Saturday, November 26, 2005

Dare to hope!

Christmas is coming.  It’s official, the jacaranda flowers have started falling all over my car where I park it down in front of the rectory.  I love the predictability of that, the very first week of Advent when we begin to decorate the church with purple you can be sure the mauve flowers will be falling off the trees.  But at the same time there’s an awareness of how few shopping days there are before Christmas – the Santas and the cheesy Christmas carols have been there in the background of my consciousness for weeks and weeks now – the commercial world always jumps the gun – but for me it’s only now, with the first week of Advent, that I come to with a start and think, ‘get ready!’ What do we have to do?  Where’s the list?’

We’re in Advent, that all-too-brief time of reflection and preparation for the great events of Christmas – in my mind I begin to remember the Advents of years gone past, and the almost contradictory sense of the deepening spirituality and the gathering expectation that the church points us towards, set against the backdrop of the gathering frenzy of commercialism and the hectic round of family duties.  Part of the difficulty id that the secular world doesn’t actually get the point of Advent at all – you don’t go around wishing people a happy and repentant Advent, or send people cute little cards with John the Baptist eating locusts on the front.  The bit that the secular world gets, and that the shopping centres get, is the anticipation of the Bethlehem bit – the multiplication of donkeys and camels and mangers – but Advent is actually rather more than just a churchy way of counting down the days until Christmas, and over the next few weeks we find ourselves confronted in church with some unusual and even confronting images – many of them from that motley collection of Old Testament characters we call the prophets – daring to speak for God and offering a strange mixture of challenge and hope for a people going through times of turmoil, transition, exile and home-coming.

This Advent, many of our readings come from Isaiah, a long work that spans several centuries and joins together the work of prophets writing in times of crisis – firstly in the eighth century BC when Judah seems to be at risk of invasion; then two centuries later when Jerusalem is laid waste by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon – and finally at the end of the long period of exile when the Judeans return home to a ruined city.  And that’s where we come in today, a dispirited people returned home to find their entire world of faith reduced to rubble – the place that epitomized God’s presence occupied by foreigners and destroyed – and we read this impatient, almost despairing prayer that’s got no time for polite language, ‘O, why don’t you just tear open the sky and come down!  If you’re really with us, stop pussyfooting around, God, just tear apart the divide between heaven and earth and show yourself!’  It’s a prayer of a people at the end of their rope, a people who’ve been pushed around for centuries and have lost hope in conventional avenues of change – ‘God, just do it!’  Tear the sky open, just do something!

And I think we can see a number of things in this prayer – a movement taking place from yearning, to the recognition of the community’s own brokenness and sin, a movement from exasperation at God to submission to God’s vision, God’s purposes – and there is hope.  That’s why this reading is the first word we hear in the season of Advent.  That’s what Advent means.

You might maybe wonder what our situation has got to do with the situation the people of Judah faced when they returned from exile in 537 BC.  Really, is our situation as broken and as despairing as theirs?  And the answer, of course, is yes.  Absolutely, yes.  What a year we’ve had.  A year of tsunami, of hurricane and earthquake, a year of suicide bombings, the wretched misadventure in Iraq, children continuing to be maimed by landmines in Afghanistan, lives lost, futures mortgaged to despair and homelessness.  These things affect us here in our little parish church in Belmont, at least I hope they do.  And in the church?  A loss of confidence, I think, a failure of nerve as church leaders look nervously over their shoulders at the statistics of declining congregations and evidence that nobody really is listening to whatever good news we think we’ve got to share.  And I think we’ve got our own share of that right here in Belmont – has God got a future for our parish?  If so, how do we know what it is and how do we work towards it as a real community of faith?

And this is the value of Advent.  Because Advent is both a look backwards and a look forwards – a time of balancing delicately between the sadness of the mess we actually live in and the joy of the world we would like to believe in.  During Advent we become exquisitely aware that what we really need is not tinsel and Christmas cake but to become something more than what we are now – right in the middle of the chaos of the world’s politicking and power-mongering – what we really want is for God to tear open the sky and do something.

So at the beginning of Advent, we might use Isaiah’s model of an impatient prayer for one of our own –

·        Oh, that you would rip open the heavens and descend, make the mountains shudder at your presence.  Just like when a forest catches fire, when fire makes a pot to boil—what are you so impatient about that you would talk to God like that?  Get in touch with the centre of your dissatisfaction, the heart of what you really long for – be real with God about what you’re waiting for.

·        When you did terrible things that we never expected, when you descended and made the mountains shudder at your presence.  Since before time began no one has ever imagined, no ear heard, no eye seen - where have you come from – cast your mind back over the journey of your own faith, the history of our journey together as the people of All Saints’, Belmont – when can you personally remember God doing something wonderful? – call to mind your memory of God’s faithfulness in the past. 

·        But how angry you've been with us! We've sinned and kept at it so long! Is there any hope for us? Can we be saved?  We're all sin-infected, sin-contaminated. Our best efforts are grease-stained rags. We dry up like autumn leaves-- sin-dried, we're blown off by the wind.  No one prays to you or makes the effort to reach out to you.  Because you've turned away from us, left us to stew in our sins – what do you need to repent of? What is your part in what’s wrong with the world? – when have you failed to forgive?  When have you acted selfishly or with prejudice, and when have you put your own agenda ahead of God’s?  Get in touch with the hard knot of lovelessness within you and hold it up to God.

·        Still, God, you are our Father.  We’re the clay and you’re our potter.  We’re all what you made us – imagine God’s hands on you, pushing you and pulling you into the shape that God wants.  When God remembers you – when God re-members you, God is re-forming you back into God’s own image – the shape God always intended for you.  Are you willing to relax your own grip so that God can make you into the shape he wants?  Imagine us all together, as the community of faith called All Saints, as a lump of clay that God is forming into something new.  When God moulds us into the shape God has in mind for us, that’s the Incarnation – that’s God, taking on flesh and blood in our world.

·        Don't be too angry with us, O GOD. Don't keep a permanent account of wrongdoing. Keep in mind, please, we are your people--all of us – What are you hoping for?  Get in touch with what poet Emily Dickinson calls that feathered bird that keeps singing and singing in your chest – find a name for the thing you most desire and dare to hold it up to God.  Imagine us as the people of God.  What do we most hope for this Advent?  What might the birth of God’s Son be promising us?  Dare to hope!