Being present

Advent 1 – 2009
Luke 21:25-38

Marian Free

In the name of God, always present and yet always out of reach. Amen.

There is a wonderfully telling episode in the Vicar of Dibley in which the stained glass window behind the altar is destroyed in a storm. As the villagers think about its replacement, it becomes clear that no one remembers what was depicted – or at least they all remember, but no two people remember the same thing. It seems amazing. Week after week, this congregation would have sat facing the window, without taking any real notice of it. At first it seems impossible, an exaggeration for the sake of getting a laugh. However, my own experience tells me that there is some truth to it. I have spent time in a Parish in which a similar situation occurred. After a window was destroyed by would-be intruders, it took something like 20 years to discover the name of the person to whom it had been dedicated. Her name had been lost to memory and faithful worshippers had passed the window on a regular basis without really seeing it.

Stories such as this give us pause for thought. How much do we miss because it has become all too familiar? Are there things which we simply don’t see because we are too busy or too pre-occupied. How much of life passes us by because we are too obsessed with the past or too worried about the future? How much of God’s creation simply escapes our notice because we are so focused on other things? Worse still, are we so worried about the coming of God in the future that we fail to notice God’s presence now or so concerned with eternity that we don’t realize that we are living eternity now?

In today’s gospel, Jesus challenges us to be aware of God’s presence in everything around us – both the dramatic and alarming as well as the simple and the everyday. In fact, throughout the gospel, Jesus encourages believers to develop a practice of awareness, openness and expectation, so that unlike his contemporaries, we do not miss what God is saying to us now, or fail to be a part of God’s continuing revelation.

It is easy to simply get on with our lives and push God off into some distant future or place and to either ignore God or to spend our lives worrying what will happen when he comes. It is easy to become so sure that we know who God is and what God wants, that we close our eyes and ears to what God is saying and doing right now. It is easy to become so intent on asking God to give us things that we think we want that we are unable to see how God is continually pouring his blessing on us now.

Jesus calls us back to the present, asks us to live in the moment, to notice what is going on around us and to find God there. He does this by trying to expand our way of thinking and seeing. He shows us that the kingdom is limited to one thing or another: “The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, the kingdom of God is like a bridegroom, the kingdom of God is like a merchant, the kingdom of God is like a mother .. and so on”.

Neither is the kingdom confined by time and place: ‘The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, “Look, here it is!” or “There it is!” For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.’ ‘There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.’ and ‘‘Look at the fig tree and all the trees; 30as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. 31So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.’ It is here and not here. It is imminent and yet its coming cannot be foretold. There will be signs and there will be no signs. The signs will be obvious and they will be subtle.

By leaving open the question, Jesus encourages us to be open and alive to possiblity, to be aware of and present to everything that is happening around us instead of being so convinced that we know that we stop looking and close our eyes and ears to God’s continuing revelation. Jesus delights in contradictions, they force us to be open to new ideas and new experiences. So Jesus’ teaching and his unconventional life attempt to shake us out of our limited world view, to open our hearts and minds to a bigger picture, to help us to see what is, rather than what we want to see, to encourage us to be alert to the possibilities of the present and of the future, instead of being bound by reality as we see it.

By freeing us from our sense of confidence and by creating a sense of uncertainty, Jesus is challenging us to be present in every moment, to be aware of what is happening around us, to notice the budding of the fig tree and so not miss a moment of this life which God has given us nor fail to see the presence of God in catastrophe and triumph, in beauty and in ugliness, in the ordinary and in the extraordinary. Jesus does not allow us to become comfortable or complacent, but demands of us a state of openness and expectancy, alertness and watchfulness so that we see and know God now.

What then of Advent? Advent is the church’s gift to us. By focusing our minds on what God has done in Jesus, we are reminded of what God is continuing to do and open to what God will do in the future. Advent is a time of anticipation, of expectation, a time of heightened awareness to the nearness of God’s presence and excitement about Jesus’ return. Advent is a time to stop, look and listen – to the signs of world shattering catastrophe but also to the subtle, simple signs – a child’s smile, an opening bud, a new job, an old friend. It is a time to remind ourselves once again that God is present in all things – the ordinary and extraordinary, the sacred and the mundane.

Advent is an invitation to open ourselves to God’s presence in and around us; it is an invitation to live in God’s present, to see God in all things. Above all, Advent is an invitation to be part of God’s ongoing adventure – an invitation to allow our hearts and minds to be opened and our lives to be transformed by the God who created us, who came to live among us and who continues to enliven us.

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