Two Advent themes should bring us to our feet this season: surprise and waiting. In our hurried, harassed lives, we are probably prepared for neither.
With WikiLeaks heaping a deluge of information on us, another round of surprises is not on our wish list. It’s a little hard to take seriously the gospel writer of Matthew in chapter 24 when we are told to “keep awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.” For some of the world’s leaders, the Second Coming has already happened—what with all their diplomatic blunders held up for all to see. For them, judgement, with all of its surprises, has already come.
Rather, we might be rushing to tie down the hatches of our crazy world, resonating instead with the Psalmist (Psalm 46) when, looking to a God who can stabilize things, cries out that “the nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts” (as in volcanos, or floods in Pakistan, or earthquakes in Haiti).”
Despite all this, continues the writer, “the Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.” Now that’s the real surprise! With a world reeling from natural and political disasters, with the Internet spewing out more information than we can possibly digest, integrate or care about, is the God whom we claim is in charge of all this really our refuge?
That is exactly the point. And that’s the surprise of this Advent season. The world has not really changed since the Psalmist’s time. He, or she, too, seemed overwhelmed with catastrophic events over which there was little control—in the parlance of that ancient culture—kingdoms crashing, enemies winning, Jerusalem (their city of God) in ruins, shipwrecks, fools in charge, bloodshed and banishment. A smaller, less developed world, yes, but one just as much in disarray as ours in December 2010.
What we are called to do during Advent is to change our lenses, to view events not as they appear in a fatalistic, deterministic frame, but with a different perspective—a God-is-eternal timeline, rather than a 24-hour-cable news cycle. The writing in the Bible we hold so close to our hearts is often apocalyptic, or full of hidden meaning, often communicated in the language of poetry with deeper, sometimes mystic messages.
And it should, as Lynn Bergsma Friesen suggested in a recent sermon, bug us a little, or at the very least give us pause. This is not easy or instant. You can’t just go online and Google an answer. It is a discipline, requiring moments of silence, contemplation, spiritual focus, audible and inaudible prayers, searching for direction. This looking for the surprises, or what God is really doing, is not escape, not a default to resignation or collapse, but an active search, the unwrapping of God’s gift from under the Christmas tree.
All of which requires waiting, another virtue fast disappearing in the age of the Internet, fast food and full work/church/business/school schedules. In a self-obsessed culture, waiting appears to be counter-productive and distracting, lessening our chances of success because opportunities are short-lived.
But wait a minute. Take some time to review the details of the story of Mary, Joseph and cousin Elizabeth as recorded in the Luke account. Bewildered by the angel’s announcement, Mary, fearing reprisals that were sure to come from friends and neighbours in that ancient Palestinian culture, takes the time to travel to her cousin’s house for reassurance, perhaps even safety.
In those moments of waiting, it was verified by an extended family member that God was in this event in a special way. Mary erupts with, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my saviour, for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.” It was worth the wait, amid all of her misgivings, fears and anxiety.
This kind of waiting, too, is a discipline, a serious process Eugene Peterson describes as “growing communities that are patient, courageously committed to witness and work in the kingdom of God no matter how long it takes, or how much it costs.”