This is the ninth reflection in the Missio Advent series. Read the rest here.
One of my best friends recently went through a difficult time, and like friends are supposed to do, I wanted to be there for him, to sit with him and talk with him. There was one big problem, though; my friend lives over 1500 miles away. I couldn’t just get in the car and go visit him. I did what I could through emails, Twitter, and Skype, but it all felt inadequate in that moment when he was hurting the most.
In many ways we live in such a small world. I first met this friend online back when blogging was just taking off, and we have been in touch constantly ever since. Social media means that I can reach him almost anytime now. Skype allows us to have face-to-face conversations from the comfort of our sofas, and even traveling the distance to see him is relatively easy if the trip is planned in advance.
But in that moment when a distant friend is hurting and you can’t just drop everything to be there, you’re suddenly reminded that actually, this world is still a pretty big place.
Feeling the burden of that distance at the beginning of the season of Advent was an interesting experience, and it gave me pause to think and reflect on that feeling of being in the midst of pain and brokenness and to feel like you have to walk through it alone. It is at this time of year as we gather in our churches that we hear from the prophets, and particularly Isaiah, about Israel’s plight in exile – being cut off from their land, being oppressed by their captors, longing for the promised Messiah to come and deliver them.
For many of us, though, it can be difficult to relate to those people at that time in history. Most of us here in the West are not in exile, nor are we oppressed or longing for any particular sort of deliverance. When we are told to pause and reflect on that sense of longing and waiting in the midst of brokenness, we don’t really know what to do with that.
I remember one of the first times I heard the song “Silence,” on Jars of Clay’s 2002 album, The Eleventh Hour. I was driving somewhere at night on an empty country road during a trying time in university, and was struck by the frankness of the chorus: “I…I’ve got a question. I’ve got a question – where are You?” There was a hesitation to vocalize that deep, searching, nagging question, but here was someone wrestling with the darkness of the world around him, wrestling with that longing to be delivered, and willing to be honest about it. As I thought about my own circumstances, I began to sing along and make that haunting question my own. Here was a point where faith grew and deepened; I felt like I was finally beginning to understand that everything is not okay. I was able to be honest about the fact that this world was broken, that I was not okay with this, and to wonder, Where is the One who said, “I am making everything new?”
Dwelling on the brokenness is painful. I am convinced that this is why many churches skip Advent and fast-forward right to Christmas; we want to celebrate the fact that our Savior has come. There is a traditional English carol that asks, “Then why should men on earth be so sad, since our Redeemer has made us glad?” We want the joy, the happiness, the cheer. “He comes to make his blessings flow, far as the curse is found,” another carol says, and we sing those words with gusto. Of course, it’s true, Jesus has come. The incarnation is a moment in history we ought to celebrate with everything we’ve got. But here’s the thing: those blessings do not yet flow as far as they are supposed to. Why do we choose to ignore that?
I could have told my friend to keep his chin up, showering him with platitudes about how everything happens for a reason. Worse, I could have just ignored his pain and tried to change the subject when we talked. In a season when most Christians are already celebrating Christmas, I could have painted over his darkness with holiday cheer, “Look, Jesus has come! It’s all going to be okay.” But as I tried to walk with my friend through his pain and prayed for him, I found myself saying instead, “I know it will be okay, but it’s not yet. God, where are You?”
Relationships rest on foundations that are built over time. My friend and I have built that foundation in different ways, but the most important way has been by visiting each other. We have only been able to do this a few times in the years we’ve known each other, yet those visits have given us something to fall back on in difficult times. We have sat together, talked with each other, listened to each other, laughed together, eaten together, hugged each other. There is a genuine bond there. And that bond creates something deeper that means that even when one of us goes through a difficult time, and all the other can offer are words from afar, we know that those are more than just words because of what has gone before. There is something to hold on to in the brokenness.
So it is with us as God’s people. Jesus has come. He has visited us. He has laid a foundation and given us promises to hold on to as we walk through the brokenness around us. We are reminded of that every time we hear the gospel and when we celebrate the Eucharist together. Those promises are not a way to dull ourselves to the brokenness, nor are they a means of distracting ourselves as we walk through it. We need to recognize it and name it for what it is. But because we have been visited before, we know that Christ will come again. So we wait, and long, and hope, facing the darkness and joining with Isaiah’s cry, “O, that you would rend the heavens and come down!”
At the end of the month, much of the world will mark the new year with parties and fireworks. The world’s new year is celebrated as a new chapter, a fresh start. But our new year, marked by the start of the season of Advent, begins by recognizing that we are still waiting for that new chapter. That waiting is important, though. It shapes us, transforms us, and prepares us because it creates the right longing within us – the longing for perfect fellowship with God, the longing for the fullness of his Kingdom, the longing for Jesus to do away with all opposition to his good and perfect rule and to make everything right again.
When we ignore the brokenness around us, we lose that desire to cry out, “Come, Lord Jesus!” But we confess that Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. In facing the brokenness of this world, we learn to wait in expectation for the fulfillment of that promise.
Jake Belder lives in the northeast of England where he is raising a family, training for ordained ministry in the Church of England, and working on a doctorate in theology and ministry. He blogs, tweets, and currently spends his days mostly reading and drinking coffee.
Photo: Scott Liddell