Advent is more than getting ready for Christmas and getting ready to look back to the birth of Jesus. Advent is also about looking forward, preparing for something which has not yet happened, that is in the future; the appearing, the coming of Jesus. Advent then has both a backward and a forward looking aspect to it; it is a two faced creature of a season.
Advent teaches us about waiting and anticipating. But most people in our culture see waiting and anticipating as unnecessary impediments and attempt to obliterate them. We hold off singing our Christmas carols till deep in Advent, we don’t even mention a baby until the 4th week of Advent. And every week we feel the growing anticipation, but we talk about being ready, looking for signs of God’s presence, we try to practice being people of hope. In the church we talk about such things. And we feel the tension between the clash of cultures as the wider society grows impatient an wants to rush onto the next thing. We will still be talking about the baby well into January when everyone else is watching cricket, tennis and maybe even getting ready for the chocolate bunnies and eggs.
Both the gospel writers and those who put together the lectionary are adamant; you can’t tell the story of Jesus, you can’t get to Jesus, without first hearing John. He’s the voice calling us to pay attention, to attend, to prepare and anticipate. But he is a strange one is John. He could be seen as the classic sandwich board man, wandering around in the desert lashing/urging/imploring all who will listen to repent, for the Kingdom of God is drawing near.
He is a explosive, uncomfortable, uncompromising figure who make his appearance in all four gospels and in our lectionary readings is front and centre every year in the second and third weeks of Advent.
I liken it to an unfolding play in a theatre. The audience have settled into their seats, they have come to see a drama about what God is up to, or not up to because the voice of God has strangely fallen silent for 400 years. the house lights have dimmed, the air of expectancy is almost able to be felt and touched. But the people cannot get past this fact; the voice of prophecy has been muted for 400 years. Seemingly God has abandone the people and left them to languish in hopelessness; but there are rumours something is again astir.
A shaft of light pierces the darkness and a lone solitary voice, still offstage is raised, carrying an ancient refrain not heard for centuries – like a voice crying in the wilderness, “Prepare the way , for the Reign of God is even now breaking in upon you. Repent, turn to receive.”
All this because God did remain faithful; although the voice of prophecy had fallen mute for 400 years, although apparently David’s royal line had become powerless, God was faithful and the vision has not died. You cannot kill off spirit. You cannot destroy grace.The shoot had been there all the time just waiting for the moment to emerge and grow.–It reminds me of the famous couch grass in the bitumen incident when i was living in Brunswick. We had bitumen footpaths over there and one day the workmen turned up to redo the footpath. They were very efficient; the sent the bobcat over it, ripped up all the old ashpalt and spread a good 2 inch of bitumen over it and sealed it all up good and proper. Beautiful job? Guess what? One year later, yep, green tough, tenacious, unstoppable, shoots clawing their way upwards, towards the light and the air. When there was no possiblity of life under there, life has emerged. Nothing more exotic than couch grass mind you, but it illustrates the point. With Isaiah, the shoots are not just common old couch grass, but the long awaited Messiah, the anointed one who comes to usher in the age of peace where humanity, and indeed the animal world, have finally weaned themselves off killing and slaughter and exploitatin. And some waited and continue to believe and hope and anticipate. And that kept them and the vision alive for those 400 years when there was no prophet in Israel.
And what you are waiting for affects how you wait, how you live. You expect nothing, have no hopes or dreams, then you will live like you have no hope. Probably get depressed or despairing. Or what if rather than expecting nothing much at all you are actually waiting for something fearful and scary to happen. How will that affect your waiting – how you live?
I have a confession to make. Once when I was a kid me and my mate Graeme Hancock who lived over the road went to Chadstone shopping centre. And I stole a sleeveless jumper from a clothing store. They were all the rage then. I went into the store, bought one and stole one. Put it into my bag. And as I was going out the door a guy who looked like he was another shopper (undervcover security I now know) came over and asked “Can I look in your bag?”. Well, what could I do, and he saw the extra jumper and asked me to follow him out the back at which point Graeme Hancock took off. The manager left me in the office stewing for a good 15 minutes – probably deliberately and then came and gave me a stern talking to. And then asked me my name and address. And for some reason I gave him the right one and he did a big guilt thing about how I had let everyone down, especially my parents. I thought that might have been it but he spoke some chilling words as I left. I will be reporting this to the police and I think you can expect a visit in the next few days. I spent those days in hell. Nothing that happened that week could lift my spirits. It was a miserable wait. I was living in the “Advent” of a horrible upcoming event. The waiting around for something miserable to happen made those entire days miserable and I even got to the stage of wishing this terrible thing to happen and get it over and done with. . And then just when I thought maybe the police were not going to visit they did. I saw the car pull up and I ran into my room. I heard the voices at the door and then inside the house and then a stern voice of my mother calling me. And there in my own house were two police, one man and one woman. They gave me a dressing sown and said they would not take it further but I should take this as a very serious warning. And left and at which point my mother burst into tears and said she was ashamed of me and fancy me doing that and bringing police into her house. It was bad but no worse than that incessant soul destroying waiting.
But what if the one we wait for is not the police because we have knocked off a jumper but the gracious loving Lord? Won’t that mean we will not live in fear and shame but joy and hope?
Be careful what you are waiting for, because you will be living in that advent/anticipation while waiting for it to come.
People of God in ancient Israel lived during wars and horrors and rumors of wars, yet they created this prophesy (this and many others) of a time in the distant future when all the nations of the world would turn around, and come together up on the mountain of God, and God would speak and teach and they would listen and God would adjudicate their disputes and all of their conflicts. And they would therefore no longer have to study for war. They would lay down their swords and turn them into plowshares, and turn their spears into pruning forks.
It was an impossible vision, an impossible dream, an impossible prophesy.
But was it wrong? Was it wrong to live out their lives expecting, anticipating, hoping for an age of peace and justice? Was it wrong to lean forward into the future living out an “advent” of the time when nations would turn their swords into plows hears? Was it wrong to live in hope?