering around on a cloud. But this is not the kind of ‘waiting’ the carol intends, of course. What the hymn means by ‘waiting’ is serving: the saints are serving God, attending to God in heaven. We wait upon God as we serve God: and according to the ‘two great commandments,’ we serve God first by our worship of God and second by our loving care for our neighbour, “the earth and all that is in it” (Ps.24:1).
It is by loving that we wait. That is at the core of the call to discipleship. And yet our reading today, with its picture of apocalyptic turmoil, of distress in nature and distress among nations, complicates this ‘on-the-surface-simple’ message of love. When you see these distressing things, Jesus says, know that I am near, that the time of your redemption is near. But where is the Love in that picture? Where in that picture is the Jesus we long for, Jesus meek and mild?
If the central theme of Advent is of our waiting for Christ to come again to us as he came before – this is not just an expression of hope but it also contains a warning: think how few recognized him when he first came! All those faithful Israelites, waiting so long for the Messiah to come: how few recognized him! Even those who were closest to him, they too, more often than not, could not recognize him. He remained invisible to them. Even as he stood amongst them, there was a sense in which he was also absent to them.
Think again about the experience of waiting, especially waiting for the arrival of one we love. Is it not true that part of the experience of waiting is being acutely aware of our loved one’s absence? At the airport, isn’t the lover’s agitation due not only to his excitement over his beloved’s immanent arrival, but thus also at the same time his heightened awareness of her absence? Hence the imagery of cosmic unrest in Luke’s Scripture: the whole of creation is in a state of violent agitation because the nearer the Redeemer of the World approaches, the more acute the effects of his absence become: “signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars . . . on earth the distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea.” We are to read these signs, Jesus tells us, and recognize what they mean, just as we know the unfolding leaves herald the coming of summer.
But waiting is difficult for us. For to wait is to admit that even if God is present in our waiting, that God is also absent. This absence is extremely uncomfortable. We have an almost violent need to insist “that God is present with us, with me.” God’s presence is our reassurance that we are on the side of power; on the winning side of history, the side of ‘truth’: to long after that comfortable certitude, to know that we know! This is just as true of the Liberal Church as it is of the Evangelicals. But such knowledge is not faith. To insist that we have God is not to wait upon the coming of God in Christ. It turns our love for God rather into a kind of possessiveness. And this possessiveness, and this fear – don’t we see it all the time? – it is a kind of violence. Religious violence! And that violence, when turned outward or inward, confirms precisely the absence of God. By my insistence that God is with me, I manage only to absent Him from me.
The violence of history, the restlessness of the natural world, these are signs both of creation’s longing for its redemption and the world absenting God from the centre of its life. Do you think this is a contradiction – to kill what we love and long for? Don’t think Christ was crucified out of hatred for God. Just the opposite is true. Christ was crucified because Israel’s love for God became a possessive love that had forgotten how to wait, that could not tolerate God’s absence from among them. They insisted on knowing that they knew. And, affronted by what escaped their knowing, they killed the one they were longing for, but could not see.
To wait for Christ, we must not hope to possess him. We must not be afraid of his absence. “He whom we must love is absent,” said Simone Weil. It is not that His absence is absolute, but that for us His presence is hidden under the form of absence. His presence, in other words, is hidden under the form of the Cross: precisely there, where no one can see God, precisely there, where God cannot possibly be, God is – and is for us.
So this is the message of today’s Gospel: when you see violence in the heavens and on earth, “stand up and raise your heads.” We are not to turn our eyes away from the places where God is all too absent. We are to look precisely there – there at Christ’s mangled body nailed to the Cross. We are to look where God is not, because that is where God has promised that He is, where we must wait for him, where we must direct our love.
Advent is the season we learn that everything depends on how we wait. We are told to look, told to love, precisely where love is absent. And so unafraid of the truth we see everywhere about us – the degradation and the violence and confusion – unafraid of God’s absence, unafraid of the Cross, knowing nothing but our love for Him, we will, one day, perhaps even today, “stand before the Son of Man.” AMEN.