ADVENT: Getting Ready for God
On one occasion, Harry Emerson Fosdick preached a sermon that was entitled: “Some Men Cannot Find God; Others Cannot Escape Him.” He suggested that these are two different experiences that people have in religion, and all have known something of both of them. One experience is the absence of God. We pray, but there seems to be no one who hears us. We look for help and support, but there seems to be no one anywhere in life who is ready to act in our behalf. Life seems to be in the grip of meaningless and purposeless forces, leading to evil and destruction. If there is a God, why doesn’t he act? The Psalms strike this note again and again. “Up, Lord, why sleepest thou? Awake, and be not absent from us forever.” “Why standest thou so far off, O Lord, and hidest thy face in the needful time of trouble?” So, at crucial times and in urgent situations, some people cannot find God.
On the whole, however, the New Testament writers assume that the problem of religion is really almost an opposite one. God is awake, alive, active, moving powerfully in human life and in the world, but men are not ready to recognize him, not ready to welcome him, not ready to join him in the fulfillment of his purpose and the establishment of his kingdom. W. H. Auden has expressed this more usual Christian attitude in these words from his Christmas oratorio, “For the Time Being”: “Because of his visitation, we may no longer desire God as if he were lacking: our redemption is no longer a question of pursuit but of surrender to him who is always and everywhere present.”
So, in the language of Romans 13:11, the urgency is that we should awake out of sleep – not God – and that we should be ready. There was nothing in the religious situation of Jesus’ day to prepare men for the surprising discovery of God in the Man of Nazareth. The Jewish hope for deliverance through the intercession of a Messianic hero-savior had never imagined that he would appear in such apparent weakness and with no other weapons than the inner resources of faith and hope and boundless love. So the Christians were convinced that the real problem was not waking up God – who was, as a matter of fact, mightily at work in the world already – the problem was to waken men out of sleep and make them ready to see him where he was at work and to offer themselves for that work too.
Getting ready for God is never easy, for God is always taking us by surprise. Even the Christians of the New Testament, who had been warned by the incognito of Bethlehem’s manger that God comes into life in surprising ways, had always to be urged to be alert and watchful. St. Paul writes to the Thessalonians: “. . . you know perfectly well that the Day of the Lord comes like a thief in the night. . . But you . . . are not in the dark, that the day should overtake you like a thief. You are all children of light . . .” Christians are more likely than other men, since the event at Bethlehem, to be alert and to understand the ways of God’s coming, but even Christians need to get ready for the unexpected and prepare themselves for the sudden invasions of an unannounced God.
No one can get ready for God in the sense that he will know exactly when and where he will know what form God will confront and challenge him. One really cannot get ready for a thief in the night either – in the sense that one knows just how and when and where he will strike. But one can get ready for a thief in the night in a general way – by a general system of security and watchfulness.
God remains free and sovereign, and he will come as he chooses and knows best. We can never map him out precisely; he will always astonish and confound us and our calculations. But since we know about Bethlehem and about the life of the one who was born there at the first Christmas, we shall have some clues about how God comes, and be ready in a general way for his appearing.
In the first place, we can be sure that when he appears, he will be asking us some disturbing and probing questions.
You may have noticed in the New Testament Gospels that Jesus often did that. Indeed, when men came to him and asked a question, he often turned the dialogue around until it was he who was questioning the inquisitor. “Who is my neighbor?” “Which now of these three, thinkest thou – the priest, the Levite or the Samaritan – was neighbor to him that fell among the thieves?”
The second way to get ready for God is to get ready to make some radical changes in your life and in the life of the institutions and communities in which you have influence.
Finally, the third way to prepare for God’s appearance in history and in life is what the Bible calls “penitence.”
Unfortunately, penitence has been cheapened until it often means nothing but a gesture of superficial regret. “Sorry about that,” we say, often as a joke. But the root word in Greek which we translate as “repent” signifies a fundamental change in the center of one’s being – a revolution in mind and heart and outlook.
True penitence is fairly rare among human beings because it signifies the acknowledgment of a deeply wrong attitude, of a false estimate of what is true and worth while and dependable, of an inadequate investment of one’s life in the things that count.
Penitence is to be ready to see much that we count on to give life meaning shaken and overthrown, to see our wisdom and our virtue and our power shown up as false and faulty and insufficient, to see even the changes that some of the more adventuresome of us try to bring about proved inadequate and too half-hearted. St. Paul called it being crucified with Christ – and that is what may happen to many of us and to a great deal of what we have believed and trusted in.
But we may be given the grace to remember his own crucifixion, as we are partaking of the Lord’s Supper, and to remember, too, that it was the one moment in all history when God was most powerfully present and at work among his people – and to find in the devastation and darkness of it an eternal victory for integrity and compassion and freedom and responsibility that causes light to shine even in the darkness – indeed, most clearly in the darkness.
To share in his life, in his defeat, in his victory – this is the certain way to be ready to meet God when he comes in the midst of our unsettled and tumultuous times.