'Comfort, O comfort my people' Isaiah announces from God. What tender words of comfort and encouragement! Many of us at this time long for such words to fall like gentle showers upon us. Many of us ache for comfort, rest, reassurance, and encouragement. (RCL Isaiah 40:1-11 and Mark 1:1-8)
And then the prophet Isaiah goes on to say that a way must be prepared for the coming of the Lord. From one verse to the next we are given both comfort and work to do. And at the ending of our reading from Isaiah we hear that the coming of the Almighty will be expressed in the tenderness of the shepherd who gathers up the vulnerable and carries them if necessary. It is not one thing or the other – it is both. Both comfort and challenging work. Our God is both almighty and asks us to help prepare a way.
Maria Boulding, one of my favourite authors on prayer and all things spiritual, reminds us that the early church mothers and fathers spoke of the threefold coming of God: the historical coming of God in the particular person of Jesus; the future coming of God at the fulfilment of all things; and the coming in each and every age - the advent of God in our own life and times.
This week’s readings honour the prophets, from Isaiah to John the Baptist, who prepared the way of the Lord for his historical incarnation as Jesus of Nazareth, son of Mary and Joseph. And in Advent we also focus on what we sometimes call the Second Coming of Christ or the fulfilment of the age. We live in between the historical incarnation of Jesus and the fulfilment of the cosmic Christ of all.
If the coming of God is threefold then what does it mean to prepare the way of the Lord in our time, in our place? The coming of God, I would want to suggest, is firstly always personal. Preparing the way for the Lord in our own lives, can take myriad forms. For many preparing the way requires a time of emptying for only an empty vessel can be filled anew. For others preparation can take the form of study, of filling oneself with the wisdom of the ages that we might be better able to recognise and engage with God’s Word made flesh. And for others the discipline of prayer, silence and work can still the mind and sideline the ego to prepare the heart for the coming of God.
Sometimes our preparation is dramatic and very deliberate. And sometimes the seasons of the soul are more subtle and less driven by our conscious intentions. Maria Boulding reassuringly says: “If you want God, and long for union with God, yet sometimes wonder what that means or whether it can mean anything at all, you are already walking with the God who comes. If you are at times so weary and involved with the struggle of living that you have no strength even to want God, yet are still dissatisfied that you don’t, you are already keeping Advent in your life. If you have ever had an obscure intuition that the truth of things is somehow better, greater, more wonderful than you deserve or desire, that the touch of God in your life stills you by its gentleness, that there is a mercy beyond anything you could ever suspect, you are already drawn into the central mystery of salvation.” (Maria Boulding, The Coming of God, SPCK, London, 1994 page 1.)
But we need to be careful when focusing on our readiness or otherwise for the coming of the Lord. For we are at best the advance party, we build no more than a dirt track so that the Lord’s path might be easier and his coming unimpeded. Or as John the Baptist understood, we do with water what he will do with power and spirit.
For we do not conjure God up by our good intentions or even by the fervour of our desire. There is no need. God is already here, in our DNA, in the forgotten recesses of our hearts, in the Word, in the sacraments, in you and I. God is not a figment of our imagination which we can fan into a three dimensional fire when we need a little reassuring warmth or excitement. We are the outworking of God’s imagining and desire, an outpouring of God’s relentless grace.
Jesus, God made flesh, is both the invitation and the answer; the gift and the response. And so when we participate in the life of God – desire the presence of the divine, study the word, take the sacraments, practice love of neighbour - we enter into the very dialogue of the threefold Godhead: the call and response, the desire and the fulfilment. The coming of God is always intimate and therefore intensely personal.
Secondly preparing the way of the Lord can also have an interpersonal outworking. In Celtic spirituality there is the lovely notion that we each have a guardian angel and that when you are separated by distance or trouble from someone you care for that you pray that your guardian angel and their guardian angel clear a path between you. I find it a beautiful gentle and humble image of healing and heart connection. You may, this Advent, have a relationship in which you might desire angels to remove the obstacles between you.
And thirdly preparing the way of the Lord also has a community focus – as a community of faith and for the greater community of which we are a part. Israel was the chosen nation, not because they were inherently better than their neighbours but because they were to be a light for all nations. Israel was chosen for the sake of other nations as much as for their own sake. And so too we the church need to see ourselves as a sacrament for the community, for the nation, for all those who are not here. It is said that the church is the only organisation that exists primarily for those who are not members.
God’s grace is never restricted to formal channels, it pervades all life and in the end it will be seen that all has been redeemed in Christ. As church we should never imagine that we are the only depository of grace and wisdom. God’s spirit will bubble up where ever God wills and not where we decree. But what the church can do is make visible, in the sacraments and word, in our commitment to social justice and mercy, in hospitality, the outpouring of God’s grace. What is Christmas if not the celebration of God’s grace being made visible in the vulnerable flesh of an infant?
We are not only to offer the sacraments to those who enter into the church building and practice faith as we see things but we are to become a sacrament for the whole community – a visible sign of an invisible grace. Whatever the call is upon our particular lives at the moment – hospitality in this new socially constrained world, prayer, practical assistance, protesting, championing those who are unseen in our success orientated world or any of the myriad tasks and processes we are called to be part of. Whenever we are fully engaged in doing these things we help prepare the way of the Lord in our time and place.
Even so, come Lord Jesus.