All the Advent Sunday readings remind us to be ready for Jesus’ return and to see God in action in unexpected places, at an unexpected time and from unexpected people who are little regarded by the world.
And maybe, that’s exactly right. As Advent arrives, we realise that we need God really to be in action so that we might be safe with Him. With all the fragility around us now, don’t we need the guarantee of Jesus taking control.
With that fragility in mind, the language of Advent is reassuring. It’s the language of upheaval, with apparently massive and time-consuming civil engineering works: ravines filled in; mountain ranges leveled off; paths straightened and smoothed down. Think of our own county’s landscape, the twisting lanes, the steep valleys, old quarries, former railway tracks converted into footpaths. God’s landscape is our landscape too.
Yet we also know, I think, that God tends to be a quiet actor. We really notice Him not in grand geophysical gestures in the landscape but far more quietly on hillside of the windswept cross, in the total stillness of the empty tomb. Victory is not won by military might but by the lamb standing submissively in front of the executioner. And the way of the Lord seldom seems to be a straight line. I think we should take comfort from Jesus’ constantly moving from place to place in our own less than straight paths. Have you noticed how infrequently Jesus travels in a straight line! More often a twisting one, with many turns and doubling backs, rather like the roads in the Cotswolds, with the direction only being visible to us many years later from the other side of the valley of time. Perhaps only much later in older age can we say: yes, it was meant to be like this. When at the time the knocks, the sorrow and the sadness, or the pure mystery of why things happen as they do seem impossible for us to understand.
Meanwhile, we meet people who seem to have been whacked by life, or whose journey through life is far from straight. Walking home from Sunday School once, I lifted up a black blanket I saw in a ditch and was met by the sprawling ginger beard full of ants and earwigs of a tramp who was asleep underneath. Then listening to his story of being driven off course: orphaned, callous treatment in children’s homes, the brutality of prison. This sort of chance meeting used to happen to one of the great Archbishops of Canterbury: Michael Ramsey, for example during his enthronement procession at Canterbury Cathedral, he disappeared off the end of the procession, off his straight path, to console someone he saw upset in the crowd and the procession carried on without him.
Michael Ramsey’s compassionate smile rose up from deep within him. Heart meeting heart, in the twinkling of eyes, moist with compassionate tears. Here on the fringes, on winding roads less travelled, we are among Christ’s people who are waiting, willing, watchful for when we might see Jesus again but who meanwhile, depend on the promise of what seems his doubtful triumph, a triumph which looks impossible among the twists and knock backs of our own lives.
And so rather than a new coming of the Lord based on a serious re-ordering of the landscape, with half the fruit pickers in the Vale of Evesham disappearing or 50% of the kitchen staff at the Queens Hotel being zapped away, these events form a kind of prelude. These things will happen first to tell us that the kingdom of God is near; that soon we will stand before Jesus. But the real victory is actually based on the cross, on what looks like defeat. And the real victory occurs in what seem the very ordinary lives of people like us.
And so I now believe the signs of Christ’s coming among us are personal and intimate. Let me explain why. Driving home from south Wales I once passed a ‘gentleman of the road’ walking up the steep hill up into the Forest of Dean. He had been walking with two aluminium crutches. Both his feet had been amputated so his boots were where his ankles are. I asked if there was anything a do-gooder like me could do for him? He said his name was Francis and he had been sleeping under the stars and waiting for the time to move on, which would be when God told him. We looked down the hill at Monmouth lying below in the autumn sunshine. “Can I get you anything?” I asked. He thought then said: “Well you could get me some new trousers – I’m size 50-inch waist by the way”, as if this was a challenge I was bound to fail. I drove to a charity shop. I asked the lady: “I need some trousers with 50-inch waists.” “You’ll be very lucky young man”, she replied with the emphasis on ‘young man’ like a female Brian Clough. You know, there were two pairs of new trousers still in the polythene, with 50-inch waists forgotten on a shelf. I drove back and he held the trousers up against himself then looked towards the horizon as if it was a dressing-room mirror. “These will do”, he said and folded them up. “I’ll get moving now.” He stared at me. It seemed like the stare Jesus might give.
Advent then, is the time to wait for God’s help and then try to get restarted back on our straight path. But can we hope for our path ever to be straight? It’s unlikely our paths will ever be straight; but be assured by the lack of straightness! As Christmas approaches, believe that just as Christ came once into your life, so he remains there, especially on the bends in your road, the times when you are just holding on, and He reaches out his hand to catch and hold you each time you trip and stumble.