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Advent Sunday 2020

November 29, 2020

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Isa 64:1-9

I gather that a world record exists for the longest amount of time spent living in a tree without coming down. What a strange and wonderful world this is!

The record is held by an Indonesian man called Bungkas. Apparently he ascended into his tree in 1970. I have managed to track down that he was still there at the turn of the millennium, but cannot find records of him since. For all I know he’s still there.

I understand that this exotic behaviour is much to the frustration of his family and friends, who made endless, fruitless attempts to get him to come down from his tree. Now you may think it’s a tough gig getting your spouse out of the shower in the morning, but that peanuts compared to the frustrations of Bungkas’ family!

I know this all seems a bit odd, but it is worth remembering that in the early centuries of the Christian Church, especially over in the east around Syria, there was a notable tradition of holy people living for extended periods on top of pillars. Simeon Stylites managed a total of 37 years on a small platform on top of a pillar. And neither was he alone in this way of approaching holiness. He is called Simeon Stylites the Elder to distinguish him from Simeon Stylites the Younger, Simeon Stylites III, and Symeon Stylites of Lesbos.

I can see in my imagination Bungkas’ frustrated family gathered around his tree imploring him to come down, and this is what has put all these tree and pillar dwellers in my mind this morning, because in our reading from the prophecy of Isaiah we heard this;

“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down”

There is huge frustration and passionate imploring evident in the voice of Isaiah as he cries out, “God, come down!”
Although there were a few purple periods for Israel and Judah, the Hebrew kingdoms, for much of the time had a pretty chequered story. National life was marked as much by its failings as its successes, as much by its defeats, subjugations and exiles as by its security. In the midst of difficulty and uncertainty, Isaiah is crying out to God to come down and do something….

I suppose that Isaiah speaks from what we might call a “liminal space”. By that I mean, to quote the Franciscan Richard Rohr, a threshold, a point or place of entering or beginning. A liminal space is the time between the ‘what was’ and the ‘next.’ It is a place of transition, a season of waiting, and not knowing.

When O Lord are you going to tear open the heavens and come down and do something about all of this…..whatever this may have been for Isaiah, or whatever this is for any of us at a particular point in our lives.

And this is of course why Isaiah 64 is offered to us this Advent Sunday as we begin the period of waiting that culminates in the festival of God come down – Christmas itself.

It is both usual and quite appropriate to remind ourselves on Advent Sunday that in our age we wait not so much for God come down at Christmas, for that God has already done, but rather for God come down in our own lives here and now, and God come down finally as lover, lord and judge at the end of all things. This is quite a complex liminal space of waiting that sometimes we need to be careful to hold open in the face if the tug of Christmas festivities.

I suspect that this year as we enter Advent there is actually something that can prove rather helpful to us in understanding the liminal space of Advent and living it well.
You see we are all waiting for things because of the constraints that have been put on our lives by the need to manage covid-19 infections. We are waiting for the lifting on lockdown restrictions. We are waiting for what the restrictions will be after 2nd December. We are waiting for the arrival of one vaccine or another. Some of us are waiting to see family and friends, or a particular activity or group to recommence. I am sure you can add to all of this from your own experience. For far longer than the annual season of advent we have been stretched out by one kind of waiting or another. When…when….when….

Yet, we set ourselves up for disappointment and perhaps pain if we are too prescriptive about the shape in which the ending of our waiting will arrive. We say to ourselves that, “Of course things will never be quite the same again,” and we know that it’s true. But when we are faced with the reality of that, how easy will we find it to accept it, to embrace significant differences?

Well, if Isaiah is anything to go by, we may not find it easy at all. You see, no sooner has Isaiah implored,

“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down”

than he is collapsing the liminal space of his waiting with one expectation after another. Make it like this God. When you come, come in this way, do these things, like you did once before.

Do you see what Isaiah is doing? In the middle of his liminal space, between what has been and what is yet to be, he is trying to collapse that space and make what is yet to be like what has been before….otherwise we don’t really want you God.

What will our society be like when our waiting is over, what changes will come to our church, to our work, our family, to the myriad activities and groups with which our lives are woven?

Our waiting for answers to these things is very like Advent waiting….we don’t know, and we must ready ourselves for some challenging personal journeys in
coming to terms with the reality that some things we have deeply cherished will never be the same.

God comes to us ever afresh. God does not do again precisely what he has done before, precisely as he has done it before. This is a lesson of Advent waiting, and in the midst of the experience of covid-waiting it is a lesson we can receive this year with sharp and tangy freshness.

From Richard Rohr once again:

…we are betwixt and between the familiar and the unknown. There alone is our old world left behind, while we are not yet sure of the new existence. That’s a good space where genuine newness can begin. Get there often and stay as long as you can by whatever means possible…This is the sacred space where the old world is able to fall apart, and a bigger world is revealed.

May you be blessed in the liminal space of your Advent waiting this year.