This time before Christmas is such a busy time, it hardly feels like waiting. Advent is described as ‘waiting for someone to arrive’, so let’s consider: is it passive, or expectant, or work? At what point do we become involved in waiting, or does it just happen? Do we need to say ‘here am I,’?
Have you ever wondered that John the Baptist seems quite a ‘one-trick pony’ sort of guy? His name defines him, yet, we just don’t know about his walk with God before he began calling people to repentance and baptising them.
Mary, the mother of his cousin Jesus, was a devout and special girl, engaged to Joseph and contemplating her wedding when the Archangel Gabriel came to bring his message to her in Nazareth. Her small yet immense ‘Here I am’, which made all of creation jump for joy in that moment, had been preceded throughout salvation history by many other “Here I am”s, by many trusting people, by many who were open to God’s will. The natural outworking of Mary’s “yes” was heightened responsiveness to God, not passivity. She couldn’t just sit back and wait for 9 months; things at home being a trifle strained, I imagine, she went to visit her cousin Elizabeth. But she also had to do some serious work on her relationship with Joseph, and then undertake an ardous journey in the final stages of her pregnancy. None of this could have been easy for such a young woman. So what about John? Yes, the Baptist John. We know that he was earmarked for a special mission, because of his father’s encounter with an angel before he was conceived. We know from an account from his mother Elizabeth that he moved in her womb when she met with Mary, already pregnant with Jesus. But where does John’s ‘here I am’ fit in? Was he a chap who had his life mapped out for him by God? His father Zechariah was a priest, so presumably John, also of the priestly order of Abijah, could have been seen as following in that tradition. Yet he angel had said to Zechariah: ‘He must never drink wine or strong drink, and he will lead people to God’, the spirit of Elijah will be upon him. A prophet then.
How did this pan out for John? We are told in Luke’s Gospel that the Holy Spirt was in him from the beginning of his life, but how did this transform into action. Did he become frustrated with the hypocrisy and mean spiritedness of the Jewish leaders, and dare I say, some of the people who came to the temple? Did he feel the need to remove himself from them? Is that why he was in the desert, with like-minded people who sought God in the wilderness? Was there a time when he said ‘Yes Lord, you have called me to this,
‘Here am I.’? Well, we know God makes the ‘first move’, as he did with John (or at least, through his parents) and Mary. All of creation is invited into a relationship with God, but this initiation is not autocratic: control of his creatures cannot unfold in this deep exchange with the heart of God. What is required is response, evoked in the powerful image and loving relationship of the Trinity. God’s intention is to dwell intimately with us, and that calls for surrender. The in-dwelling of God in others, and through the church in all humankind is a call to acknowledge our own vocation to assent, not to a passive role, but to action, to movement for God’s work here and now. This drives home a second implication: that this is a call to labour, to labour indeed in the midst of our long Advent wait. So, what are we labouring for this Advent? St Paul uses natal language in Galatians to describe how his labours form Christ in the church. He is bearing and delivering Christ, in people who had not yet grasped the fullness of the gospel of peace. This sounds like a strange mixed metaphor at first – surely he delivers Christ to them, not in them? This intimate participation with God expresses itself as an intimate participation in the life of his people, both as shared waiting and as shared work: work, that is, for Christ to come more fully into our lives together, within and beyond the church. This is not just a call to spring into action, necessarily, but an invitation to what Henri Nouwen calls ‘passionate waiting’, informed by the way in which Christ himself waits for our response. Our labouring together is not simply about what we do, but about who we are becoming together.
It is this that Paul describes as the formation of Christ in us: belonging together, waiting and doing and being together, despite the prevailing allegiances and identities of our time, despite having to keep our distance during this pandemic, for the sake of the world. For Christ to be formed in us in this way requires patience and work: passionate waiting and painful labour. He is waiting for our commitment, our “Here I am.” For this we pray, and to this may we commit, this Advent. The Kingdom is built, one soul at a time. It requires diligence, it required single-mindedness, but like Paul, we can say
“I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.” So, we work and we pray, but we need to remember a few things. Without Jesus, our prayer risks being reduced to human effort. He has taken on himself every cry, every groan, every jubilation, every supplication … every human prayer. Those who pray are never alone. Indeed, Jesus is not only a witness and teacher of prayer; he is more. He welcomes us in his prayer so that we might pray in him and through him. And this is the work of the Holy Spirit. “But Lord”, you may cry, “I am praying, but things get tough, we feel we are going down blind alleys, things are not improving, we pray and pray and things do not work out” Our prayers are sometimes, maybe you could say often, answered in a way we cannot understand, so here is my little story for today, my little parable for you. A pastor attended a men’s breakfast in a farming area deep in rural Oklahoma. The group had asked an older farmer, decked out in overalls, to give thanks before the meal. ‘Lord I hate buttermilk’, the farmer began. The visitor opened one eye to glance at the farmer: where was this going?
The farmer loudly proclaimed, ‘Lord, I hate lard.’ Now the pastor was growing concerned. Without missing a beat, the farmer continued, ‘and Lord, you know I don’t much care for raw white flour’. The visitor peeped out again. Some of the others around him were looking uncomfortable. Then the farmer added, ‘But Lord, when you mix them all together and bake them, I do love warm fresh biscuits. ‘So Lord, when things come up that we don’t like, when life gets hard and we don’t understand what you’re saying to us, Lord help us to just relax and wait until you’re done with mixing. It will probably be even better than biscuits. Amen.’ My friends, God has the bigger picture, all of creation awaits the unfolding of his purpose and design. We need to pray, ‘here am I’, then lay our burdens on him because we need to be that cry in the wilderness, that hand reaching out, and we must not be weighed down with doubts and anxieties for the future. We need to be one-trick ponies in prayer, not because God demands it of us, but because he lays on our hearts the needs of the world around us. We know what his commitment cost John, yet he was prepared to pursue his calling to the end. Like him, we need to endure. There is no better way to pray than to place oneself like Mary in an attitude of openness, with a heart open to God: ‘Lord, what you want, when you want, and how you want.’ That is a heart open to God’s will. That is the true ‘here am I’. And God always responds. And a final word from Peter, from the Epistle that was read earlier: ‘Therefore beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish, and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.’ God bless you in your walk with him this Advent.