But Who Can Abide the Day of His Coming

Second Sunday of Advent              December 9, 2018

Malachi 3:1-4          Luke 3:1-6

And so we come to the second Sunday of Advent. The second candle on our wreathe has been lit; several doors on our Advent calendars are now open. The countdown continues as we wait for Christmas.

But the waiting of Advent is never just an empty waiting, a killing time until the big event. It asks something more of us, and offers us something more: an active waiting, a waiting that shapes and changes us, so that when we arrive at Christmas it is not just the same old familiar, but maybe something a little bit new, a new discovery, a fresh encounter with God come among us.

Active waiting is waiting we enter into heart and soul; and when we put our heart into it, waiting becomes longing. It is not just an impatient wanting, restlessly shuffling our feet until what we think we want arrives. Longing is spending time with our desires, making friends with the ache of unfulfillment, going deeper, becoming better acquainted with the hidden and mysterious desires of our hearts. What do we really want? What do we truly long for – and what do these longings tell us about who we really are?

We long for God. That, I presume, is why we are all here. Not because our faith is necessarily perfectly certain and clear; not because we have found all the answers and have it all straight in our heads. We are here, I suggest, because our hearts long for something we don’t find in the world around us. Or we find it, we catch glimpses of it all the time, but the world doesn’t give us the words and stories to help us make sense of it. We sense there is more to life than what we generally hear in daily life; we long for more. And we come here because we hope we can find, in word and sacrament, clues to what we long for. Clues to that dimension that gives life meaning, that truly makes us alive – that hidden dimension of reality we call God.

I think that kind of longing is always at the core of what we do here in church. But at this time of year it is close to the surface. As we wait for Christmas, we can almost see the God we are longing for. We get ready to hear and celebrate again the story, the promise – that all that we so deeply long for has come among us in the child of Bethlehem. “The desire of all nations” is one of the names for Jesus in our tradition. And so we look with eager longing, each Advent, that this Christmas the promise may come true for us: that we may experience anew the coming of the Christ Child as the fulfillment of our deepest longings.

What do we long for, what do we really want, in the depths of our hearts? Well, we want to be loved. In an Advent sermon, Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, reflects on this fundamental human need, and points out that it is one thing, one of the most basic things, that we can’t do for ourselves. The love that reassures us that we are worthwhile, that we are valuable and precious, is an assurance we can never give ourselves. I have been reflecting over the past couple of weeks on the love of a mother, how very much it has formed the foundation of my sense of my own self. How very sad it is when children grow up without love: how very anxious and broken and sometimes destructive they can be, unless they find that love somewhere that allows them to know themselves cared for in this world. Because that’s a gift we can never give ourselves.

And what then, Rowan Williams asks, of humanity in general? If as individuals we can only thrive through the love of others, what about the human race as a whole, as we peer out into a vast and seemingly uncaring universe? Where do we find a voice that tells us that we are not simply meaningless chemical and biological processes – or even, in the most cynical reading, a destructive cancer on the face of our planet – but beloved, infinitely precious, meaningful. How deep that longing in the human race; how widespread the anxiety in an age that has largely lost sight of the hope that we are loved by God.

Something like that longing, I think, lies at the root of our faith. But here’s the problem: if our faith is rooted in this longing, how can we be sure that it is true? This is the point the radical atheists jump on: all of religion, they claim, is just childish wish fulfilment, just pretending there is a God in order to meet our psychological neediness. But not just the atheists. The Bible itself warns us against making graven images, against making up the God we want, a God who we invent to fulfil our needs. That is the nature of idolatry: when we imagine the God we think we want, rather than seeking humbly to encounter the real God, the God who will not fulfill our every whim – and yet, paradoxically, is the only God who can fulfill our deepest needs.

Because our deepest need is to be loved, and real love can come only from one who is real and different from ourselves. Think of what we look for in a partner: we may fantasize that we wish we had someone who would cater to our every wish. But we don’t really want that, do we? That kind of love is meaningless. What we really need is someone who is different than we are, free, not bound to our wills, contrary even. Because the love, the affirmation we need can only come from another; not from ourselves and from our own desires.

And so it is with God. We long for a loving God. But if God’s love is really to meet our needs, to give us real assurance that we are loved and valuable, then it needs to be real, not the projection of our own fantasies. This is the danger of what I might call sentimental faith: when we imagine God’s love as always comforting, always reassuring, always validating us, catering to our every psychological need – never challenging us, never shocking us, never causing us discomfort. This kind of warm fuzzy God may be comforting for a while; but in the long run, this faith will grow ever thinner, and the suspicion grows that maybe this God is not real.

It’s a danger that can be particularly present at Christmas, when we wrap the Christ child in so much sweetness and warm feelings. Christmas can so easily descend into sentimentality, an annual rehearsing of our need for a warm, loving God, but one that does not ultimately satisfy, because it just doesn’t feel real.

Which is why I am grateful for another side of Advent. Alongside the longing, and intermingled with it, is another, harsher note, a note of something we might almost call dread. It rings through today’s readings. It rings through John the Baptist’s stern warning, his call for repentance, his cry for justice.

Or take Malachi’s promise: “the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple.” It is a prophesy of longing: the one we long for will come, the desire of nations. The God we seek in this temple will suddenly make his presence felt.

But there is more: “But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap.” The longed for presence of God is not all sweetness and light: it is a burning fire, a caustic soap, a fiery presence of holiness that will burn our pettiness. A blinding light of truth that exposes all our dishonesty with ourselves and others; a beacon of justice that reveals our injustice and complacency; a fire of love that melts away our selfishness.

It is perhaps not the kind of drawing near we would wish for ourselves, when we fantasize about an ever-gentle, ever-affirming God. But as we in this Advent time sift through the obscure longings of our hearts, we might just discover that this God too meets our deepest longings. We long for a God who will love us, but also change us, refine us, strip away all that is too small in us and help us to be the people he created us to be.

We long for this side of God, not because we are rejecting the God of love and turning to some kind of judgmental tyrant. We long for this side of God, because it makes the love we long for feel real. It is a love that cares enough for us to challenge us, to discipline us, to help us become our very best. It is a love that cares enough for all of us, that it demands justice, and repentance, that we may find our way to a world where all are respected and allowed to flourish.
So as we approach the Christmas season, I give thanks for Malachi, for John the Baptist, for all the notes of warning and judgement in the Advent tradition. I give thanks for the hint of pepper they put in our overly sweet Christmas pudding; for the stern note of Handel’s Messiah (“For who can abide the day of his coming”) alongside the warm fuzzies of Silent Night; for the sharp longing for justice alongside our longings for love.

And as you gather, perhaps with family and friends in the warm of the Christmas season, I pray that you hear and taste and see these other notes as well, and know that they too belong to the season. Because the love we long for so deeply, the love we celebrate this season, is not just warm and comforting, but also stern and bracing. It is not just a beautiful fantasy; it is real, and that is what real love looks like.