Updated: Nov 3, 2021
Message for worship at West Richmond Friends Meeting, 20th of Twelfth Month, 2020 Speaker: Patrick Nugent Scripture: Luke 1:26-38 Luke 1:26-38, New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
The Birth of Jesus Foretold
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.
Good morning, Friends!
Of all the liturgical seasons, Advent might be the most Quaker. The early Quakers were death on the liturgical seasons, for all sorts of reasons. There’s no getting around that. Having grown up in the church that invented liturgical seasons, I know a little bit about them, both their spiritual dangers and their spiritual benefits, and I admit both. I’ve often wondered when West Richmond meeting started observing Advent. I remember Friends earlier this season talking about Advent not being a familiar part of their growing up in this and other pastoral meetings. I’d make a wild guess it was sometime during the 70s, but who knows?
Nonetheless, here we are: it is Advent. I’ll tell you right away that I’m not going to preach about Christmas today. I do want to talk about Advent and what we might learn from it. I do think that of all the liturgical seasons, it may be the most Quaker. We tend to think of it as a preparation for Christmas, and in some ways I was raised to think of it that way. For parents of young children it can be helpful to give us some pacing on our way to Christmas, to put the brakes on things, slow them down, mark time a little bit. The pressures of secular Christmas are so enormous that Advent can be a way of helping children dissipate the pressure a little bit and talk about why Christmas itself is important.
More than anything else, Advent is a season of waiting. The liturgical tradition has scripture readings assigned to the Sundays of Advent, and those readings are calibrated very carefully to recall the First Coming of Christ, but only in order to remind us that we are really waiting for the Second Coming of Christ. I recently encountered a reading from St. Cyril of Jerusalem, a writer in the very early Christian centuries, who made exactly that point about Advent. We remind ourselves and prepare ourselves for celebrating the anniversary or the memorial of the First Coming of Christ, precisely so that we remember that we are now waiting for the Second. I don’t know how much sympathy that idea will generate with anybody here, but please hear me out, because I think Quakers can profit from thinking about Advent as a season of waiting.
The traditional readings of Advent, which these days are spread across a cycle of three years, emphasize both the coming of Christ, the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, and also the prophetic heritage of the Hebrew Bible that expresses the hope and the longing of Israel.
Now, there’s a certain way of thinking about prophecy that is not really helpful--thinking about it as a form of journalism that writes about the future instead of the past. For me it is not helpful to believe that prophets were simply telling us in advance what was going to happen in the future, the way a journalist tells us about what happened in the past—just in coded form. I think of it, read it, and experience it as expressing the hope and the longing of Israel, as well as a fair amount of self-criticism and pointing out injustice, pointing out ways in which people were walking on paths other than the path of God’s law, Torah. It’s not just about condemnation, though: It’s about hope for a future and the longings of the people of Israel. The earliest followers of Jesus and those who wrote the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament saw in that expression of hope and longing something that described what they found fulfilled in the person of Jesus.
Here’s a reading from Isaiah which will be very familiar to you, I think. What I want to listen for in this is that sense of hope and longing:
2 The people walking in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness
a light has dawned.
3 You have enlarged the nation
and increased their joy;
they rejoice before you
as people rejoice at the harvest,
as warriors rejoice
when dividing the plunder.
4 For as in the day of Midian’s defeat,
you have shattered
the yoke that burdens them,
the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor.
5 Every warrior’s boot used in battle
and every garment rolled in blood
will be destined for burning,
will be fuel for the fire.
6 For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
7 Of the greatness of his government and peace
there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
with justice and righteousness
from that time on and forever.
The zeal of the LORD Almighty
will accomplish this.
Now that kind of hope and longing is also expressed in the New Testament, just after the passage that we read this morning from Luke’s gospel. In her hymn of praise, which begins, “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior,” she expresses this hope in very concrete terms:
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
53 He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
These expressions of hope and longing are captured under a phrase used throughout the Hebrew bible, a phrase the early Quakers loved: “the day of the Lord.” It’s a notion that God is going to visit the human race and exercise both judgment about our self-destructive habits and deeds, but also put in place a new way of doing things that is in harmony with the dream that God has for the world he has created. That expectation of the Day of the Lord is a powerful theme of Advent and one that we shouldn’t downplay if we are going to observe Advent at all. It is about expecting the Second Coming as much as the First. The earliest Quakers of course had a different understanding of the Second Coming than the one you might find in popular grocery-store novels like the hideous Left Behind series. One of George Fox’s phrases was, “Christ has come to teach his people himself.” The early Quakers thought that the Second Coming of Christ was already unfolding among them in history. Jesus promised us the Spirit in John’s gospel, and the early Quakers demanded that we take that seriously, that the presence of the Spirit with us is Christ already with us, “Emanuel.” And if you remember that famous passage from Matthew 25 about the sheep and the goats, those who were waiting for Jesus to show up triumphantly on the clouds and show up on the throne and all that certainly got their way, but once he was sitting there and talking to them, his message was: “You were looking in the wrong place and have missed it, because I was there all along—whenever you fed (or did not feed) the hunger, or gave drink (or did not) to the thirsty, you did (or did not) do those things to me.”
So for the early Quakers, being a disciple of Jesus meant being completely in touch with the fact that the Second Coming of Christ is already unfolding among us.
Martin Luther loved to say that the Christian life is a life of repentance. Without evading my own considerable need for repentance, I have to say that sounds awfully grim to me. But if the early Quakers were asked to encapsulate the Christian life, they would say that it is one of waiting upon the Lord. They believed that the Day of the Lord was not a cataclysmic and cosmic event in the future, but something that could happen, and did happen, to each one of us, in God’s own good time. It happens in the “inward person,” as they would say, and no meaning of the Day of the Lord has any meaning if it does not begin with the inward person and the changes that God can bring to the inward person. Being a Quaker is all about waiting upon the Lord. It’s not just a pleasantly anachronistic and quaint way of talking about our twenty minutes of silence in worship, or our sixty minutes in an unprogrammed meeting, it’s a way of life. It’s a seven-day-a-week discipline. So if Christ has come to teach his people himself, what happens, then, when we wait upon the Lord?
I’m using modern terms here to express what the early Quakers did in language that was often more theatrical and dramatic, but what I’m about to say is consonant with their experience and thought. What happens when we wait upon the Lord?
Well, we wrestle with ourselves. This is not to be underestimated. We wrestled with our fears, our limitations, our destructiveness. And whatever it is that Quakers mean by the Light, the early
Quakers were pretty clear that we would not get much access to the inspiring power of the light if we did not allow it to illuminate this wrestling.
And we also wrestle with God. God is all about the kind of changes the world needs in order to bring about what God dreams about and plans for our future of fullness and wholeness as human beings who are made in his image. So we wrestle with God when we wait upon the Lord. What kind of change are we being called to? What kind of change to we hope for and long for, both in our own hearts and in the world around us? The Hebrew prophets were interested in both.
We wrestle with our hope and our longing. Our deepest hopes and longings are often very much in line with those of God, but we have to uncover them and learn not to hide from them any more. We have to bring them out into the open. But some of our hopes and longings are not helpful or constructive. They don’t take us in good directions, and we have to wrestle with those as well.
At the same time, in this wrestling, we come to know that hope and longing as embraced into God’s own Eternal Being. George Fox was really clear about this. Waiting upon the Lord means being drawn into God’s own life and feeling that. The early Quakers loved to talk about “feeling after” the life of God, which is both feeling it in the present and longing toward more of it. At the same time, all of those things we have been wrestling with—hopes, longings, resentments, fears—there comes a time in waiting upon the Lord when we have to step back from them all and release them to God. We humans have an amazing capacity to get in our own way, and the center of waiting upon the Lord is attempting to get out of our own way, handing over all of that stuff that gets our minds and spirits tied up in knots. When we wait on the Lord we hand all of that over to God, and then we just wait for what God is going to do in us, with us, and through us. That is why the early Quakers met in silence: not because they were interested in the neurological benefits of meditative technique, but because they expected God to act. They expected God to do things, they expected God to reveal things and to teach. They expected God to give them their marching orders. That’s why they waiting on the Lord, and that’s why I think the Christian life, from the Quaker perspective, is one of waiting on the Lord. When we wait on God, we come to know that our hope and longing is embraced by God, but we also come to know what God’s will is for us, what God’s hope and longing are for us, what God wants us to do in our particular, limited situation. It’s not all about great historical drama or significant public action against injustice, though those things are important and many in our Meeting have been involved in such things. It can be quite as simple as understanding how I can treat the people around me with more kindness than I am inclined to, and more kindness than my society expects, recognizes, or practices.
We wait upon God because that unfolding of God’s purposes in history, that constant Second Coming of Christ, depends upon people like us for to carry out those purposes. It depends upon people like us whose hearts are open and whose response to God is faithful.
Another of Fox’s very favorite phrases was, “The Gospel is the power of God unto salvation” (Rom 1:9). Waiting on the Lord consistent, the early Quakers believed, not just twenty minutes on a Sunday, and it brings us an experience of real power: not just the knowledge of what we are supposed to do, but the power to actually do it. What God asks us to do is to play our part in fulfilling the deepest, most transcendent, most divine longings of a human race that is burdened by fear, rage, loneliness, warfare, cruelty, poverty, disease, isolation, and hunger. Advent doesn’t just prepare us for Christmas. Waiting upon the Lord in this concentrated way puts us in touch with our own longings and with the world’s longings for the reign of God that, in Isaiah’s words, shatters the yoke that burdens them, shatters the bar across their shoulders, shatters the yoke of the oppressor. The power of God as we experience it by waiting upon the Lord renews in us that determination to wait upon the Lord, to wait for teaching, to wait for God to show us what our place is in the unfolding purposes of God’s reign.
Quakers today love to talk about the “still, small voice,” in opposition to pointless histrionics and unnecessary theatrics to which some species of Christianity are prone. If the only dimension of God we admit is the still, small voice, then we may miss the experience that God is nonetheless a God of power, a power exercised for us, in us, and through us; a power manifest in courageous love, impossible kindness, radical service, simple compassion, generous forgiveness, gracious healing, authentic teaching, and prophetic witness.
As I put that little list together, I was thinking of particular people at West Richmond Friends Meeting who show me what each of those things means. I think of the little group of junior high kids I taught in Sunday School who are now doing amazing things in small communities in Indiana and in places around the world. I think of our elders who have done amazing things likewise in small communities in Indiana and around the world. I think of compassion, forgiveness, healing, and witness that I have learned from members of this meeting, and from Quaker all over the world.
I worry that our expectations of God are too often tame and diminished, and we frankly don’t believe God to be capable of very much at all. I fear we have deprived ourselves of the reality of God’s power to “visit and redeem his people,” as Zechariah says in the Gospel of Luke.
That power is available to each of us. The power of God—or the God of power--can enter into and transform our own innermost struggles, our deepest fears, our inextinguishable loneliness, our poisonous regrets and resentments, our nagging guilt, our toxic habits of self-destruction, and our inhumanity toward other humans. The power is available to us no matter what our age, our station in life, our mobility, our family circumstances, our success or disappointment in work, our material resources. That power can “visit and redeem” each of us and the communities we can touch. That is precisely the early Quaker understanding of the Second Coming of Christ—people who act in the power of God’s spirit to transform their own hearts and the world around them—and Advent is a potent reminder that we prepare and wait not just for the celebration of the first Coming of Christ into the world, but for the gradual unfolding of the reign of God in our own time.
We are all hoping, longing, and waiting—for things we can discuss openly with Friends and the world, and for things that are private and hidden in our hearts.
Rufus Jones, the early twentieth-century Quaker author, loved to talk about the double search: we are indeed searching for God, but God is also searching for us. In the terms we have been using today, God is waiting upon us to wait upon God.
So, what are YOU waiting for?
What are YOU longing for? What do YOU expect from God?
What do YOU believe God is capable of, in your own heart and your own life?
What do you believe YOU might be capable of, knowing God even more deeply, and waiting upon God for that power?