A slightly belated Advent post, the text of a talk a couple of weeks ago. This owes huge thanks to Paula Gooder’s The Meaning is in the Waiting for inspiration!
Who likes waiting? Not many of us. The thing about waiting is that we usually know what we’re waiting for. It can be very frustrating when we don’t know how long we’re waiting (like on a stuck train) or what the reasons for waiting are.
Advent is an odd time: we’re waiting for something that has already happened – Whats the point of that? We’re waiting to celebrate the first coming of Jesus, which happened about 2000 years ago. But we’re also waiting (still) for the second. It’s a waiting that is turned inside on itself
The passage I want to think about is from the Old Testament, written about 600 years before Jesus was born, by Isaiah, one of the prophets.
Although it was written so long before Jesus, it is still a traditional advent reading and is often heard in carol services. This is because it is thought to refer to Jesus’ coming
Isaiah was speaking at a time when the Jews had been conquered. The residents of Jerusalem had been dragged away to live in Babylon – over 500 miles away. They were forced to live in there and because of this, they felt that they had been abandoned by God.
Suddenly, these words puncture their existence and give them hope:
Comfort, comfort my people,
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and proclaim to her
that her hard service has been completed,
that her sin has been paid for,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins. (Is 40:1-2)
Speaking into their present, it is quite clearly saying that there will be a time in their future (but our history) when their exile will come to an end – that their time of abandonment is coming to an end. Soon God would be coming back to them. The next thing Isaiah says is this:
A voice of one calling:
“In the wilderness prepare
the way for the Lord;
make straight in the desert
a highway for our God. (verse 3)
In other words “God is coming back to you – Make a path for God to come… ” And they did eventually return to Jerusalem and resume worship in the temple.
But we also know this passage as something else. The “voice of one calling in the wilderness” became known as the voice of the one who would precede the coming of the Messiah. You and I know him as John the Baptist, born shortly before Jesus and who ministered before Jesus went public.
So in one passage, they are waiting for God to return to them in their near future, as well as for someone to precede the coming of Jesus in their more distant future.
A couple of verses later we get something which is different again – pointing even further forward:
Every valley shall be raised up,
every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level,
the rugged places a plain.
And the glory of the Lord will be revealed,
and all people will see it together.
For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” (verses 4-5)
That sounds pretty good doesn’t it!
On this side of Jesus’ birth, in one sense, we have seen God’s glory in Jesus, and God’s kingdom is present. In another sense the full glory of God fully transforming creation is yet to happen. God’s Kingdom is still to be fully realised. And this will only happen when Jesus comes again.
Advent is about remembering all those things. We wait for the day when we remember, the fulfilment of the prophecy of the coming of Jesus – we celebrate his birth 2000 years ago. We also wait and look forward to the final coming of God’s kingdom, the ultimate transforming of society at Jesus’ return, when all pain and injustice is wiped away.
Advent invites us to hold those two things in tension. By looking forward and backward we are anchored in the present, and we ask, where is Jesus in the present. We can look for signs of God’s transformation in the present. This week we’ve been remembering Nelson Mandela, who after 27 years in prison left his bitterness and desire for revenge behind. He came out speaking worlds of peace and reconciliation and enabled his nation to move past the past and begin to forgive one another. Surely this is an example of God’s kingdom being seen in the present. We look for these things, and, as we wait, we participate in them.
Where are the signs of God’s Kingdom all around us?
“Waiting for the future involves a recognition of what the world might be and the resolve to bring our part of it one step closer. Yet again waiting becomes active: waiting for the future involves transforming the present.” Gooder