John 1:6-8 & 19-23
The Advent wind begins to stir
With sea-like sounds in our Scotch fir,
It’s dark at breakfast, dark at tea,
And in between we only see
Clouds hurrying across the sky
And rain-wet roads the wind blows dry
And branches bending to the gale
Against great skies all silver pale
So begins John Betjeman’s poem Advent 1955.
It’s a dark time of year, nature is entering its dormant period as the gloom gathers. The trees are leafless, inert; offering no promise unless you know their life cycles. Just now the profoundest instinct for most of us, just as much as for the other animals, is to eat what you can, keep warm, and hibernate if we can.
But the paradox of coming to church at this time of year is that we are constantly being told to stay awake, to be alert. Not for us to go with the natural rhythms of the world, but to look at things in a different way, to stand apart, to change our perspective. And that involves grasping where God is in all that we see and experience. Bible readings from the ancient prophets ask God to tear open the heavens and come down, reminding us how unexpected and invisible God is, how God seemed to have hidden himself.
Can God hide himself? So often I encounter people who feel that God is absent, distant, uninterested; but this is different from a sense of abandonment by God, the aggrieved complaint that God has left us; if God is hidden, present but keeping himself from view, then just as what people do when they think they are alone tells a great truth to go alongside how they behave when they are seen, how we behave when nothing reminds us of God, reveals the perspective we take on life. This is why we are reminded in Advent to wake up, to keep alert, to look, to see the greater truth, wherever our instincts take us.
Donald Hilton offers a different perspective on this message of keeping awake:
Wake up, wake up, a voice is crying;
hear the watchman from on high.
Wake up, city of Jerusalem!
The time is short, the bridegroom near.
Take heed — or miss the promised celebration
Wake up, wake up, the voice still cries,
wake up, all nations of the earth;
the endgame threatens, warfare rife.
Yet peace still beckons at God’s bidding.
Strive for reconciliation now.
Wake up, wake up, a child is dying;
wake up those who live in ease.
Hunger reigns, families are starving.
Should the rich feed off the poor?
Choose the way that shares resources.
Wake up, wake up, the earth is weeping,
wake up to heal a grieving globe.
The land is our mother, enjoy it gently;
air, water, soil, protect with care.
Honour all creation gives.
Wake up, wake up, the Church is bleeding,
wake up, those who love its life.
Its wounds are deep, its health decreasing.
Respect tradition, welcome changes.
Fit its life to meet our times.
Wake up, wake up, each Christian pilgrim,
wake up to greet the dawning day.
The night can never bind the faithful;
Christ will come as God has promised,
and Advent point a better way.
The call to wake up in Advent is because Advent is a time to seek God, to look for that truth so often hidden from us. This is why this season is full of the imagery of God breaking into the settled ways of the world, in the prophets, in John the Baptist, in the ministry of Jesus, in the end of all things. These are the moments when things are shaken by the presence of God, and it matters a lot less whether we know what is wrong with ourselves than that we know the majesty of God. Who cares how wrong we are, how distorted and morally corrupt we may be, when what we are being confronted with is just how small we are and how astonishing is God?
In the natural world this may be a time of dormancy, but Advent is a really positive season. It reminds us that while God may be hidden, his purposes are inexorable, he will turn our darkness into light, he will pull all things back to himself. There is no escape – like a great magnet, we cannot escape God’s draw.
When we look out beyond the church, too much of what we see is a scene of appalling hatred, bigotry, and violence, and many of us are tempted to despair of the human race. Then a face appears in the crowd to remind us of justice and mercy. The pattern of events is reworked. It becomes a story of human courage and decency, which lays a task on us, enlists our support, demands that we take sides. The mysterious force that moves our lives takes on a face, and we’re persuaded that justice and mercy too, like grace, are written into the constitution of our world. The face that we in Advent is God’s face, and we are saved. Saved from what? From the cynicism and despair, the resignation and indifference, that might otherwise turn us to stone.
Advent can be for us a new perspective, lives drawn to God, a reminder of the immensity of hope in the gathering darkness of this time? As the gospel of John puts it: ‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.’ Advent is a journey from darkness to light. We don’t pretend that there isn’t darkness, and the things that thrive in darkness and the horrors which it encompasses, but we know that Advent is a journey from darkness to light. Darkness doesn’t exist in and of itself, darkness is the absence of light: so one light, even just one small light, shatters the darkness, however deep it is, and lights the way.
I sense that our world is crying out for a new vision, a renewed story to give us meaning and purpose. The message of Advent is that our vision will be found, when God will come among us in Jesus, if only we dare to open our eyes, our ears, and our hearts.
I began with a very down to earth poem by John Betjeman. I’m going to end with a different kind of poem, reflecting upon God into the world, The Coming by the Welsh poet R S Thomas:
And God held in his hand
A small globe. Look he said.
The son looked. Far off,
As through water, he saw
A scorched land of fierce
Colour. The light burned
There; crusted buildings
Cast their shadows: a bright
Serpent, a river
Uncoiled itself, radiant
On a bare
Hill a bare tree saddened
The sky. Many People
Held out their thin arms
To it, as though waiting
For a vanished April
To return to its crossed
Boughs. The son watched
Them. Let me go there, he said.