Advent. Begins today. The start of the church's year. Already.
The point of the timing is that we live with the expectation and anticipation that ends in Christmas… which turns out to be the beginning of a story that doesn't begin or end there. God, God's world, God's people.
I spent Advent Sunday doing two services of baptism and confirmation – one in urban Bradford and one in suburban/rural Wharfedale. In both cases I met a wide range of people who have come to Christian faith and commitment not primarily through argument, but through life experience that raised big questions – existential as well as intellectual questions about why life is what it is in a world that is what it is. (This also demonstrates that some clergy are doing an excellent job 'midwifing' people into the life of God's kingdom.)
But, what struck me today – as in every Advent – is that the people of Jesus's time got stuck in an expectation that the Messiah (who would deliver them from their subjugation to the Roman Empire) would be a powerful leader who would deliver the rebellion and inaugurate the new world order. Instead they got Jesus of Nazareth. And look how they handled him.
Changing one's mind is usually something we expect other people to do.
I wonder whether those closest to Christian faith are sometimes those who find it hardest to change their mind (literally, 'repent', 'metanoia') and allow God to be bigger, more generous, less anxious than we wish him to be.
The other thing that shocks me today is that Advent, in asking us to question our fixed expectations, also invites us to look differently at who and how God is. We often seem to be obsessed with maintaining our purity – not being contaminated by the nasty or dodgy stuff of 'the world'. Yet, we are being opened up to the fact that at Christmas God opted into the world of joy and muck, and did not exempt himself from all that means. In other words, God decided that, rather than worrying about being contaminated by the bad stuff, he would contaminate the world with good stuff: generosity, grace, love, mercy, justice, hope.
That's the challenge for me this Advent: how to so shape my ministry from this way of seeing, so that the church increasingly becomes less anxious about getting dirty and more committed to shining light into darkness.
We 'do' redemption and forgiveness. So, we don't need to be afraid. Or precious. Or anxious.