I want to share with you an entry from my journal during Advent one year while I was working on my PhD. I was serving in a parish, a small, struggling parish part-time. If I’m perfectly honest, I felt useless. I tried ministries that just fizzled; there was no energy to sustain things. I thought: “I don’t know how to manage the decline, how to change course, what will motivate or move them.” And in the midst of real despair not just about that moment but about having chosen to study theology, and having been dragged kicking into parish ministry, I thought: “I need to get out of here.”
Before I could do that, I had to preach though. And then I read this Sunday’s lesson from the prophet Isaiah: “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord's hand double for all her sins.” “[when Christ comes] the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.
And it struck me, it shook me out of my own fear and frustration: Christ comes right into the middle of this world - and not from a distance but from its very barnyards and city streets he is caught up in the same rush, the furor, the frustration, the anxiety, the anger, the push and pull on our time, on our energy, on our intellects and on our very souls. He knows our longing and our frailty not because he merely watches us from a distance, but because He, God himself, comes as a baby and grows into a man suffering my own challenges, not far off but in the core of my own life, or your own life, of all of our lives.
This one who is God comes into a world “where people are like grass that withers.” Where we are weak and fragile, where we fail and are often at a loss, where we can only work so much and for so long, where we can only get through so much in a day without collapsing, where we only have a bit of knowledge or know-how. This God of ours comes not just once, but every single moment of every day. He comes to give rest to our weary souls, that like grass, cannot change the world. Only “the Word of our God will stand forever.” He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.
When I read this passage, bound as it is in our lectionary to John’s and Peter’s messages, I suddenly realized that repentance wasn’t about punishment or being worthless or useless in my work or in my life. Repentance was actually about letting go of my own self judgement, letting go of allowing others to judge me. It was about doing what was in front of me for that day. For all my projections, all my presumptions about what should be and all my judgments and all my fears are indeed like grass that is blown away. What will remain is God's doing.
I’d also just finished reading a book about the first century spread of Christianity across Asia. It spread rapidly, but over time, in many places, the presence of the Church was reduced to nothing or to mere embers of a fire for thousands of years. Now, however, in some of those places it was extinguished as it lost the thread of ties to its tradition and was absorbed into its culture, Christianity has blossomed; it’s as if the seeds were planted and merely lay dormant until God fanned the flames by chastening them with his Holy Spirit, subjecting them to their own iniquity, causing them to cry out for him, to open themselves to him.
What if that is what God is doing here and now, I thought. Maybe that’s what I’m here for: to plant seeds that I will never see grow. Not to sustain or grow, but to plant seeds that God one day grows. To shrink my appetite for egoistic control that gets soaked in self righteous anger at myself and at others and to allow God to chasten my sense of deep despair that I accomplish nothing so that I can become a catalyst for God to grow later … perhaps this is what John the Baptist means when he says, “make straight the paths of the Lord”: let go and let God lead you, his sheep, his frail creature, in keeping his field fertile in his time.
Then this week as I was preparing for some of our Advent classes and worship, I came across a reflection written by a Jesuit priest, Fr. Alfred Delp, in 1945, right before he was hanged for his opposition to Hitler. He writes: “Here is the message of Advent: faced with him who is the Last, the world will begin to shake. Only when we do not cling to false securities will our eyes be able to see this Last One and get to the bottom of things. Only then will we be able to guard our life from the frights and terrors into which God the Lord has let the world sink to teach us, so that we may awaken from sleep, as Paul says, and see that it is time to repent, time to change things ... the world today needs people who have been shaken by ultimate calamities and emerged from them with the knowledge and awareness that those who look to the Lord will still be preserved by him even if they are hounded from the earth."
We are reckoning again with our own calamities today: global and personal. God lets the world sink into its own iniquities so that we might be shaken from our false idols that create those calamities. Shaken into a recognition that the world, this city, this parish, even our own lives, do not first belong to us. They are God’s. He is the only one who endures, and so we endure only as we give ourselves over to him. If that is so, if we can rest from making the world, or this city, or this church, or even our own lives in our own image, what might God be calling us to do instead? Amen