Last night I did a lecture in South Creake, Norfolk, and addressed the theme of my new book ‘Freedom is Coming’, seeking to distil lessons for today from the wisdom of three thousand years ago. As I said at the beginning, I believe a lecture such as this is a first word rather than the last word. The lecture itself was then followed by a Q&A during which I was pressed on a number of points. The basic text follows here.

We need to remember that when the Chinese say “May you live in interesting times”, it is a curse and not a blessing. There is something to be said for routine or boring times when life is fairly predictable and nothing much out of the ordinary happens to disturb or disrupt. If any such times ever existed, that is.

My parents lived through the Second World War in Liverpool – the bombings, evacuation, privations and rationing. Yet, I remember my father telling me more than once how his generation had had all the best deals: healthy food during the war (lots of vegetables and no sweets), the best jobs with the best pensions in an era of construction and optimism. His generation of civil servants certainly got the best pensions. Yet, in saying all this, he left out the experiences of conflict and the fact that some of his generation never made it into peacetime, or that peace in 1945 soon gave way to Korea, the Cold War, the Cuban missile crisis, Vietnam, the Berlin Wall, Middle Eastern terrorism, the Red Brigades, and so on and so on. OK, we also landed a man on the moon and England won the World Cup – once – but it is too easy to re-shape our history in order to tell a particular story.

I don’t need to tell you that all times are uncertain – every age is “interesting” in its own way. I think most of us would have thought it inconceivable three years ago that we would now be in a constitutional crisis, with the fundamental arms of our parliamentary democracy under threat and the future of the monarchy being questioned. Add to the mix Donald Trump in the United States, the rise of the AfD in Germany and the dominance of ‘illiberal democrats’ such as Orban, Bolsanaro and Putin, and it just isn’t clear what is going on. Here at home, if you are a Brexiteer the BBC is now the spawn of Satan, whereas if you are a Remainer, the BBC is now the spawn of Satan. What on earth is going on?

One conservative blogger makes the interesting claim that Nigel Farage is a modern-day British Martin Luther insofar as he challenges, disrupts and disturbs without any clear idea of what to do once the disruption has been achieved. I think this is an interesting idea (though Luther knew he might have to pay a personal price for his disruption). History and circumstances sometimes throw up a character who makes a massive difference and forces ‘normality’ to break up and reality be faced afresh. (But, I am not sure I would compare Farage with Luther … for lots of reasons.)

David Goodhart on BBC Radio 4 in ‘A Point of View’ on Sunday 26 May, rather than bemoaning the rise of populism in the UK, the challenges of Brexit and the breaking down of ‘normal’ politics, claimed that what we are witnessing now is actually robust democracy at work. He maintains that the limited appropriation of power by elites has been denuded by the clamour through the ballot box for ignored voices to be heard again. And, again, I think this notion of robust democracy merits serious consideration, even if I think it also raises questions about the content of disruption and who best exploits and benefits from chaos.

But, as this drama continues to unfold and the latest putative saviours of Brexit and political order enter the fray, Christians might well ask serious questions about how we are to understand the world in which we live, how we are to read the Scriptures in this context, and how we are to conduct ourselves – in language and behaviour, priorities and common life – as events unfold. I take it as read that Christians are called to engage in the whole of our common life, to argue politics, to help shape the future, and to get our hands dirty for the sake not of our own prosperity, but for the flourishing of God’s people in God’s world.

Now, this is a huge task. We cannot look at the UK in isolation from Europe – which, we must remember, is not coterminous with the European Union – and nor can we look at Europe in isolation from the wider world of Donald Trump, Kim Jong Un, Vladimir Putin, Narendra Modi, Xi Jinping, Iranian nuclear development, or political instability in Israel or Iran. Everything is connected. And, given the global climate crisis, there is no escaping the complexity of interconnectedness. (Always be deeply suspicious of politicians or preachers who suggest there are clean and easy solutions to complex problems – like getting Brexit “done”.)

Yet, we also cannot grasp – or pay attention to – everything that matters. So, I want to cut through a section of these phenomena and focus on one people in one place at one time in history and ask if there is wisdom for us to be found in their experience and reflections, their decision-making and actions.

What I have to say is not neutral, however. I have written a book (published in August this year) called ‘Freedom is Coming’ which comprises readings through Advent, Christmas and Epiphany on Isaiah 40-55. I’ll explain why.

In Advent we try to reimagine the longing of God’s people for resolution – or salvation. For God to come among his people again and reassure them of their identity as his chosen ones. Their security and destiny lie in this, that Messiah will come and restore to Israel all that has been lost in exile and occupation, subjugation and humiliation. Jesus of Nazareth is to come among a people who are crying out for the fulfilment of God’s promises and trying to spot the evidences of this new day, this new world. As we enter into their experience, looking through Advent for the light, longing for renewal and hope, we cannot rush the experience. We slow down and think and pray and make time. Only once we have taken this time, and lived this yearning experience, can we truly experience the staggering joy of Christmas – what John Bell calls “God surprising earth with heaven”. Yet, rather than ending the wondering and solving all the questions, Christmas only opens up a different world with new challenges and demands … which leads us to Epiphany, Magi who search for the truth, and people beginning to see in the babe of Bethlehem and the boy of Nazareth something unusual.

In other words, the resolution of one question only reveals a pile of new questions that hadn’t been faced before because the phenomena from which they arise had not occurred before. Or, to put it more crudely, endings only proved to be new beginnings – and these new beginnings weren’t always welcomed by people who just wanted everything sorted out once and for all. All of this I explore in the book which I have with me.

So, to Isaiah and a bit of background. The background to the background, of course, is that Isaiah is not a bit of ‘scripture’ that sits disembodied in a holy book, dislocated or disassociated from the real world. It is precisely located in a world of empires, military conflict, violence, political intrigue, and all the things with which we, too, are familiar. And while the big beasts fight for power and prestige, the ordinary people just have to live with the consequences and get on as best they can. (And they are easily swayed in their political affections.)

Anyway, Isaiah was a prophet, writing in the eighth century before Christ, warning his people that they couldn’t take their future for granted. Chapters 1-39 see the prophet reading the signs of the times and discerning what lies behind and beneath events and the choices people face, and warning that departure from God’s ways will have consequences. As individuals are part of society, so will the consequences be social, political, economic, military, and so on. But, you might ask, in what ways have the people deviated from what God expects of them and, indeed, has called them to and for?

The text speaks for itself: if you bear the name of God and claim to be his people, then you must look like him and his character. And what does this mean? Those who have been called must serve; those who have received mercy must give mercy; those who have been slaves (in their ancestry) must never treat others as slaves. And that’s just a starter. The point is: you must in your common life and your individual character resemble and reflect the character, priorities and claims of the God you claim to serve.

Denial of this vocation is not evidenced by mere impiety or religious/liturgical negligence. Rather, it is exposed by allowing a society that penalises poor people, marginalises weak people, shuts the door on people ‘not like us’, associates nation with God, ignores the moral planks in the eyes of the ‘faithful’ while condemning the speck in the eyes of others. For example. The prophet maintains that it is a mockery of God to trample on the poor or sing songs of praise to God whilst denying his character in the choices we make and the society we construct.

These people are warned that God will not be taken for granted and that the consequences of living a life of denial are serious: the loss of those things that speak to the people of their identity, their vocation and destiny, their future and their security. Remember that the defining narrative that gives meaning and direction to these people is the story of the Exodus. After more than four centuries of humiliating and inescapable subjugation in Egypt, the people are liberated – the Passover – and led towards freedom in a land of promise. Yet, liberation is not instant and is not an event; it is a process, a journey, a leaving from but without knowing where it was leading to. (Why do some Christian songs suggest they left Egypt one day and bounced up next day in a land flowing with milk and honey?)

The Exodus, however, is not a simple story. The annual remembrance of the Passover was also for the Jews a reminder of the human reality, the complex choices, the fear and dread, the romanticising of the past along with the struggling with potential futures, and so on. The people were led out of slavery by a leader who, once in the desert and not giving the people the satisfactions they wanted, found himself rejected, bemoaned, ridiculed and abandoned. That’s leadership for you!

These people spent forty years wandering through a desert before they reached their promised land. A whole generation had died on the journey, the leader died before getting to the land, and they were given a load of instructions about what a good society should look like when they got the chance to build one. Yet, these people had to enter a new land, with new questions about their identity and what this identity demanded of them. They could learn from the past, but they shouldn’t repeat it.

So, back to Isaiah. The people who had forgotten the substance of this story were destined to head into their own exile. The cataclysm of loss was probably the only way they would be jolted by reality into rebuilding their identity and meaning, re-appraising their history, losing their illusions – about God, the world and humanity. Sometimes loss is the only way to stop us.

Which brings us to Isaiah 40-55. Here the people are in exile and have been for decades. This means that some of the exiles have died, families have been reshaped, the memories of ‘home’ have been kept alive and yet will also have become fossilised, romanticised or re-shaped to justify the current narrative. So, the words of comfort addressed to these exiles are not just intended to make them feel happy about the future, but to prepare them for a new world with new questions and new challenges. Yes, their exile is coming to an end – this is the meaning of ‘forgiveness’ for them. Yes, their punishment will soon be over and they will return home. But, home will be different – and not simply a place of assurance and satisfaction, but of new responsibility and faithful innovation.

Why, I ask myself, have I never heard this spelled out in sermons or lectures? I have read (and possibly preached) about the comfort of coming home after exile, as if this return meant the end of complexity, the end of hard decisions, the end of pain and uncertainty. But, I have rarely, if ever, heard about the real stuff of real human life and society which the text represents. We are meant to read through the text, not just to read across it. If the prophet’s text has any value – to the exiles or to us – it must be because it accords with and addresses our own uncertainties and longings for resolution or escape. But, faith and escapism do not go together.

Consider this. What happens to the remainers when the leavers go into exile? (And I am not speaking about Brexit here.) We know from our own experience in West Yorkshire how emigration and immigration work. I am always amused by friends of Pakistani – Kashmiri – heritage who visit family ‘back home’ and discover that those who never left are sometimes less conservative culturally than those who emigrated to the UK. Why does this happen? I think it is primarily because expats confect a memory of home that gets fossilised and refuses to move on. So, ‘home’ becomes a fantasy of what we imagine it used to be. Fantasy because it rarely allows for any development in my absence. (Having lived abroad in several places, we see the same phenomenon with British expats who promote and preserve a memory of Britain that is almost Victorian in nature.)

So, the problem is that the exiles return to what they expect to be the home they left generations before … and find themselves trying to make space among people who have continued to shape ‘home’ and resent this intrusion by people who want to impose their conservatism on the society that never left home in the first place. Do you see the problem? And doesn’t it sound familiar?

These communities – the remainers and the returning exiles – then have to negotiate the space and the priorities as they shape a new place together. A place that might have been simpler without the demand for generosity and the hard work of imagination. Yet, the questions they face and the choices to be made are precisely those that these people have not had to face before. The situation is new – is unique. So, what is to guide them as they adjust and adapt and face the challenges of creating one society out of the competing (or conflicting) imaginations and priorities of two sets of experience and two groups of people who can’t understand why the others don’t see the world (or the task) in the same way as they do?

Now, this should be setting off associations with the world in which we live today. Just like the returning exiles and the host communities into which they would now intrude (or assimilate), we cannot simply resurrect from the past some template of how to ‘do’ post-Brexit Britain or Trumpian America or a post-Brexit Europe. We have to face these questions anew, learning from the experience of the past and drawing on the wisdom of our texts, but having the determined imagination to face honestly and courageously these new challenges. We cannot go back. We cannot simply pretend that the world should have stood still fifty years ago.

So, what might Isaiah, from his particular political, cultural and historical situation, have to say to us – particularly us Christians who read these texts and call them “the word of the Lord” – in ours nearly three thousand years later? I will make several proposals by way of response.

First, read scripture properly. It is no good quoting comfortable (or comforting) verses or passages from the Bible without seeing them in the context of the bigger picture being addressed. One serious element of that bigger picture is that, to put it simply, empires come and go. History is never understood in the moment, but after time and distance that allow more objective reflection on the events experienced. Brexit, Europe, Trump and the rise of China and India (the end of the West?) cannot be fully understood while we are going through them. But, what looks powerful – invincible even – now will surely look different in the future in retrospect. When I worked at GCHQ in the early 1980s the bipolar world of USA vs USSR looked like a fixture. India and China were dysfunctional and backward oddities, both the subject of imperial occupation not so long before. And now? How invincible was the Roman Empire? Read Shashi Tharoor and ask how secure the British Empire really was?

In other words, today’s reality might not be as fixed as we like to think. What looks to be right and expedient now will certainly be questioned in the future. Will our children and grandchildren bless us or curse us for the choices we make today? Is our perspective informed by the narrative of Scripture that asks us to think longer-term?

This should lead us, secondly, to think, choose and act with what I often call a confident humility. I consider reality, bring to bear the wisdom gleaned from perusal of the past and the wisdom of our texts (and the story they tell), and then, together, make decisions that I recognise might turn out in the future to be wrong. These decisions will be made with confidence, but the humility of acknowledging my inherent limitations will temper the arrogance of certainty.

Yes, we must argue vigorously and test our assumptions and assertions, but, in the end, we must choose and know we might be wrong. And this is helped enormously if we face the failures of our past and don’t just romanticise our successes. For example, it is not a weakness to recognise the power of the British Empire whilst accepting that, although we can now see through a different lens, British gains came at the expense of subjugated people. (Read Shashi Tharoor’s Inglorious Empire and see that India had around 30% of world trade pre-Empire and only 3% post-Empire. Who benefitted and where did all the wealth go to?)

This is rooted, thirdly, in a commitment to hear and tell the truth. One of my problems with the whole Brexit process has been the rejection of truth-telling and the loss of truth-hearing. I have spoken of the “corruption of the public discourse” and this includes the unwillingness on the part of many politicians to face and tell the truth. For example, I asked a question in the House of Lords about the cost of Brexit. I suggested that if the prize is worth it (leaving the EU and “regaining sovereignty”, etc.), then tell us straight and we might all vote for it despite the cost. Tell us that we might suffer economically for fifteen years in order to gain the prize, and we might well vote for it. But don’t lie and tell us that leaving the EU will be easy or simple or cost-free. This has always been the problem for prophets: they tell the truth and pay the price. But, someone has to.

All this assumes, fourthly, that we are committed to the world as it is and not just as it might be. Israel’s calling – articulated by Isaiah and others, was always for the sake of the world. The blessing Abraham and the patriarchs were promised was to be a blessing to the world – even at the expense of those through whom the blessing would ultimately come. The blessing was not for the sake of Abraham and co. In fact, their vocation was to lay down their life in order that the world might see who and how God – Yahweh – actually is. People should look at the people of Israel and see the character of God worked out in real time, real place, real life, the ordering of society and the relating of peoples in the business of politics.

The prophets call their people back to this commitment and vocation.

Jesus embodies – incarnates – this vocation and lays down his life for the sake of the world that is God’s. The Church – the followers of this Jesus – are called to embody in their common life the life of this Jesus who embodies and fulfils the vocation of God’s people to lay down their life for the sake of the world. Christmas is about this: God opting into the world and committing to it in all its messy complexity and complex politics. And this with humility.

This demands, fifthly, that God’s people learn to compromise and commend such compromise in their own common life. But, isn’t ‘compromise’ a dirty word? It shouldn’t be. Compromise is essential to politics and to common life in a community. It is an art and a good, not a problem or a failure. Like the word ‘discrimination’, it needs to be recovered and re-valued. Compromise assumes that we are grown up enough to look through the eyes of ‘the other’ – my neighbour – and dare to see the world differently. This is a work of imagination. Imagination is not the same as fantasy. Imagination involves the capacity to imagine (a) how the world looks when seen through different eyes rooted in different experiences and assumptions, and (b) to envisage how, in the light of bringing my experience, assumptions and vision together with those of others, the compromise might be constructive and positive in creating a common life together. And, of course, this demands confidence, humility and maturity – a commitment to learn and grow.

Perhaps this is where I should conclude these ruminations; the recovery of imagination.

Freedom is coming. That is the plea and the promise of God to his people and to his world. But, this promise necessarily implies and involves the committed engagement of these people in addressing, from the wisdom of the past, the new questions of the present in order to create or shape the society and world of the future. We can only do our bit. But, if we are to learn from and be consistent with those who have gone before us, we must be prepared to sacrifice our own interests in order to serve the common good and be obedient to the God who calls us in the first place.

Today my new book is published by SPCK. Titled Freedom is Coming, it offers readings for Advent, Christmas and Epiphany based on Isaiah 40-55.

It is intended to make further sense of what Christmas is about and where Christian hope actually lies in a complex world.

This is the script of this morning’s Pause for Thought on BBC Radio 2’s Chris Evans Show:

A few years ago I found myself in the Foreign Ministry of a Middle Eastern country having what we would probably call a robust conversation with the deputy foreign minister of that state. At one point he stood up, banged the table and said: “Sometimes it seems there is no light at the end of the tunnel. But, it is not because the light is not there – it is because the tunnel is not straight.”

I have never forgotten that. I admit that when I mentioned this recently someone responded by saying that the light in the tunnel might actually be the oncoming train. But, taking a more positive view, I think it is helpful to recognise that sometimes life is pretty complicated and messy, and that the present darkness isn’t the end of the story.

This month of all months this should be clear. Our Jewish brothers and sisters celebrate Hanukkah, and they do so with candles and lights. Christians are living through Advent – which, even in the word itself, is about waiting and not running out of the darkness in order merely to escape it.

There’s a great Bruce Cockburn song called ‘Closer to the light’ which actually focuses on the dark stuff. In a different song he says: “Sometimes the best map will not guide you; sometimes the darkness is your friend.” I think as I get older I understand this more and more. Rather than look for instant escapes from difficulty or challenge, I try to stay with the reality, trusting that even though the tunnel is not straight, … the light will come and, in the words of John’s gospel that will be read at Christmas, “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

A different way of putting this was told to me by a guy who said: “When you’re in the desert, look for the flowers that grow only in the desert.” What he meant was: if you spend your time in the desert looking for daffodils, not only will you be disappointed, but, you will also miss out on what could be experienced or learned only in the desert.

This isn’t easy or romantic, is it? But, I do think it’s powerful.

This is the text of a sermon for Advent Sunday 2016 which also concluded a Bachwoche at the St Johanniskirche in the German city of Würzburg. The service, with orchestra, choir and soloists, was a Kantatengottesdienst, and the reading was from Matthew 3.

Danke sehr für die Einladung, heute die Predigt zu halten. Ganz am Anfang muss ich etwas klar machen: Ich spreche ab und zu deutsch, aber ich habe immer Probleme mit der, die und das. Total verständlich, aber es tut mir wirklich leid. Und wenn mein deutsch so schlimm ist, dann können Sie eine Stunde schlafen.

Heute feiern wir nicht nur Johann Sebastian Bach und, in diesem Reformationsjahr Martin Luther; heute fängt auch das neue Kirchenjahr an: Advent. Wir freuen uns auf das Kommen des Gottessohnes in die Welt. Aber, wenn wir diese Adventszeit am besten benutzen werden, müssen wir uns einige schwere Fragen stellen.

In Matthäus Kapitel 3 kam Johannes der Täufer und predigte in der Wüste von Judäa und sprach: Tut Buße, denn das Himmelreich ist nahe herbeigekommen. Trotz seiner Erklärung wurde wahrscheinlich diese Einladung des Täufers als Blödsinn gehört, weil es keine Beweise gab, dass dies einfach möglich war. Wie kann Gott da sein, wenn wir immer noch unter dem Druck des römischen Militärs leben?

Und die schwere Fragen, die wir uns stellen sollten? Was erwarten wir vom Herbeikommen des Himmelreichs? Sind wir bereit, unsere Erwartungen von Gott herausfordern zu lassen? Bald kommen wir zu dieser Frage zurück, aber darauf müssen wir ein Bisschen warten…

Maria, die Mutter von Jesus, wartete neun Monate, bis das Baby geboren wurde. Neun Monate. Oft frage ich mich, was sie in diesen Monaten tat. Woran dachte sie in der Nacht, als das wachsende Baby in ihr bewegte? Hatte sie ständig Angst vor der Zukunft in einer unsicheren und instabilen Welt? Hatte sie Angst davor, dass das Baby schließlich nicht geboren würde? Woran dachte sie jeden Tag? Und worauf wartete sie?

Ich habe drei Kinder. Sie sind erwachsen und zwei von ihnen sind verheiratet. Der ältere Sohn und seine Frau wohnen in meiner Heimatstadt Liverpool und sie haben zwei Kinder, Ben und Anna. Ben ist sechs Jahre alt, Anna ist drei (und denkt, dass sie Rapunzel ist). Meine Tochter und sein Mann wohnen in Nottingham und sie haben einen kleinen Junge, der siebzehn Monate alt ist, und er heißt Joe. (Der jüngere Sohn hat keine Kinder … hoffentlich.) Wenn ich die lieben Enkel anschaue, kann ich nicht anders tun, als mich zu fragen, was sie aus ihren Leben machen werden. Was wird ihnen in den kommenden Jahren passieren? Welchen Charakter werden sie entwickeln? Wie werden sie mit Misserfolg als auch Erfolg fertig werden?

Die sind dieselben Fragen, die ich mir stellten, als meine eigenen Kinder klein waren. Wir wissen, dass wir sie nicht beschützen oder kontrollieren können, wie sie zum Erwachsenenalter aufwachsen. Also, meine Frau und ich warten, um zu sehen, was aus unseren Enkeln wird. Wir warten. Immer warten.

Wir Menschen warten nicht gern. Das Warten gefällt uns nicht. Heutzutage haben wir uns daran gewöhnt, alles jetzt zu haben, was wir wollen. Wir nennen das die 'sofortige Befriedigung' (instant gratification). Wir wollen haben, was wir haben wollen, sobald wir es haben wollen. Einmal vor einigen Jahren ist eine Kreditkarte in England mit dem folgendem Werbespruch beworben: “Take the waiting out of wanting.” (Nehmen Sie das Warten vom Wollen.) Wenn ich etwas nicht leisten kann, kann ich Kredit bekommen, und es jetzt – sofort – haben. Ich muß nicht warten. So ist das Leben heute.

Deshalb kommt Weihnachten jedes Jahr früher – wenigstens in England. Die Adventszeit wird vergessen. Wir haben vergessen, wie man warten sollte.

Denn die Wartezeit ist nicht eine leere Zeit. Sie ist keine Zeit der Inaktivität. Sie ist keine Zeitverschwendung. Aber, wenn wir irgendetwas aus der Bibel lernen sollten, dann ist es sicher, dass wir lernen müssen, zu warten.

Israel wartete 430 Jahre, bis das Volk von der ägyptischen Unterdrückung befreit wurde. Danach musste das Volk noch vierzig Jahre in der Wüste verbringen, als eine Generation von Romantikern, Beschwerdeführern und anderen Menschen ausstarben, die von Nostalgie getrieben wurden. Und, trotz allen Warnungen, wollte das Volk einen sofortigen Erfolg haben, in dem Land, das ihnen nur einigen Monaten vorher eben nicht gehörte. Sie vergaßen ihre eigene Geschichte – dass sie einmal Sklaven waren – und bald fangen sie an, andere Menschen als ihre Sklaven zu behandeln. Einige Jahrzehnten nachher ist das Volk zweimal ins Exil geschickt worden- im achten und im sechsten Jahrhundert vor Christus. Vierhundert Jahre lang danach war Gott offensichtlich stumm. Die Macht des römischen Reichs verspottete Gott und die Verheißungen, die er seinem Volk gemacht hatte. Aber dann kam der fremde Mann namens Johannes der Täufer, der Massen zum Fluss zog, um ihnen dort zur Buße zu rufen. Johannes öffnete die Augen des Volkes, damit sie Jesus von Nazareth anschauen durften.

Das Warten dauerte sehr lang.

Dann wartete Jesus bis er dreißig Jahre alt war, bevor er seine öffentliche Dienst anfing. Drei Jahre später war er tot.

Heute werden wir eine Gelegenheit geschenkt, aufzuhören, langsamer zu gehen, und auf Gott zu warten. Advent. Wir warten auf das Kommen des Königs Jesus … wie der deutsche Theologe Wolfhart Pannenberg es einmal ausdrückte, “auf die Invasion der Zukunft in die Gegenwart”. Heute fangen wir an, zu warten … und die Zeit zu nehmen, die Geschichte Gottes mit seinem Volk neu zu erzählen, damit wir in vier Wochen bereit sind, das Christkind willkommen zu heißen. Tatsächlich haben wir eine Gelegenheit, uns noch einmal die Frage zu stellen: Worauf warten wir eigentlich? Was erwarte ich vom Christus? Was für einen Christus erwarte ich? Was für einen Heiland? Was für einen König? Und bin ich bereit, meine Erwartungen herausfordern zu lassen?

Das Volk Israels wartete Jahrhunderte lang auf die Rückkehr Gottes unter ihnen. Aber es gab ein grundsätzliches Problem: der heilige Gott darf/kann nicht durch Kontakt mit den unheiligen Heiden verunreinigt werden. Die Heiligkeit Gottes ist Hauptsache. Und die Frage schreit in ihren Herzen: Wie kann Gott unter uns sein, wenn die Römer immer noch da sind? Während die Römer hier bleiben, wie können wir erwarten, daß Gott uns liebt oder daß wir nicht mehr in Exil leben? Während die Römer hier bleiben, muss Gott notwendigerweise fehlen. Also, wie sollten wir in diesem fremden Land die Heimatsprache lebendig halten, oder die sogenannte Heimatslieder singen, wenn unsere Augen bestätigen, dass Gott nicht da ist? Wann werden die Römer endlich aus dem Land ausscheiden?

Die Antwort zu diesen schweren Fragen finden wir im Markusevangelium Kapitel eins. Hier lesen wir zwei Versen (14-15), die das klar machen, worauf das Volk wartete, als Jesus in Nazareth aufwuchs.

Nachdem aber Johannes gefangen gesetzt war, kam Jesus nach Galiläa und predigte das Evangelium Gottes und sprach: Die Zeit ist erfüllt und das Reich Gottes ist herbeigekommen. Tut Buße und glaubt an das Evangelium!

Die Leute suchen nach die Hinweise, dass die Römer bald weggehen. Dann werden sie sicher wissen, dass das Land ihnen wieder gehört, dass Gott schon wieder unter ihnen kommen darf. Dann werden sie wissen, dass sie eine Zukunft haben als Gottes Volk. Also sagt Markus:

“Jesus kam nach Galiläa und predigte das Evangelium Gottes.” Das Evangelium? Die gute Nachricht? Die Römer gehen.

Dann fasst Markus die Botschaft Jesu in vier kurzen Sätzen zusammen: “Die Zeit ist erfüllt. Das Reich Gottes ist herbeigekommen. Tut Buße. Glaubt an das Evangelium.”

Die Zeit ist erfüllt. Jetzt. Heute. Nicht Morgen, aber jetzt. Das Volk wartete Jahre lang – zu lang – aber jetzt ist die Zeit gekommen. Aber die Menschen schauen um sich her und fragen: wie kann das wirklich so sein, denn die Römer sind immer noch hier? Etwas stimmt nicht.

“Das Reich Gottes ist herbeigekommen.” Gott der Herr ist hier, gerade wo in unserer Erfahrung herrschen die Verwirrung, das Leiden, die Entfremdung, die Ängste und die Wut. Aber wie kann das so sein? Die Römer bleiben und es gibt kein Zeichen, dass sie bereit sind, das Land zu verlassen. Wie kann der heilige Gott hier sein, wenn die unheiligen Heiden das Land mit ihren falschen Göttern und ihrer militärischen Macht herrschen?

Tut Buße! Das heißt, metanoiein: verändere dein Denken. Schau durch eine neue Linse hinaus. Möglicherweise wirst du auch jetzt die Anwesenheit Gottes anders anschauen können, um über Gottes Aktivität in der Welt anders nachzudenken. Dann wirst du im Lichte dieser metanoia anders in der Welt leben. Mit anderen Worten: traust du dich – wagst du es zu glauben, dass Gott hier sein könnte, auch wenn die Römer im Land noch bleiben? Wagst du es zu glauben, dass Gott hier bei dir sei, auch wenn dein Leben ständig hart ist, und du dich nie frei fühlst? Wagst du es zu glauben, dass Gott da sei, auch wenn deine Augen eine andere Geschichte erzählen? Wagst du es, Gott, die Welt und dich selbst anders anzusehen und deine Umständen anders zu verstehen?

Eine kleine Geschichte dazu:

Ein Engländer, ein Ire und ein Schotte sind von einem riesengroßen Riese gefangen worden. Der enorme Riese sagte dem Engländer: “Sag mir eine Sache, die ich machen soll. Wenn ich es schaffe, dann fresse ich dich; wenn nicht, lasse ich dich frei.” Der Engländer überlegte einen Moment, dann antwortete er mit dem leisen britischen Humor: “Werft einen Stein auf den Mond, und, wenn der Stein zurückkommt, musst du ihn fangen.” Der Riese lachte (ho ho ho), warf einen Stein auf den Mond, und fing ihn, als er zurückkam. Er fraß den (ziemlich überraschten) Engländer. Der Ire sah das und überlegte weiter. “Lauf um die Welt zehn Mal in zehn Minuten herum”, sagte er mit dem Selbstvertrauen der Kelten. Der Riese lachte (ho ho ho), und spazierte in neun Minuten zehn Mal um die Welt herum … und fraß den verwirrten Iren. Dann kam der Schotte dran. Er lachte, kratzte seinen Kilt (Schottenrock), spuckte auf den Boden und sagte: “Schwimm darin!”

(Normalerweise kommt in solchen Witzen der Ire als dritter. Aber diesmal feiern wir gemeinsam die Entscheidung bei der Volksabstimmung der Schotten, britisch zu bleiben! Wenigstens bis Brexit…)

Diese Geschichte illustriert metanoia! Eine neue Art, Gott, die Welt und dich selbst zu sehen und zu verstehen.

OWolf Biermann hat seiner neuen Autobiographie den Titel gegeben: 'Warte nicht auf bessre Zeiten!' Das Evangelium bestätigt, dass Gott schon hier ist, wo das Leben schwer und kompliziert ist, und wo unsere Probleme ungelöst bleiben, wo das menschliche Leiden oft unerträglich ist, und wo es oft scheint, dass Gott einfach nicht da ist.Also, “Die Zeit ist erfüllt. Das Reich Gottes ist herbeigekommen. Tut Buße. Glaubt an das Evangelium.” Das heißt nicht: Gib deine intellektuelle Zustimmung zu einer Reihe von Sätzen über Gott!, sondern: Widme dich Gott und dieser neuen Perspektive – mit Körper, Verstand und Geist. Und jetzt darfst du entsprechend in der komplizierten Welt leben. (Auch in der Welt von Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin und den Brexit-Briten.)

Das Volk wartete. Und Gott kam. Aber Gott kam nicht, wie sie erwarteten. Gott überraschte sie mit der Art seiner Anwesenheit. Er wartet nicht, bis alles klappt. Er wartet nicht, bis wir völlig konsequent leben. Er wartet nicht, bis die Welt und die Kirche so rein werden, dass er es garantieren könnte, ohne Verunreinigung unter uns zu kommen. Martin Luther hat das als 'sola gratia' verstanden.

Johann Sebastian Bach verstand nicht nur die Musik. Er verstand die Adventszeit – das Warten und das Erwarten. Er wusste, dass 'jetzt' ist nicht das Ende der Geschichte. Er wusste – wie eine englische Theologin (Paula Gooder) es ausdrückte: the meaning is in the waiting (die Bedeutung liegt im Warten).

In der heutigen Kantate schreibt Bach: “Es galt ein neues Leben”, und damit stellt er uns eine Frage: wie mag dieses neue Leben eigentlich aussehen? Leben wir als Christen, die in dieser Welt nicht von Angst getrieben werden, sondern die durch Hoffnung in Gottes Zukunft gezogen werden? Sehen wir aus, wie den Jesus, auf den wir gewartet haben, und den wir in den Evangelien sehen? Sehen wir aus, wie den Jesus, dessen auferstandenen Körper immer noch die Wunden seiner Kreuzigung darstellen? Wir haben schon früher miteinander gesungen: “Er ist geruht, ein Helfer wert, / Sanftmütigkeit ist sein Gefährt, / Sein Königskron’ ist Heligkeit, / Sein Zepter ist Barmherzigkeit.” Ein König, der sich unköniglich benimmt.

In Advent warten wir auf einen Gott, der schon auf uns wartet.

Gott überrasche und segne uns mit seiner Anwesenheit, mit seinem Lächeln, und mit seinem Ruf zum metanoia, damit wir am Weinachten bereit sein werden, die Gabe seiner Liebe und Barmherzigkeit mit ganzem Herzen und mit klarer Sicht genau hier inmitten der wirklichen Welt zu feiern.

 

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.

It’s been a busy week and there hasn’t been much time for hitting the keys.

I even managed to miss the 30th anniversary of the killing of John Lennon. Not that I forgot,  but just didn’t have time to say anything about it or reflect on the ongoing significance of Lennon’s life and music. I was going to ask Chris Evans about it when I stood in at the last minute to do Pause for Thought on his Radio 2 breakfast show yesterday morning (Friday) – he once expressed to me the irony of John Lennon writing ‘Imagine no possessions’ at a massively expensive piano in a massively expensive house on a massively expensive estate. But, he had Rick Astley (who neither gave us up nor let us down) and the very funny Peter Kay in the studio and there wasn’t time.

On the way to the BBC studios I wasn’t sure I’d be able to get through the streets around Oxford Circus because of the violence of the previous night’s riots and destruction over education cuts and increased university fees. But, the roads were clear and all evidence of trouble had been cleared away. Anyway, I got there, did the broadcast and then carried on in a cafe with a meeting about interfaith work in Kazakhstan. Weird, I know.

The script I did on Friday was about Advent: Putting the waiting back into wanting. I nicked the phrase from a major credit card advert from some years ago which promised to ‘take the waiting out of wanting’ (while failing to point out that the ensuing unnecessary debt might eventually be bad for you). Advent beckons us to slow down and not rush the story: don’t get to Christmas before you’ve worked through the story that makes sense of it. After all, you can’t get to summer without going through spring.

These are not actually random thoughts about the last week. Each event is connected by at least one idea: imagination.

  • John Lennon, for all his absurdities, hypocrisies and contradictions (for which he is not exactly unique…) at least imagined a world that was different from the one he lived in. Yes, some of this was more fantasy than hope, but his restlessness with how things actually are compelled him to imagine a different world.
  • It looks like the genuine anger and frustration of students is being hijacked by the usual ‘let’s-spark-a-riot’ suspects. But, it also seems that underneath all this protesting lies a genuine frustration with the way things are and the apparent impotence of ordinary people to do anything about it. Put bluntly, I wonder if the (unarticulated?) root of this anger is that the generation that created – and benefitted from – the disastrous greed culture of the last couple of decades is now compelling the succeeding generations to pay the price for this massive miscalculation. A case of ‘the sins of the fathers (and grandfathers) being visited on succeeding generations of the innocent? Dissatisfaction with the way things are provokes a casting around for what might be.

This longing for a different future seems to be fundamental to human existence. It’s almost as if we are made that way. Augustine recognised it when he said that ‘Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in [God]’. Maybe it is the same impulse that makes us pursue the scientific, philosophical or anthropological project – the restless search for understanding why the world is the way it is and why it came to be this way.

And this is where Advent comes in. Christmas is meaningless if it is just the pointless (if touching) story of a baby being born out of wedlock. Advent offers four weeks in which we can rehearse the story  – of people’s experience of God, the world and each other – which then make the Christmas events comprehensible and explicable. Four weeks in which we get to put the waiting (for God coming among us as one of us) back into wanting (the light we keep hoping, working and longing for).

We anticipate Christmas. But we won’t rush it. Because we need the time and space to allow our imagination to be re-shaped – beginning to see the way the world could be, the person I could become.

Imagination isn’t fantasy. Imagination is what some of us think God applied when he said, “Let it be” and smiled with pleasure at what emerged.

Advent, which begins on Sunday, ignites the anticipation of Christmas. It is all about God coming among us, where we are, in the ordinary stuff of life. It comes as surprise and it bursts quietly into a world that has got used to ‘things being the way they are’.

This is a brilliant expression of it.