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Trusting in the Slow Work of God: Sunday, December 3, 2023

The First Sunday of Advent:
Isaiah 64:1-9
1 Corinthians 1:3-9
Mark 13:24-37

“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!” The opening line from the prophet in the first reading we heard. You can hear the impatience, maybe even desperation in the voice. ‘We have had more than enough of this…’ and it’s time for a change. (A lasting change.)

A prominent 20th century Church figure wrote: “Above all, trust in the slow work of God. We are, quite naturally, impatient in everything to reach the end without delay.” Trust in the slow work of God. That comes to us from Pierre Teillhard de Chardin. He was a priest and philosopher. He was also a palaeontologist. We normally joke that the Church measures time in hundreds or thousands of years… Well, for this dinosaur-hunting priest — counselling us to “trust in the slow work of God” — he was comfortable measuring time in millions of years. It isn’t always easy. The symbolic season of Advent lasts just four weeks. But it’s drawing our attention to a universal human phenomenon of waiting that isn’t so clearly defined. So we pace. We might get frustrated. We look at our watches. And we get some comfort by eating a bit of chocolate each day.*

There is impatience in the prophet’s voice. But also hope. “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.” Waiting for a loved one’s plane land; waiting for your main course to arrive; waiting for the band you’re seeing to finally hit the stage: these can be good, pleasant feelings.

But the other side of waiting is harder: fear, or dread. Advent is about waiting. (Waiting for God to bring about change.) And Advent is about struggle. Most great, truly important things are born out of some degree of struggle. Whether a work of art, the awakening of human conscience or consciousness, or, more literally, a baby being born, there’s struggle. And fear that comes with it.

So how are you feeling at this beginning of a new Church year? Will your Advent be a gentle one of maybe even sentimental waiting. Looking ahead to a cozy celebration of Christmas. Or is Advent meeting you in a different state? Is it finding you in the midst of a struggle; maybe even with some fear, if not dread? In Advent our struggle might be in looking for God, or trying to make sense of God in our scriptures, in our traditions (or more plainly, in our Church), or maybe recognizing God beyond the confines of Church, active in the wider world? In nature, in world events, even with us in our conflicts. The gospel passage today speaks to keeping our eyes open (but our heads down) to the presence of God amidst turmoil and conflict.**

Both feelings, both approaches to Advent are legitimate. Think of how Advent, meaning simply “arrival” or “coming,” can relate to the first advent (or coming) of Jesus in the flesh, which we celebrate at Christmas. “For in these last days you sent him to be incarnate from the Virgin Mary to be the Saviour and Redeemer of the world” [from Eucharistic Prayer 3]. If 2000 years ago is “these last days,” I get the sense that we’re counting, with Teilhard de Chardin, in dinosaur years…

That prayer continues: “we remember his death, we proclaim his resurrection, we await his coming in glory[.]” So there’s that second facet of Advent: Jesus’s second advent (or coming) that we are waiting and waiting for: Jesus to come as Judge. A judge as someone who administers justice, and sets things right. A judge as someone who holds authority to decide and change things that maybe we can’t on our own. But as we wait for that judgement, there might be that struggle, or anxiety, or fear. But if we trust the one with authority, there can also be expectancy: a confident sort of waiting. We trust that things are going to be set right. Things will be OK.

And Advent has something to do with responding to God. We think of the crowds going out to the wilderness, to be baptized. We think of two other big Advent figures: John the Baptist himself, and Mary, mother of Jesus. Two people who truly responded to God. Mary, who said “here I am, Lord” and was “overshadowed” by the Holy Spirit. And John the Baptist who was essentially consumed by the message and the justice of God. He held the powerful to account. He ate bugs.

Two very different people, but whether it’s John yelling at hypocrites, or Mary’s radical message about God “lifting up the lowly” in her Magnificat, they are two models of responding to God. Models of opening up our hearts to God. As the Christmas carol puts it, “O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray; cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today.” Whether set on fire by the Spirit like John, or overshadowed by the Spirit like Mary. We have these two Advent figures: one who is the culmination of the Old Testament; and one who is the beginning of the New.

Though there is risk in this. A certain type of vulnerability of opening up to God, and challenging the status quo of the world. John had a brutal end, as recounted in the Gospels. Mary, on the other hand, some traditions hold that she never died. BUT, she was warned, upon presenting her Son at the Temple, “a sword will pierce your heart.” So there, at the end of the story, she stands at the foot of the Cross (when most others had run away). Showing what it means to follow Jesus, and how it may well include deep pain. But God is with us in that.

So… Advent is about waiting (maybe patiently, maybe impatiently or fearfully), turning toward God, but also expecting God to act, and us responding to God’s action in our lives. There may well be struggle in this. If you have or are about to put up your Christmas tree, think about how you shift around some furniture, and inevitably need to vacuum or sweep up some pet hair and dust bunnies. You do that in order to create the proper space for the tree. There’s joy in that, but also some work. Maybe allergies. So in Advent, “we’re clearing our hearts and minds a bit so we really can see clearly when Jesus arrives, and feel fully the impact of his coming.”*** Yes, here on December 24th or 25th. But just as importantly, when Jesus comes to be born in us. There might be fear. There will be waiting. But Jesus comes. Happy New Year.

© 2023 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter

*Rowan Williams, “An Advent Meditation” in Darkness Yielding: New Enlarged Edition (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2009), 6.

** Michael Perham, One Unfolding Story (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2018), 2.

*** Williams, p. 8.