A Season of Waiting
On this fourth Sunday of Advent, we are once again reminded that Advent is a season of waiting and preparation. It is a season of reflection and perspective. It is also a season of void and longing. Advent is a reminder that this distant and broken world needs salvation. Sin's overwhelming burden and emptiness has a way of creeping in and separates us from our true calling – that of reconciliation with God and His gift of Grace and redemption. As we near the Nativity, the words of the Forerunner John as told in this morning's Gospel by Blessed Luke are so pertinent and yet so subtle. “Prepare the way of the Lord and make his paths straight... and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
What on earth does this mean? What is John referring to? Why is he the voice of one crying in the wilderness to us, who appear to be oblivious to his call for repentance and preparation? Repentance is the English translation of the Greek metanoia, which means a change of mind, a turning about, a conversion. Repentance is much more than a sense of guilt. Guilt doesn't save. In fact, guilt beats a person down. Guilt can be explained away, but forgiveness is the real antidote. Repentance is more than sorrow for getting caught or for doing something wrong. Repentance is an actual change of mind, an action, a step away from a sinful pattern. Repentance is change. God's call to us is not to guilt or sorrow. God's call to us is to change. This was the Forerunner's message to the Jews – to repent.
It is important for us to understand that John's baptism was not unto forgiveness of sins, but for forgiveness. John's baptism did not forgive sins, but rather occurred to prepare the Jews for the one who forgave sins – Christ Himself. John preached repentance so when Christ had come, the people would be ready and open to receive that forgiveness.
In so many of the world's faiths and religious beliefs throughout the ages, the concept of God is awesome, powerful, and distant. He is omnipotent and we are mere mortals, subject to his every whim, often victims of his wrath. While there are numerous examples of this concept in our own scriptures, (the prophets of the Old Testament speak clearly of this) Christianity is unique. It is the only one of the world's religions that teaches that God comes to us and gets down on our miserable level. No one has ever seen God. Our Lord Himself said those very words. We do not have the capacity to see God in this life. We cannot relate. So God in His infinite mercy, decides to manifest Himself to us in a way that we can relate to. He comes to us in a way that we happen to be very knowledgeable of – that of children coming into the world. God decides to reveal Himself to us as one of us – a baby born to a temple virgin, who could have been as young as 16 years of age. We don't know for sure. What we do know is that God does this for our benefit, not His. It is only God who can forgive our sins. This is why He comes to us as the Christ, the Word made flesh, the Incarnation – fully God and fully man so that “all flesh shall see the Salvation of God.” Therefore, as long as there is humanity, Christ will meet you as your neighbor, as the one through whom God calls you, speaks to you, and makes demands on you. This is the great seriousness and the great blessedness of the Advent message. Christ is standing at the door. He is alive as a human being is among us all. That is the wonder of all wonders – that God loves us. He loves the lowly. God is not ashamed of the lowliness of human beings. God marches right in. He chooses people as his instruments and performs His wonders where one would least expect them. God is near to lowliness. He loves the lost, the neglected, the unseemly, the excluded, the weak, and the broken.
The English concept of forgiveness comes again from the Greek aphesis, which means release from captivity, or pardon; a cancellation of an obligation, a punishment, or guilt. Another Greek idea here is aphiemi, which means to let go, cancel, remit, or pardon. John declared the existence of grievous sin in
the world, by people of both high station and low. The world needs forgiveness. John reminds us that we must prepare, ponder, and await salvation, for it is only through Christ that salvation can occur. This is the gift that God gives us.
Advent is the season that reminds us that God is near; that salvation is coming. We must be patient and prepared. This is very sobering and a blessed contrast to the chaos of our society that tries to draw us into its madness – its separation from God and what He wants for us.
God can make a new beginning with people whenever He wants because He is God, and not the other way around. People do not have the ability and therefore cannot make a new beginning with God. We do not dictate terms with God. God is everlasting, ever-present, and unchanging. He has always been the same and ever shall be. He created us in His image and is always right before us, whether we think so or not. We Orthodox believe that if you look into the eyes of another person; if you study their face and their features, you are looking at God. We can only pray that God will make a new beginning with us – a restart if you will. We need God to come to us, for if we are left to our own devices, we can only live in the past pattern of sin and separation from God which corrupts us and clouds our vision. This is the old man that blessed Paul speaks of numerous times in his letters to the faithful – to take off the old man and put on the new man of light and repentance. Only where God is can there be a new beginning. We cannot simply order it up. We can only pray to God for Him to initiate it.
All Christian theology has its origin in the wonder of all wonders – that God became human. Our theology arises from knees bent before the mystery of the divine child in the stable. Without that holy night, there is no theology. God is revealed in flesh – the God-man Jesus Christ. That is the holy mystery that our theology protects and preserves. We sometimes fail to understand that our Christian theology does not and cannot rationalize the mysteries of God. It is impossible to trivialize or somehow bring the mysteries of God down to our level. Rather, our Christian theology's sole purpose is to preserve the miracle as miracle; to comprehend and defend, and to glorify God's mystery precisely as mystery. This and nothing else is what the early Church meant when it dealt with the meaning of the Trinity and the two natures of Christ. This Holy season ignites within us a love for our theology as we are captured and compelled by the wonder of the manger of God Incarnate. We are compelled to reverently reflect on the mysteries of God and what He has done for us.
Advent is a season of waiting. Our whole life is a season of waiting – an Advent if you will; that is a season of waiting for the last Advent – for the time when there will be a new heaven and a new earth.
Christ is near! He is in our midst! He is and ever shall be! In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost – ever Blessed Trinity. Amen