Behold, I prepare the way!

“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.

“No.”

“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)

  1. Jeremiah 33:14-16
  2. John 14:8-9
  3. Kosuke Koyama, “Three Mile An Hour God” (SCM Press, 2015)
  4. Society of Saint John the Evangelist (SSJE) “Longing – Brother, Give Us A Word” (3 December 2018), http://www.ssje.org
  5. Isaiah 43:19

Postscript: On December 13, the part finally arrived! And, it seems to work. Well worth the wait!

The hide-and-seek God

There is enough in the world today and in our own lives to seriously doubt the presence of a God, let alone a God who cares about what happens on earth.

“Where is God?” is a question that is emerging in our understanding of God in the modern era. It is a question, Diana Butler Bass asserts, that is growing in sad frequency in recent years:

“’Where is God?’” she writes, “arose from the rubble of the World Trade Center; from the inundated villages of tsunami-ravaged Thailand and Indonesia; from New Orleans, as the levees breaking swept all that was familiar out to sea; from African hamlets where the dead mount from Ebola; from the hidden, abused, and lost victims of human trafficking and slavery; from killing fields in any number of nations where war seems endless; and from native peoples watching their homelands sink into the earth or ocean due to melting tundra or rising seas.

“‘Where is God?’ has echoed from every corner of the planet in recent years… ‘Where is God’ is one of the most consequential questions of our times.”[1]

“The Jewish tradition tells a story of a rabbi whose young son once came running to him, crying inconsolably. Between huge sobs, he managed to say, ‘Father, I’ve been playing hide-and-seek with the other children. It came my turn to hide, but after I found a good place, I sat there in the woods for hours waiting for the others to find me. No one ever yelled into the woods to tell me to come out. They just left me there alone.’

“His father put his arms around the child and held him close, rocking him back and forth. ‘Ah, my son,’ he said, ‘that’s how it is with God, too. God is always hiding, hoping that people will come to look for him. But no one wants to play. He’s always left alone, wanting to be found, hoping someone will come. But crying because no one seeks him out.’”[2]

The very first words of God recorded in the Bible to human beings are: “Where are you?”[3] Adam and Eve seem to be looking for God in the wrong places in the Garden of Eden. I hear a tone of exasperated grief in God’s call to Adam and Eve: “Where are you?”

Why does God appear to disappear from our vision, when the going gets tough? Theologians have described God through the centuries as a God who hides.[4] Why is God a hidden God? Not to mention, a God who cries because no one is out looking for this God?

Such a vulnerable vision of God disturbs us to the core. We would rather have a powerful, mighty, superman vision of God. We want a God who will win on the battlefield, stand victorious over all enemies of the faith, triumph over all our adversaries, and solve all our problems in life. Indeed, when we meet with suffering, disappointment and despair in life – as we most surely do and will – our prayer to God resonates with Isaiah’s:

“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence – as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil – to make your name known to your adversaries so that the nations might tremble at your presence!”[5]

And so, when the Israelites return from exile in Babylon in 586 B.C.E. to a ravaged and desolate Jerusalem, they are at a loss. Ruins and devastation lie where once a mighty temple stood.

Isaiah reflects the mood of the people in his lament to God, a prayer that echoes on our lips today: Why, O God, are you now not visibly nor powerfully present as you once were long ago? Why, O God, do you refuse to act powerfully and dramatically to rescue us from our distress? How can we reconcile the ancient, miraculous stories of your powerful presence with our current experience of your absence?

God hides, so to speak, in order to deconstruct a distorted set of beliefs about who God is. When God enters our humanity as a vulnerable, dependent baby born to teenage parents in a backwater town served by the likes of the low-class shepherds, God declares who God is. The hiddenness of God is not a cloak of humility temporarily covering an awesome powerful glory – a kind of Clark Kent/Superman act.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau revealed more than his wit last month on Parliament Hill when he unbuttoned his shirt in front of reporters exposing his Halloween costume underneath. He suggested a powerful image reflective of our belief and image of God.

So God hides to reveal the true, divine character. God is determined to relate to the world not as a superhero through domination and force. Instead, God is determined, even in our experience of God’s hiddenness, to demonstrate God’s way of non-coercive love and suffering service.

Listen to this rendition of hide-and-seek told reflectively by Belden Lane:

“When my daughter was very young, one of her favorite tricks in playing hide-and-seek was to pretend that she had run away to hide, and then to come sneaking back beside me while I was still counting – my eyes shut tight. She breathed as silently as she could, standing inches away, hoping I couldn’t hear. Then she’d take the greatest delight in reaching out to touch home base as soon as I opened my eyes and began to search for someone who’d never even left.

“She was cheating, of course, and though I don’t know why, I always let her get away with it. Was it because I longed so much for those few moments when we stood close together, pretending not to hear or be heard, caught up in a game that for an instant dissolved the distance between parent and child, that set us free to touch and seek and find each other? It was a simple, almost negligible act of grace, my not letting on that I knew she was there. Yet I suspect that in that one act my child may have mirrored God for me better than in any other way I’ve known.

Still to this day, it seems, God is for me a seven-year-old daughter, slipping back across the grass, holding her breath in check, wanting once again to surprise me with a presence closer than I ever expected. “Truly, thou art a God who hidest thyself,” the prophet Isaiah declared.[6] A playfulness as well as a dark mystery lies richly intertwined in that grand and complex truth.[7]

“Where is God?” Maybe God is right beside us. And if we can’t see, feel, or hear God’s presence, may this Advent Season of preparation and waiting and watching be dedicated to keep looking for God in our lives, who may very well be standing inches away.

“Keep calm, and keep looking” should be on a t-shirt worn by Christians in Advent. Because hidden amidst the décor, bustle and busyness of this season, you will find Jesus. This season of preparation is best served by slowing down, breathing and paying attention. Do you see? Do you perceive God?

Antoine de Saint-Exupery writes of waiting one night for a late flight to depart from a remote landing field in the Sahara desert. Feeling vaguely uneasy as he walked out into the desert air, he heard dragonflies striking their wings against an oil lamp nearby.

Back home in France, the flight of moths around a candle flame at night would have been perfectly common. No big deal. But in the desert the sudden presence of insects meant something entirely different. Swept hundreds of miles from their inland oases, the presence of dragonflies were clear signs of impending danger: A savage sandstorm was on its way, sweeping every living things before it.

Saint-Exupery was grateful for the warning that had come. But he was moved even more by the powerful experience of having been attentive: “What filled me with a barbaric joy was that I had understood a murmured monosyllabic of this secret language, had sniffed the air and known what was coming … it was that I had been able to read the anger of the desert in the beating of a dragonfly.”[8]

“Keep awake!” are Jesus’ words to his disciples, and the call sign for Advent. Keep calm and pay attention. Keep looking for the God who may not be hidden in our expectations of grandeur and spectacle. But in the beating of a bird’s wings.

God’s refusal to replicate a mighty Red Sea –dividing deliverance when Isaiah laments centuries later does not mean God has abandoned Israel, nor us. God’s mode of action looks more like that of an artist or parent than that of the superhero. Both the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah use the image of God as the potter and we the clay.[9]

God, hidden in human form, comes not to inaugurate an apocalyptic cleansing of spectacular proportions. But God comes to reveal the power of the powerless in Jesus of the manger and Jesus on the cross. In so doing, Christ reveals the will of God, who is eternally and patiently molding and shaping the clay of creation into the New Jerusalem.

[1] Diana Butler Bass, “Finding God in the World: A Spiritual Revolution” (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2017), p.7-8

[2] Belden C. Lane – “The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality” (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1998), p.180 – cites Jerome R. Mintz in “Legends of Hassidim (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968), p.344

[3] Genesis 3:9

[4] Martin Luther and Dietrich Bonhoeffer both describe God as ‘hidden’. See Scott Bader-Saye in “Feasting on the Word”, ibid., p.2-6; and, “Luther’s Works” edited by Jaroslav Pelikan (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1964) Volume 4: Lectures on Genesis, chaps 21-25, p.115-122

[5] Isaiah 64:1-2

[6] Isaiah 45:15, KJV

[7] Belden C. Lane, ibid., p.181

[8] Antoine de Saint-Exupery, “Wind, Sand and Stars” (Toronto: Penguin Books, 2000), p.52-53; cited in Belden C. Lane, ibid., p.190

[9] Isaiah 64:8; Jeremiah 18

Finding the Gospel in The End

‘Each year I visit the doctor for my annual physical, and for no apparent reason. That is, I make an appointment, pay for parking, sit in the waiting room, and then have a complete physical examination. This is done all in order for a team of medical professionals to measure my wellness.

It is not entirely a comfortable experience. And I confess that I often want to avoid it. However, heart disease runs in my family.’ (1) And so the medical tends to focus on the coronary aspects of my physiology — blood pressure is scrutinized and cholesterol levels are monitored. And when I’m done, I have a picture — a snap shot — of my overall health. If medications or therapies have to be employed, I comply, to ensure my long-term wellness. The check-up, after all, could save my life.

These apocalyptic stories in the bible about the end times give an answer to an age old question: How can I be saved? How can I get to heaven?

In this Gospel reading (Matthew 25:31-46), an answer is given, to be sure. But it’s given as a wellness check. Its purpose is not to condemn or scare, but to provide a snapshot of our overall health. Its purpose is to lead us to new habits and ways of life. After all, as our doctor wants us to flourish, so does our Creator, Redeemer, Judge, and King.

So, how are we saved? “All the nations will be gathered before him” (Matthew 25:32). The text opens with a vision of glory: Christ the King sits enthroned above all people on earth, to be their judge.

And yet, we cannot ignore where the rest of this passage goes. That is, discovering God in exactly the unexpected, opposite places from where a God would normally be found.

Not in glory, but in humility. Not enthroned, but enslaved and imprisoned. Not in the mighty and spectacular, but in the meek and gentle.

Moreover, God is discovered. God is not attained, by all our toiling in good works to “find God” in our self-centred projects. In fact, the sheep — ‘the good guys’ (i.e. the righteous ones) — are surprised to hear they had indeed cared for the King of Creation.

They were not aware, in their sharing of love to the disadvantaged and poor, that they were serving Christ. They just shared who they were with what little they had, freely and without expectation nor calculation.

It is clear, from this Gospel text that in God’s Reign, Jesus is looking for people naturally sharing their love with others — a free outflow of love — rather than calculated efforts designed to achieve a pre-determined result or image. This is not management-by-objective. Nor is it ‘the ends justify the means’.

I think it was Albert Einstein who said that we can’t solve a problem by using the same kind of thinking that caused the problem in the first place. In other words, we can’t move forward with solutions into the new thing God is doing using a frame of mind that also contributed to creating the fix we find ourselves in today.

Being religious, if we are not aware of it, can easily be co-oped by prevailing cultural norms — such as: dividing people into different groups, operating according to a tit-for-tat, either-or perspectives. It’s funny, when I think about it, what image first comes to mind in this Gospel story about the final judgement — and has endured from the first time I learned it as a child — is this image of dividing the sheep from the goats. That’s the dominant image, not clothing the naked and visiting the imprisoned. No, it’s all about ‘dividing and conquering’. It’s about winners and losers. Am I in? Or, am I out?

Religious history can be tracked by seeing how much ways of thinking employed to solve certain problems have only exacerbated them over time. Because the same frame of mind was used. Indeed, it is always easier to come up with solutions ‘designed’ to help others but are really only motivated by our own needs instead of a self-less orientation to working with and loving others.

Today, it seems hard to imagine that Muslims, Jews, and Christians can ever find peace on earth with one another. And yet, in Canada anyway, I believe we have an opportunity to witness to the world how it can be done. Jews, Muslims, Christians, Hindus — and all manner of religious expressions — can work together to love one another and those who are disadvantaged and underprivileged.

In Canada, at least, we live in a multi-cultural, diverse society; different world religions are not going away! They are here to stay! The challenge is co-existence, not eradication of difference, nor coercion towards ‘same-mindedness’. The solution is not to just exercise more power over our opponent. Be better, stronger, faster, louder. And have a competition, a religious ‘food-fight’.

Matthew 24:10-14 is another passage that describes the ‘end time’; it reads: “Then many will fall away, and they will betray one another and hate one another, and … the love of many will grow cold.” This suggests that growing antagonism and cooling love are among the most dangerous cancers of the heart facing followers of Christ. This involves ‘distancing’ ourselves from others who are different from us.

But it is possible to work together. The vision from Matthew 25 is concrete, not other-worldly. It involves clothing the naked, visiting those in prison, and providing for basic needs. That’s where we start. In the case of providing and advocating for affordable housing, for example, people of faith today, in Ottawa, can collaborate and cooperate — despite our differing creeds and doctrines — to fulfill Jesus’ vision.

Could it be, that the glory of Jesus includes you, who may be a loser in the eyes of the world? Could it be, that the kingdom — the glorious reign of Christ — includes you, too — the poor, the downtrodden, the marginalized and the underprivileged?

We may not like warnings or wellness checks; after all, they ask us to recalibrate our lives. However, they do provide a critical wellness overview that we are wise to tend, Particularly because ‘heart trouble’ plagues us all.

I believe we can show the world how it can be done! That all nations, and all classes of people, can indeed gather together, live together, stand together and serve together before the throne of grace. This is a win-win scenario. Let’s work together for the Reign of love in Christ Jesus!

And leave the rest to God.

(1) Many thanks to Lindsay Armstrong for the opening illustration about the medical exam as an image for preaching this Gospel text, in “Feasting on the Word” eds Bartlett and Taylor, Year A Volume 4 WJK Press, Kentucky, 2011, p.333-337