The first Sunday of Advent, Year B, 2014 – Isaiah 64:1-9; Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13::24-37
This past summer I read Rachel Joyce’s first novel, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (2012). The story begins with Harold and his wife Maureen living a quiet, uneventful, monotonous, life in Kingsbridge in the far south of England. One day Harold receives a letter from Queenie Hennessy a former colleague who is dying. Through a series of events Harold makes the decision to walk more than 600 miles across England to see Queenie with the hope that somehow his pilgrimage will save her life. As the story progresses it gradually becomes clear that Harold and Maureen although sharing a house have stopped sharing their lives. They have fallen asleep: “For years they had been in a place where language had no significance.” The love they once knew has shrivelled up and died. One reason is their different relationships with their son David: Maureen talks to David every night and Harold never speaks with him. Towards the end of the story it becomes clear that their son David had died several years before and they, each in their own way, had never been able to come to terms with it. They had continued living in the pretence that their son was alive because they couldn’t accept that he was dead.
It is sometimes suggested in parts of the church, that the same is true for us in the Christian faith: Instead of expecting Jesus to do something or say something or one day return we are encouraged to be honest and admit that he is gone. We can admire him, we can respect what he represented and we can learn from him but he is not coming back – at least not as a physical person. In other parts of the Church we strongly affirm that Jesus is not dead, he is living and he will return. But when we describe the way that Jesus ‘lives’ today we are a little uncertain what to say. We might say that Jesus is present everywhere all the time. Or we might talk about Jesus as someone who lives in our hearts who is closer to us than anyone else, who knows us better than anyone: a little like the secret friend of our childhood. But, all too often, this Jesus who is present everywhere or the Jesus in my heart, doesn’t make that much difference in our day to day lives.
One of the most difficult aspects of the Christian life is the apparent absence of Jesus. We don’t know how to deal with the fact that Jesus is not physically present any more than Harold and Maureen knew how to deal with the absence of their son. As a compromise we live with a notion of Jesus in our hearts that remains intangible even though we affirm that he is present. Or we ‘grow up’ and admit that while the physical Jesus is dead his spirit lives on in countless ways in the lives of good people. Is it any wonder that these fragile and unsatisfying notions of the presence of Jesus don’t offer a lot of comfort or confidence in the midst of hardship or suffering or darkness? At those points we are left asking God where are you? God why don’t you do something? Or: God, why don’t you tear open the heavens and come down? Which is exactly what Isaiah said so long ago: O that you would tear open the heavens and come down. How do we deal with the apparent absence of Jesus?
What would it be like to have been one of the disciples, to have met Jesus face to face? To sit down and talk to him? Implicit in our desire is the assumption that if Jesus were physically present, if he walked down the aisle of this church today it would be so much easier for us to know him, to trust him, to have faith in him. But is that true?
The story of Harold and Maureen reminds us that physical presence is no guarantee that we will know someone or trust someone. Indeed, we can live in the same house with another person, sharing the same roof, the same food, without knowing them in a significant way. We stand beside people on the subway, we sit next to people in restaurants, we work in the same buildings with people who remain strangers to us. How many people who walked and talked with Jesus never knew him? In significant ways no one truly recognized Jesus for who he was and is – even Peter the faithful disciple, the one who said ‘you are Lord’ even Peter demonstrated that he didn’t really know Jesus. Physical presence is no guarantee that we will know another person. So, how do we get to know God?
This is the season of Advent and one of the central themes of advent is waiting – waiting for God or better waiting on God. Waiting for God implies that we are waiting for something to happen or we are waiting for God to show up – it begins with the assumption that God is absent. Waiting on God, is very different from waiting for God. It is attentiveness to God. It is turning to God focusing our attention, our hearts and our minds on him because we want to know who he is and because he has given himself to be known.
Waiting on God is what Isaiah reflects in ch 64. After saying ‘that you would tear open the heavens and come down’ he moves on until in the middle of our passage he says: From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him.
There is no one like this God who works for those who wait for him. We wait on him, we turn to him and find that he is already waiting for us. This is an active and attentive waiting – it is fixing our eyes on God, focusing our hearts and minds on him; it is trusting him for who he is even when we don’t understand what he is doing. Ultimately our hope or confidence as Christians is not rooted in knowing what Jesus will do or when Jesus will show up, but in knowing who Jesus is.
And that brings us to the huge difference between Isaiah and ourselves; Isaiah cries out to God that he might tear open the heavens and come down while we begin with the fact that in Jesus Christ God has already torn open the heavens and come down. He has made himself forever a part of this world in the particular person and events of the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus. Jesus may not be standing right in front of us but one thing we can be absolutely sure of is that Jesus wants make himself known to us far more than we are ready to know him. The barrier to our knowing Jesus is not his physical presence with us it is our readiness to truly wait on him at work , at rest, at home and at play.
Before the great pilgrimage Harold and Maureen were waiting – sitting in their house letting life slowly slip through their fingers – bored, anxious, bitter. Yet during Harold’s pilgrimage as they were separated from one another each in their own began to remember. They began to think about the life they had shared. They begin to talk to others about each other. To remember so much that was good and rich in their lives; they were ‘waiting’ on each other. And bit by bit their relationship began to heal even while they were absent from each other. In advent we remember who Jesus is, we look forward to his coming again and we wait on his presence with us now.
If there was ever an advocate for waiting on Jesus in the sense of being attentive to the person of Jesus Christ and all he represents it would be Paul who in both what he said and how he lived waited on Jesus. I press on toward the prize of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.
Paul’s greeting to the people of Corinth is not a typical opening to a letter because Paul’s focus is not on the people he is writing to. Instead it is to help them put their confidence in Jesus. Over and over again he speaks about Jesus Christ. The grace of God given in Christ. The way they have been enriched in Christ. The speech and knowledge that has been given to them, the testimony, the witness of Christ which has been strengthened in them as they share it with each other. The spiritual gifts that have been given to them. The promise of the future full revelation of Jesus Christ when he will once again be physically present with them. The strength Jesus gives to them as they wait. And the faithfulness of God, a faithfulness which has called us into fellowship one with another and fellowship with Jesus our Lord. This is all about what God has done and is doing for us in Christ that we might come to know him, to love him and to live in relationship with him.
We cannot invite Jesus over for coffee and conversation. But he is present through the Holy Spirit in the midst of the people of God, as we learn how to live with him and for him.
A word of challenge and a word of encouragement: in his letter to the Corinthians Paul challenges them directly in a confrontational manner because some of the ways they were living, certain practices and behaviours, did not reflect the truth of who they were in relationship with Jesus Christ. In some ways they were living as though they didn’t know Jesus, as though they had fallen asleep. We are the church, the body of Christ, the bride of Christ. We are married to Jesus: together we have been placed in the context of an intimate relationship with him. And Christ is present with us in many ways not the least of which is in the Eucharist where we are lifted up into his presence where we taste and know that he is good. Now together we need to learn how to live in that relationship. That is our pilgrimage.
In The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry we are left with a sense of promise and hope that Harold and Maureen will renew their relationship. It will be hard work with lots of steps forward and steps backward but they have begun to once again get to know and love each other. They have woken up to each other.
Thanks be to God that although Christ is not ‘physically’ present with us we have and continue to be given everything we need to come to know him and to love him. Ultimately our knowing of Christ is shaped by the gift of the Holy Spirit who already knows us – knows the depths of our hearts both the good and the bad – knows our struggles, our failures and our joys. And God meets us where we are so that we might come to know him.
So we wait, in the season of Advent, through the year we wait. But not as those without hope, not as those who wander aimlessly, but as those who even in our waiting begin to see our confidence and faith mature as we come to know him more and more.
Gracious Lord, we thank you that you have torn open the heavens and come down so that we might come to know you. We thank you that you are so patient that you give us the time and space to come and know you truly.