“Behold, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me … “ (Malachi 3:1).
It was the day after my birthday at the end of October, that the tree arrived. Much earlier than I expected all the way from Idaho. But I wanted to make sure this artificial tree, which was billed as the most realistic Balsam Fir on the market, would get all the way to Canada during a postal strike in time to decorate. The end of October was much too early for me, but at least you might say I was preparing well. Or, so I thought.
Meaning, I was getting things done early. I was on top of all the planning and busy preparations. In so doing, I was convincing myself that I was doing the preparation that Advent calls for.
Well, it’s the 2nd Sunday in Advent and the tree is still not decorated. In fact half of it does not light up. For all of November and almost half of December, I have sat in my chair in our living room, looking at an empty tree waiting for the replacement part to arrive. According to tracking, it’s supposed to arrive tomorrow. Pray for me.
It hasn’t been easy sitting there throughout this time looking at a tree that was supposed to be perfect but wasn’t. It was broken. It hasn’t been easy looking every day at that tree that was supposed to be decorated and functioning perfectly already but wasn’t. It hasn’t been easy talking on the phone umpteen times with the company about what was wrong with the wiring. It hasn’t been easy waiting for things to happen that should already have. It hasn’t been easy looking at what has become a symbol not of my good intentions, my industrious, conscientious hard work paid off; but, instead, a symbol of imperfection, failure and frustration.
One of the messages of Advent is that we must prepare the way of the Lord in our hearts and in this world. How, then, are we to prepare for the Lord’s coming? How are we to prepare, if not just upping our efforts at getting stuff done—the more efficient the better, the faster the better?
In several scriptures assigned for Advent, we encounter a unique word: “Behold!” Today, the command is to behold, my messenger comes to prepare the way. I prefer this old English translation in the King James Version which preserves an important nuance of this biblical command to behold. This is very similar to the behold from last week, from the prophet Jeremiah, commanding us to behold that the days are coming when God will fulfill God’s promises. (1) In other words, God is about to do something.
At least in today’s reading from the Hebrew scripture, the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) opens with the more common, “See!” But we can work with that! In fact, that is not bad. When Philip asks Jesus, “Show us the Father”, Jesus responds, “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.” (2) Throughout the Gospels, the message is that in Jesus, we see God.
But, really see. That’s why ‘behold’ is better. Not just ‘look at.’ Not just a sidelong glance. Not just looking at someone askance, in passing. Not just the surface of how he looks. But to perceive Jesus, to look into the heart of the Lord. To ‘behold’ God. To be in and contemplate the presence of the One who comes to us. The One we cannot fully understand.
God is about to do something. When? Where? How? So, behold God—the One we cannot fully understand who comes nevertheless. Behold the mystery.
The story shared with me was of a lonely widower who was told by his friends that he ought to get a dog. So he goes to a pet shop to see what’s available.
“Have you ever owned a dog before?” the saleswoman asks.
“Are you prepared to take it out for a walk two or three times a day?”
“I hadn’t really thought of that. I just wanted a little companionship.”
“That companionship requires something from you, no?” the saleswoman mused out loud.
“Listen,” she broke the awkward silence between them, “if you really want companionship, I’ll show you a talking centipede for about the same price.”
“You must be joking.”
“No, I’m serious, and what’s more, this little guy can even sing.” She leads the customer to a miniature house, and in front of it, in a barely visible lawn chair, is the centipede. Turning to the tiny creature, she says, “Would you say something for this man so he’ll know you can talk?”
“Okay,” says the centipede in a very soft voice. “What would you like me to say?”
“That’s fine,” says the saleswoman. “And can you show him your singing voice?”
“Of course,” says the centipede, who breaks into a barely audible rendition of “Sweet Caroline.”
The man can’t believe it. He buys the centipede and the tiny house and brings them home.
Later that day, he calls out, “I’m going for a coffee and I’d love to introduce you to my friends at Tim Hortons. Would you like to come along?”
The centipede does not answer. He repeats the questions, and again there’s no answer.
He decides to ask one more time. He goes right up to the little house and says in a loud voice, “For the last time, I’m going out for a coffee. Would you like to come along?”
“I heard you the first time,” quietly says the centipede. “I’m just putting on my boots.”
Beholding God requires something of us. It calls us to get in sync with where God likely is and how God tends to work. We are called to interface with the presence of God. Admittedly, this is challenging for us because, as one Japanese theologian remarked, God, like the centipede, is going three miles an hour. (3) How fast are we going?
The refining fire of growth and change is not waiting for us to feel good about it. This Advent, we are simply called to behold the mystery of God’s ways and respond from the heart to the truth of how God is revealed to us. And trust, that in God’s time and ways, all that’s good will come to pass in our lives and in this world.
It might be counterintuitive but a better way to prepare during this season might very well be to slow down and be silent more. To listen for what God is already whispering into your own soul. And to see what God is already doing all around you.
I’m not saying that preparing is not a good thing to do. But, inevitably, times come in life when no amount of preparation can prepare you for what you must endure. So, you wait.
And, in the waiting, you may find some time to acknowledge what is missing in your soul—“your longing desires, your deepest needs, the questions where you don’t, yet, have answers.” (4)
And, then, pray in the awareness that God knows. And, in the end, it is not my or your preparation that is the most important during this time of Advent, but God’s. God is already preparing your soul for its healing and wholeness once again.
“Behold! I am about to do a new thing,” God says. “Do you not see it?” (5)
- Jeremiah 33:14-16
- John 14:8-9
- Kosuke Koyama, “Three Mile An Hour God” (SCM Press, 2015)
- Society of Saint John the Evangelist (SSJE) “Longing – Brother, Give Us A Word” (3 December 2018), http://www.ssje.org
- Isaiah 43:19
Postscript: On December 13, the part finally arrived! And, it seems to work. Well worth the wait!