Please read Isaiah 40 and Mark 1
A six-year old girl asked her father, the pastor, why before preaching a sermon he always bowed his head in a moment of silence.
“Well, my dear,” the pastor answered his daughter, “before I preach I ask God to help me preach a good sermon.”
“But Daddy,” the daughter responded, “You’ve been praying that prayer for a long time already. Why hasn’t God answered it?”
Indeed, why do we pray? What kind of answer are we looking for? Praying is often what we do when there’s nothing left for us to do. When we have to wait.
Advent is about watching and waiting. During this season of anticipation, we say we wait for Christmas to come. If you’d ask a child, this means looking forward to presents, toys and the fun of getting more stuff wrapped up under the Christmas tree.
I suspect to a large extent even we adults never really outgrow this kind of waiting. We look forward to the next thing we can get for ourselves — an education, a job, a spouse, a child, a house, a vacation, more stuff. As we age we wait to be rewarded, to receive accolades, fame, the latest toy, whatever it may be …. Waiting is basically motivated by self-gratification; that is, obtaining something more for ourselves.
But time soon runs out on us. Our lives progress to a point where if we are going to wait, and wait well, waiting must soon become something else. Our waiting needs to be transformed into a self-giving motif rather than a selfish one. If it isn’t our natural ageing and nearing prospect of our death that propels us towards this maturity, than it must be the grace of God, regardless of our age.
So, why will we wait? Perhaps the answer to this question lies in response to another question that may be a tad easier to answer: For what do we ask this Advent time in which we wait for the coming celebration of “God with us” — Emmanuel?
When I was about ten years old my parents asked my brother and me to think about a special request to bring to the manger, to the baby Jesus. I was instructed NOT to ask Jesus for a toy or any “stuff”. It was a challenge for me to think of a prayer that was a bit more substantial than asking for some ‘thing’ for myself.
For what do we ask from our Lord this coming season? More stuff? More money? More material blessings? Or, are our prayers more focused on our health, protection and safety? Whatever it is, our prayers are key to understanding the true desire of our hearts.
The Lord’s Prayer is a good place to start for guidance on how to pray, for what to ask, and how to wait. When the disciples didn’t know how to pray, they asked Jesus to teach them. And he taught them. If you look carefully at all the petitions of the Our Father, most of the verses have to do with who God is, what God will do, or what we ask of God. Except for one line.
In the most beloved prayer of Christianity, the only thing we say we will do, is forgive others. “…. as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Of all the things we want to do, of all the things we think we need or must do as Christians, forgiveness is fundamental here. Forgiveness is what we wait for. Forgiveness is what we do. Forgiveness is what we give.
Why will we wait this Advent? We are given this time to contemplate the state of our hearts. Because forgiveness starts as a quality of the inner life. We are given this time to reflect, affirm and practice our God-given capacity to give forgiveness, to receive it, to be generous with our lives, in the love and grace of God. Especially where there is need.
The Attawapiskat community on the shores of James Bay in northern Ontario has been in the news recently when the town government declared a state of emergency. The deplorable conditions in which the people there live look a lot like what we see in the developing world, and would never at first think this could happen in our own backyard — in Canada!
We’ve heard much analysis and argument about how this came to be. So many reasons that only justify our inaction: the government is at fault since they knew about this for a long time; the first nations people can’t take care of themselves and modern infrastructure; the economy does not support their way of life and vice versa; cultural disconnects; ongoing abuses — you name it. We can sit here and argue about it while human beings hundreds of miles north of this very place will die this winter.
The only real solution right now, is grace. We need to give. Our relatively rich society in southern Canada needs to give so that they in the north will not suffer any more.
A quality of forgiveness and grace — indeed the Christian life — is “letting go”, releasing the other person from your anger, releasing yourself from whatever binds you. The quality of letting go of controlling the outcomes of our efforts to manage life for our own benefit, on our own terms.
Richard Rohr writes about the Cherokee chiefs who said to their young braves, “Why do you spend your time in brooding? Don’t you know you are being driven by great winds across the sky?” Rohr continues to write: Don’t you know you’re part of a much bigger pattern? But you’re not in control of it, any more than you would be of great winds. You and I are a small part of a much bigger mystery. (Everything Belongs, page 120)
Father Jack Costello, a Jesuit priest and President of Regis College in Toronto said about the work of the Holy Spirit — often described as a great wind — “the Holy Spirit gives us freedom, peace, and makes us courageous and reckless people.”
I often imagine John the Baptist an exemplar of the above description of someone “reckless” in God’s grace and Spirit. John the Baptist came announcing the coming Lord and repentence for the forgiveness of sin (Mark 1:4). He came proclaiming that he and the powers of the world were not in charge. Our lives are not governed by human history. What we experience in our lives – good and bad – is not the work of our hands alone.
Rather, our lives are part of God’s history, God’s story of salvation. The world and history is governed by God, who will make in “the rough places a plain”, the “uneven ground level” who will “lift up every valley” and make “every mountain and hill low” (Isaiah 40). Our lives are in God’s hands.
The true message of Advent is a shock to the system: The message of Advent is about God’s decision to let go. God decided to release His Son into the world. God decided to self-disclose. God decided to make God-self vulnerable by becoming fully human. What a huge risk! What a divine letting-go!
What if waiting this Advent was NOT motivated by the prospect and illusion of what more I can get for myself? What if waiting this Advent was about what I would let go of this Christmas. What can I give of myself and let go of? — for the sake of my family, my community, my church, my nation, my world?
After all, it is God’s church, God’s community, God’s nation and God’s world to begin with!
Thanks be to God! Amen.