Three times a year, I need to meet some people in London. I have a standing arrangement to travel with someone to that meeting. We catch a train together from Chelmsford station.
One of those meetings was due on Wednesday. I arrived at the station, and bought my ticket. My friend was not in the ticket hall ahead of me. That was unusual, but I was early. I climbed the stairs to Platform One. We nromally catch the 10:40, but I was so early that I got to the platform just before the 10:27 service. In the absence of my friend, I let it go.
But he wasn’t there for the 10:40, nor the 10:46. I kept looking down the stairwell from the platform. No sign of him.
With the 10:58 imminent, I rang Debbie to get my friend’s office number and called him there. While doing so, the 10:58 came and went. That was the last train that would get us to the regular appointment in London on time. Eventually, someone from reception found my friend, who told him that the meeting had been postponed for a fortnight. (I had not received an email telling me of this change.) Despite all my waiting, my friend was not coming. I returned to the ticket hall, explained the situation, received a refund and came home to reshape my day.
Waiting is one of the great Advent themes. We wait, wondering whether the Messiah will come. The Jewish people waited for centuries. They are still waiting.
We who believe the Messiah did come and that his name was Jesus are also still waiting. We await the appearing of the Messiah who promised to return. We have been waiting for two thousand years.
People mock us for it. In 1975, I loved the song ‘I’m not in love’ by 10cc.
I went to buy the album it was on: ‘The Original Soundtrack‘. Some of the content shocked me, not least a song called ‘The second sitting for the Last Supper’.
It contained words that deride the Christian hope:
Two thousand years and he ain’t come yet
We kept his seat warm and the table set
The second sitting for the last supper
Isaiah 64 speaks of waiting – waiting for the God who has not shown up. How do we live with the need to wait? Isaiah cries out to God in terms of the need to remember. What do waiting, Advent-hope people ask God to remember, as they struggle with the waiting?
Remember Your Works
Here’s the problem: the prophet longs for God to come down in mountain-quaking, fire-making, enemy-quaking mode (verses 1-2). After all, he’s done it before (verses 3-4), so why not now? All is quiet on the God front, and that isn’t good. You’ve parted the Red Sea, sent fire from heaven when Elijah asked for it, helped your people in battle and many other things: why do you seem to be so inactive now?
And don’t Christians feel similar at times? We think back to the wonders performed by Jesus and the apostles. We remember an angel rolling away a stone for women to see that God by his Spirit had raised Jesus from the dead. We recount church history, with its highlights of revivals like the Wesleyan one, where preachers could thunder on Sunday and politicians would then resign on Monday. We see church growth in other parts of the world, but decline in the West. And like the prophet, we think, God you have done these things in the past. You are even doing them elsewhere on the planet today. So why not here and now?
This, then, is part of the tension that comes when we are in a ‘waiting’ phase. It is something that turns us to urgent prayer. We know that God has a track record. We know what he is like, because we know what he has done in the past. And we plead with him to renew his mighty works today.
The late Pope John XXIII knew this approach to prayer. He gave this famous prayer to Catholics:
“Renew your wonders in this our day, as by a new Pentecost. Grant to Your Church that, being of one mind and steadfast in prayer with Mary, the Mother of Jesus, and following the lead of blessed Peter, it may advance the reign of our Divine Saviour, the reign of truth and justice, the reign of love and peace. Amen”
Naturally, I wouldn’t go with the Mary language, nor to a lesser extent with the Peter language. But when he begins that prayer with the words, ‘Renew your wonders in this our day, as by a new Pentecost’, then I hear the kind of Advent waiting that turns into passionate intercession.
And I suggest that is one of the things to which God calls us this Advent: prayer from the heart. Prayer where we don’t just moan all the time about the state of the world – we’re too good at that as Christians – but deep, meaningful prayer, because what really matters is for God to work as he has done in the past. Not necessarily in the same way – it would be presumptuous of us to expect that – but with the same intensity.
A waiting time need not be idle time for Christians, especially not waiting-for-Jesus time. This Advent, let us remember God’s works and turn that remembrance to prayer as we wait.
Remember Your Ways
Next, the prophet recognises that those who remember God’s ways do what is right, but when there is a sense of God’s absence, it is easier to do wrong (verses 5-7). It’s almost as if we bring the childish attitude of trying to get away something if we think no-one’s looking to the spiritual life. If we think we are waiting around for an absent God, who knows what we might do? It’s as old as Eden, where the serpent speaks when God is not walking in the garden.
Turning waiting time into idleness is a way of fertilising the ground for sin. Maybe the classic biblical example of this is King David’s adultery with Bathsheba. The text of that story tells us that it happened at the time of year when kings normally went to war. While I’m not trying to justify war in noting that detail, the thing to be aware of is that David was at home instead, idling away his time, when he saw Bathsheba bathing naked. From there came adultery, the murder of his lover’s husband and the death of the baby that was conceived.
But what about the positive side, that those who remember the ways of God ‘gladly do what is right’ (verse 5)? The way to cope with the waiting time is to remember God’s ways. What is God like? What do we know of God’s character? What are God’s traits? If we had to give a character description of God, what would we say?
I hope we might come up with a list that recalls how the ways of God are the ways of love, holiness and sovereignty, of grace, mercy and justice. And if we want a clearer picture of these ways in action, we need only reflect on the life of Jesus, who said that if we had seen him we had seen the Father.
So if just thinking about the qualities of God is too abstract, think about the life of Jesus. Then imagine how we would behave if he were physically present. I know many people didn’t behave well in his physical presence on earth, but some of that was to do with not believing his claims to be the Son of God. We might fail like the disciples did, but the gist of the issue is this: what will we do with the waiting time?
If we use it for idleness, the end result is most likely sin. If instead we meditate on the character of God, our motivation may well be different. I am not recommending we become frantic with church duties, but I am saying that remembering the ways of God will give us focus and direction for holy living as we wait for the coming of God.
And that makes Advent rather like Lent – which, historically, it has been for the Church. The Advent waiting time is a preparation time that includes penitence for our sins. It is about purification for the coming of the King. Advent preparation is less about tinsel, trees, presents and daily chocolates than about holiness. It’s what we do when we use the waiting to remember the ways of God.
Do Not Remember Our Wickedness
So far, we’ve thought about two appeals for us to remember God, and their consequences. Remembering God’s works leads us to intercessions; remembering God’s ways motivates us to holiness.
But what if the boot were on the other foot? Do we want God to remember things about us? Isaiah 64 says, no! In fact, we want God to forget rather than remember. It would be so easy for God to remember our sin, and Isaiah is forthright about it. Yet he appeals to God on the grounds that we are his people and so God is the potter and we are the clay: God can mould us. Therefore, he pleads, may the God who can mould and remake us not remember our iniquity forever (verses 8-9).
So if Advent waiting calls forth prayer and holiness from us, it also leads us into God’s mercy. The Advent season leads us up to the extravagant sign of God’s mercy: the gift of his Son. In four weeks, we shall see mercy in a manger. Graham Kendrick imagines Mary looking down at her newborn son in his song ‘Thorns in the straw‘:
And did she see there
In the straw by his head a thorn
And did she smell myrrh
In the air on that starry night
And did she hear angels sing
Not so far away
Till at last the sun rose blood-red
In the morning sky
A thorn in the straw. Gold, frankincense and myrrh. Advent is leading up to these things. We are waiting for the mercy of God in Christ. For in Christ God will choose not to remember the iniquity of his people.
And we extend that into the present and future. In a day when we wonder about the future of the church, we affirm that we shall wait prayerfully for the God of mercy. When we wonder about the future of our society and of the world, we wait prayerfully for the God of mercy.
Indeed, the two earlier responses come into play here as we long for God’s mercy in Christ for ourselves, the Church and the world. One is that – as I have just said – we wait prayerfully. We bring ourselves, the Church and the world to God in prayer as we seek mercy. We confess our sins. We even identify with the sins of others, as Christ did on the Cross and as biblical saints did to a lesser degree in prayer. Daniel, for example, identified even with the sins of earlier generations as he interceded for the people of God. Waiting for the mercy of God means praying.
But it also means holy living. We can’t wait passively for God to come with mercy. We can’t just pray and put all the responsibility onto God, as if to say, ‘It’s your fault, not ours, if the church or the world goes down the tubes.’ We anticipate the mercy of God for the world by holy living, which is not severe living but a merciful lifestyle itself.
There are those Christians who pray and do not act. They become hyper-spiritual, substituting vivid imagination for the word of God. They become harsh towards the world.
And there are those Christians who act and do not pray. Cutting themselves off from the source of spiritual fuel, they dry up and become harsh towards the church.
Neither of these groups reflects the merciful God for whom we wait at this Advent season. Intercession and holy living are the ways in which we wait for the God of mercy.