Have you ever noticed how unnecessary God seems much of the time? Except, of course, when we’re confronted by fear that’s so thick we can almost taste it.
Several years ago, I remember sitting in my office on a cold afternoon in early December. The phone began ringing, just as I was pondering whether I could end the day a little early and take advantage of some Christmas shopping. My brain decided to let the answering machine respond, but somehow my hand picked up the receiver. It was the sister of my closest college friend. “Get on a plane immediately,” she said, “Dennis is dying of AIDS.” The next few hours are still a blur, but I vividly remember driving to the airport, nearly blinded by my tears, saying over and over again: “God, we need you…”
Today’s readings each describes a time in which God’s presence is desperately needed, and yet when God, for all practical purposes, seems to have vanished. First we hear the people, Isaiah among them, returning from exile in Babylon, and what they find is appalling: the hollow shell of a city. Everything that was precious has been smashed.
As Isaiah wanders through the ruined remains, he raises his arms and shouts: “O that you would open the heavens and come down.” God, we need you.
Then we hear Paul, addressing the Christian community in Corinth, famous for their divisions and conflict, and they’re in a terrible mess. God has bestowed abundant grace and individual talents upon them, but they’ve utterly failed to express this grace in their community life, and they’ve consistently misused their talents.
Finally, in Mark’s gospel, we hear Jesus speaking to a group of Palestinians, struggling under one of the most oppressive regimes in history – they yearn for a Messiah who will come and drive the Romans from their promised land. “God we need you” they may well have said. In each of these situations, holding onto any consistent faith in a compassionate God who dwells among us, was a very tall order.
Now the early Christian communities hearing Mark’s words must have been riveted by Jesus’ message. They were suffering intense persecution, and while they busily recruited new Christians, they also watched carefully for the signs of the imminent “end time” Jesus seemed to be describing. But years, and then decades, passed after Jesus’ crucifixion, and they had to re-think Jesus’ meaning. Where are you God?, they might have prayed, God we need you.
We, of course, are the companions across time of those early Christians, challenged to live between the “now” and the “not yet” – the “now” in which we see only dimly the workings of God breaking through in our lives, and the “not yet,” when God will appear in glory.
Today is the first day of the new church year, and I love this beginning – it always reminds me of how we are invited to view time, as Christians, so differently from the secular world, to be aware and intentional as we shift from the “ordinary time” of the Pentecost season to the anticipatory, quieter time of Advent from chronos to kairos.
As Advent begins, we too listen carefully to Jesus’ words. Rather than encouraging his listeners to wait around and speculate about when the end time might be coming, Jesus literally gives them, and us, a “wake up call” – a call to the kind of action that inevitably results from waking up to a new consciousness about life’s abundance, to a focus on light, not darkness, on the spiritual rather than the material, on others, rather than the self. In this way, Advent invites us to live as if Jesus’ coming, which we celebrate in a few short weeks, so that it actually makes a difference in our lives today.
Is there a better time for Jesus’ message than right now? As Advent dawns, we feel just as desperate for God’s intervention as in the examples we just heard read. Today communities from Ferguson Missouri, to Florida State, to the University of Virginia, to cities and towns across the Middle East are racked by violence. The scourge of Ebola continues to spread across East Africa. Across the United States, established members of our communities and their children, ponder the calculus of the President’s executive orders on immigration to determine who is now “in” and who is still “out.” “God we need you.”
We resonate with Isaiah’s plea for God to “tear open the heavens and come down,” and we also remember that God did just that in sending Jesus to become one of us, to vanquish not the Romans, but our greatest oppressors, sin and death; to give us, through Jesus’ resurrection, the gift of hope; and the continuous inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
Isaiah reminds us that ours is a God who is always faithful, even if we forget to watch, even if we fail to stay awake. “We are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand,” he says. And in response we sing: “O Come O Come Emmanuel.” ‘Emmanuel’ – God abiding with us, in a relationship that will totally transform us, a God who continuously shapes each of us with abundant grace, with plentiful talents, and with the joy of a community in which to exercise our gifts.
This came so clear to me that cold December night, as I sat holding my friend Dennis’ hand, stroking his unconscious brow, and watching his life ebb away in that dingy city hospital room – that God had sensed exactly what Dennis needed at the end, the gift of being surrounded by those who loved him, being ushered into the promised land of eternal life. And so the Holy Spirit inspired each of us there that night to drop everything to be present for our friend at his death and resurrection.
Just like the servants who are asked to care for the owner’s home as he leaves them for a time, while we wait, we are called as a church community, to take Advent seriously – to stay alert for the countless opportunities, large and small, to be the eyes and ears and hands of God, to heal this world wherever healing is required, whether the world yearns for a ministry of reconciliation, from global crises to a dear friend or a member of our family who truly needs our loving attention.
And even though, when faced with these opportunities, we may find ourselves asking “Why me, God?” if we listen carefully, we will hear God’s quiet response, “Because I need you…”
As the 13th century mystic, Meister Eckhart, puts it:
God’s ground is my ground
And my ground is God’s ground.
All our works occur on this common ground
Where God and the soul
Do one work together.
Just as I can do nothing without God,
So too God can accomplish nothing
Apart from me.1
As we begin our Advent journey together toward the promised land of Jesus’ birth, remember that we will all certainly need God, just as God needs us. May we be inspired to continually remind each other of that fact, so that each time God calls, guided by our faith, and not by our fear, we will stay alert enough and awake enough to hear the call, and to say “Yes.”
1 Meister Eckhart (1260-1329) in Matthew Fox (1983). Meditations with Meister Eckhart. Santa Fe, NM: Bear & Company.