This is the address which I would have given at our first Advent Breathing Space Holy Communion tonight. Heavy snow meant that I decided to cancel it, however, as it seemed foolish to encourage people to risk coming out through the snow and ice. As you will see when you read it, the fact that we were prevented from doing what we had planned may have been God's way of reinforcing the message!
WAITING IN STILLNESS
Psalm 37. 1-11, Luke 1.26-45
Advent is a time of waiting. Children know that well, as they wait for the arrival of the lumpy stocking at the end of the bed or the moment they can open the intriguing parcel under the tree. We can probably all remember how endless the wait for Christmas seemed when we were small – we longed to speed things up. But any attempt to do so, surreptitiously unwrapping the present early, for example, actually ended up spoiling it completely.
Waiting doesn’t get any easier as we grow older, especially when the things we wait for may be far more life-changing, and when we’re not so sure that we actually want what is coming. We wait for a diagnosis of a disease, for the results of an interview, or for a change in a relationship – a declaration of love or an announcement that it is all over. We wait, not knowing whether, when or how that wait will end.
During these three Advent Breathing Space talks, I want to think about what it feels like to wait. I’m going to be looking at three aspects of waiting which often feel frustrating, but which can, if we are prepared to look, give us glimpses of the God who waits with us. We’ll be thinking about waiting in stillness, waiting in silence, and waiting in darkness over these next three weeks.
In today’s Gospel reading we meet two women who are waiting. Elizabeth and Mary are both pregnant, and pregnancy is really one long wait. We have found ways of speeding up almost everything in life – communication, transport, jobs and household tasks – but pregnancy still takes nine long months, nine stubborn months. A baby can’t grow any faster; there’s nothing you can do but wait, be still, be patient. There is a passivity about it which can be intensely frustrating. You can look after yourself and try to make sure you eat the right things, but that’s about it. Most of us like to be in control, to be active, to be able to sort out our own lives, fix what is wrong – or at least try to. But when you are pregnant, it can seem as if everything is just happening to you. You are taken over by a force you can’t command, rendered powerless over your own body.
The pregnancies at the start of Luke’s gospel share that sense of uncontrollability. But there is more. These are also unexpected, unplanned and extremely unlikely pregnancies. They aren’t the only “miraculous” births in the Bible, though, and they follow a pattern which is in some ways familiar from the Old Testament. Abraham and Sarah’s child, Isaac, is born in their extreme old age. Hannah, the mother of the prophet Samuel, seemed unable to have children when she conceived him. When a child is born in unlikely circumstances in the Bible it is always a sign that they are going to be significant in some special way to the ongoing story of God’s relationship with his people. Isaac and Samuel are, and it will be the same with John the Baptist and, of course, with Jesus.
The manner of their births is like a big red arrow pointing at them, which says, “watch these two – they are going to do something new, something great for God.” God is at work in them right from the start, as they are conceived in these seemingly impossible ways, doing things for humankind which humankind cannot do for itself. Through them God will change the world, usher in a new kingdom, a new community which embraces all, both Jews and Gentiles, male and female, slave and free. Elizabeth and Mary are willing – indeed happy – to play their part in this work, but the message is clear that it is not through their human planning, their striving, that it is happening; they shouldn’t even be pregnant at all. This is God’s work, not theirs, done at his initiative, in his time and way.
Christians have a word for this; it is called grace, the unearned, unmerited gift of God, given to us because he loves us, not because we have somehow deserved it or puzzled out how to extract it from him by our own actions. Just as Mary and Elizabeth couldn’t make their pregnancies happen, or control the growth of the children within them, these stories remind us that we can’t control God’s work in our world. We can help to create an environment where his love can thrive, just as a mother-to-be can nurture the child in her womb by caring for herself, but we can’t make God do what we want, however laudable our aims are. In fact our “activism” can often get in the way, as we give in to the temptation to force our agendas onto others, fix their problems for them, scrabble around in desperation for solutions to mysteries that will always be beyond us. We do this because we haven’t learned to trust God’s love; we think that it really is all down to us to keep the world spinning on its axis. We are so intent on taking hold of our lives with our own hands that we never unclench them long enough for God to put into them the gifts we really need. “Do not fret because of the wicked,” said our first reading, “Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him.” But we do fret, trying to hurry God up so he fits our timetable.
Advent reminds us that it is safe to be still, safe to wait for God. It reminds us that it’s not our job to save the world, even if we could, and that our attempts to try to do so will usually make things worse rather than better. It reminds us that our task is, first and foremost, to pay attention to the life that is in us, the gift of God to us, to let it grow in his time and his way, confident that he can bring it to maturity to be a source of life for others too, just like these children growing in the wombs of Mary and Elizabeth.
Let us pray that we will have the courage this Advent to wait in stillness, and let God be God.