Isaiah 35:1-10, James 5:7-10, Matthew 11:2-11
We’re in the midst of a cold snap but even in the bleak mid-winter, spring is waiting, only just below the surface. There are already some bulbs, like daffodils, which are just beginning to peep out of the top of the soil. Although these little shoots of green are easily trampled or overlooked, they are there, the promise of spring even in the depths of winter.
All we need to do is wait.
Advent is all about the waiting. But what kind of waiting is it? It’s not really a counting down the days (despite the fun of advent calendars) or sitting in a waiting room kind of waiting. Christmas has, after all, happened over two thousand times, we all know what’s coming. Christmas can be challenging, and for some it can be a difficult time, but for those of us who believe in the baby Jesus in the manger, no matter what difficulties Christmas brings, there can also be a sense of longing in our waiting. More than waiting, this is a heart-rending, deep in our guts kind of longing. Not necessarily for Christmas lunch with the relatives, but something deeper.
At this point in advent we are in a time of wilderness, a place of as yet unfulfilled promise. We are today, in our 2022 advent, in a ‘now and not yet’ time – between the incarnation and the second coming of Christ. Our Advent waiting looks forward to Christmas, but more profoundly helps us find a language to express that deeper, aching longing for the coming of Christ that is promised to transform the world, but that we don’t fully understand.
There is a word in Welsh which some of you may be familiar with – hiraeth. There isn’t an equivalent word in English, but I wish we had one. The meaning of hiraeth is a deep longing, A longing that is tied to a feeling of nostalgia. It’s also linked to homesickness – so the people of Wales might have a longing they describe as hiraeth for the mountains and valleys of their homeland. When I was thinking about our current place in mid-advent this week, I thought about the word hiraeth – how we might feel a similar longing – for the Christ child and the hope that Christmas brings. But it doesn’t stop there. It allows for the expression of a deeper longing – one that is familiar in the incarnation that we know so well, but within that a longing for something new and as yet unknown – the transformation for our troubled world, bound up in our looking towards the second coming of Jesus.
This is our second week in a row of meeting John the Baptist in our Gospel, and last week he referred to the second coming of Christ the harvester sorting the wheat from the chaff - calling for us to repent by reflecting on our lives and how we treat each other.
For the second week we also find ourselves brought back by John to the wilderness, and I think it's a good metaphor for this time in advent. The wilderness isn’t a place of death, nor, really, a place of hopelessness or despair. Our reading from Isaiah speaks to us on this – Isaiah says ‘the wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom’. This third Sunday of Advent is Gaudete – meaning rejoice – this is the Sunday of joy as we dwell in the wilderness. Isaiah sees the wilderness as a place ready for transformation, a place of unimaginable potential. The wilderness is where yearning, that deep longing, that hiraeth, takes place – but also where it is fulfilled. We are brought home to Christmas every year, over and over again, but each year we are longing for something more than just the tinsel and the gift-giving, we are longing for the hope for transformation that comes with the incarnation and that tiny baby in the manger.
The wilderness is where people go to see John the Baptist. And, as Jesus makes clear in today’s Gospel, they go to see him not because they go to find someone at the centre of power, but because they want to see a prophet with fresh word from God. Someone who sees the world as God does, who looks at the soil and understands what will grow from beneath it. Last week we talked about John being an edgy character and that we are being challenged to go to the uncomfortable edges to hear the word of God. We are called there again today by being called back to the wilderness – the seemingly bare and hopeless places are the places where the shoots of hope will first show – 'the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom.’
John the Baptist calls us to repent - to make our paths straight – make things right with each other. This requires us to look at ourselves and see if we are living and loving in a way that welcomes God. If we truly welcome God this advent then we can wait in the wilderness places, in places of brokenness, captivity or silence in this world, and we can wait in hope. We can stand in the places of ‘now and not yet’ knowing that God is both truly here and yet to come. We can look with the eyes of a prophet on a world that is desperately in need of healing and redemption, and imagine the unimaginable potential of the frosty bare soil. We can witness the tiny shoots of hope and know they are a sign of more to come.
Advent teaches us that our sense of longing for transformation in our world is not in vain, and that God’s promises will be fulfilled. Whilst we may long for the coming of the Christ child and the familiar nostalgia within that of Christmases past, perhaps we can recognise within it something more profound, for lasting peace in our world, for the end violence, poverty and conflict – for Christ to heal our brokenness and reconcile our world.
This view of advent teaches us to look out to the edges, to keep our eyes fixed on the horizon, to look for the dawning brightness and walk towards the light, even as we dwell in darkness. We only know that the tiny green points are daffodil shoots if we’ve seen the daffodils. And because we know the beauty of the daffodils, we can rejoice on Gaudete Sunday at the appearance of those little points of green above the surface of the soil waiting for the fulfilment of their promise. Advent teaches us to hold onto and listen to that longing in our waiting, trusting that God’s promises will be fulfilled.
Rev Melanie Harrington