God Does Not Come As We Expect
1st Sunday Advent 2020, Isaiah 64
And so the clock turns and a new church year begins today, not with Jools Holland’s Hootenany and fireworks of New Years, but with Advent. With a season of waiting. A season that acknowledges our darkness and our need of the light. A season when we look forward to celebrating Jesus’ first coming and looking further forward to anticipating his second coming when he will judge and reveal all things. Advent bids us come wait and dare to be expectant.
Waiting is rather an apt summary for what we’ve been doing already this past 9 months, we’ve already been living an advent season through the many challenges of the pandemic. We are living an advent like no other, this year of 2020. And in the darkness there have been shafts of light: the peace and birdsong and connection with nature of lockdown 1, the solidarity and recognition of the roles our society actually needs and must value more, and recently the good news of the vaccine; but much of this year has been an experience of powerlessness, of deferred hope, of loss, a grinding down that leaves us wanting to shout pray the words of Isaiah 64:
“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, that the mountains would quake at your presence”
God, come, come and do something. Come and be present, show yourself, change this pain we are living through. Isaiah is the mouthpiece for Israel’s cry, a people returned from exodus in Babylon, but finding God noticeably absent.
Tear the heavens God and come down. It’s a prayer my heart frequently echoes, God this hurts, this year hurts, please come and do something. Hope has felt hard to find, expectancy almost too vulnerable a thing to engage with.
As we’ve come face to face with our own, and indeed humanity’s powerlessness and mortality this year, we may have begun to ask – just where is God in all this? Rowan Williams, as ever, has something to say that distills the heart of the issue: ‘In advent (or 2020) we recognize our poverty, that we cannot talk or touch ourselves into life, that deep poverty of the imagination which can only stand helplessly before the outrages and miseries of the world, at a loss for a word of meaning or a word of hope to speak.’
Recognizing our poverty and our powerlessness is actually no bad thing, painful though it may be, for it opens up vulnerability within us and our vision is changed, giving us eyes that might better see the God who came to us in vulnerability.
“O that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would quake at your presence”
This need, this urge and cry for God that Isaiah expresses is a familiar one is it not, we want saving from pain by something bigger, stronger, more powerfully in charge than we are, and we want to win against whoever and whatever is our enemy of the moment – be that covid or those we think as in the wrong, and there are many fingers we’ve pointed this eyar. We remember this desire from childhood scrapes and wanting an adult to intervene, to make it better and tell the other party off, we see that narrative at work on a macro scale in global politics and the rise of the populist leader, promising they are stronger than the others and will make it all better again, make America great again. We see it in our judgements of our government’s handling of the covid crisis, our expectation that they should sort it out and control it, but a pandemic which is by its very nature something we can’t actually really control, and that’s really hard when we pretty used to controlling and manipulating the world and its systems to suit us.
Advent, if we’re to use a bit of unvarnished language offers a chance to challenge our tendencies to idolatry – the mis-steps we make of looking either to our earthly leaders to save us, to make it all better, or expecting that God’s saving actions will look like those we know of decent earthly leaders only magnified plus plus – that God should be a cosmic strongman if you like, on our side, answering prayer right now in the way we think best. We do have a habit of projecting onto God these images of how we think he should act.
So our gaze is elsewhere, distracted from the places, spaces and people where we might instead see love in action, see God being God. Advent allows a refocusing so we might again encounter the surprising ways of the love of God in the incarnation.
Because the thing is, God did show Godself. Coming not as the cosmic strongman but as vulnerable baby. And here is the secret of our faith, the secret that Advent reminds us of – God comes, but not as we expect. Israel expected a messianic powerful king type figure, who would deliver them from political oppression, a David, if you like.
God in flesh, came not as king, not as powerful, but powerless, entirely dependent, a baby, without speech, without pomp. It’s a lesson I forget as much as I remember it, God came as vulnerability incarnate – what kind of God is this?. Jesus Christ is the definitive example of how God works. Rending the heavens looks like needing milk, needing shelter, needing human touch, God arrived enlisting love and partnership from us. Hope arrived and it was a baby.
As we’ll be meditating on the poems of RS Thomas this Advent with our Advent book, the Frequencies of God, it seems only appropriate to read it:
And God held in his hand
A small globe. Look he said.
The son looked. Far off,
As through water, he saw
A scorched land of fierce
Colour. The light burned
There; crusted buildings
Cast their shadows: a bright
Serpent, A river
Uncoiled itself, radiant
On a bare
Hill a bare tree saddened
The sky. many People
Held out their thin arms
To it, as though waiting
For a vanished April
To return to its crossed
Boughs. The son watched
Them. Let me go there, he said.
Israel was a small, divided, often oppressed and enslaved nation, yet it was to this marginal
people that God revealed Godself. It was not in the whirlwind or the fire that God revealed Godself, but in the sound of sheer silence. God does not come as we expect.
God chose not to be born among us in a place of wealth or a place of power, but to an unwed teenage refugee, God incarnate began his life as a refugee, powerless and poor and dependent on a young couple, from a nowhere rural village. God does not come as we expect.
I’m pretty sure the return of Jesus will not look like we expect either. Our imaginations may have been formed by the other book the church often reads at this time of year – Revelation. It’s pictures of a rider on a white horse with a sword in his mouth, of fiery lakes of judgement belie its true message, that Jesus conquered through not fighting, not through marshalling the hoards of heaven or riders of the apocalypse, Jesus conquered through the word of his testimony and through laying down his life. God does not come as we expect.
Advent is a time to retrain and refocus our vision as to where we might see God at work today, to recognize that as much as we want God to rend the heavens and come down and act with mighty deeds, God surprises and circumvents our misplaced desires, coming instead with vulnerability, enlisting us in partnership, offering us trust. God is to be found in the hidden and missed places, Jesus is after all the one who stops in the midst of crowds and notices the blind beggar being shushed and kept hidden, or invites himself to tea with the one judged and shunned by society like Zaccheaus. Henri Nouwen, the great writer priest found after a life of searching that God spoke most profoundly to his soul through Adam, an autistic man without the power of speech or ability to do anything for himself. God does not come as we expect.
So this advent, this year of 2020, let us think again about what we think we are waiting for. What kind of God are we looking for, one in our own image, or our projections of a cosmic strongman, or the God who surprises us in vulnerability, to be found in the hidden, the marginal, the powerless places, ready to elicit love, to meet our vulnerability with trust, with the dignity and gift of partnership. God does indeed come, indeed is already here, we just need our vision adjusting that we might see and recognize the God who is everywhere.
Maranatha, Come Lord Jesus Come.
Pippa White, Advent 1, Nov 29th, 2020.