God Comes to Us

“For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.

The Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

By Bryan Spinks

Today’s collect and readings remind us forcefully that this is the season of Advent, that strange season that leads us into Christmas. In the Eastern Churches the season is longer, and is often called the seasons of the Annunciations, because that is its theme.

In the Western churches the theme has tended to be what theologians call the Eschaton, the Last Things, the End, with the judgment at the coming kingdom of Christ. Now is the moment to wake from sleep, says St. Paul. The Son of Man is coming, says Jesus, at an unexpected hour.

At times and in places there have been those who expected the End as imminent. The Seventh-day Adventist Church had a crisis back in 1844 when the expected end it announced didn’t happen. At roughly the same time the Catholic Apostolic Church came into existence in England. It grew out of a charismatic group who spoke in tongues.

But it became very sophisticated. It sent out people to examine the worship of the various churches, and drew up a very exotic high-church liturgy that makes Roman Catholic and Anglo-Catholic worship look Protestant! It appointed 12 apostles who ordained angels, or bishops, who in turn ordained priests and deacons.

Because it really believed the End was soon, it made no provision for new apostles. When the last apostle died, there could be no more bishops, and when the last bishop died, there could be no more clergy. In the 1930s it sent its remaining members to the Church of England. The end came for that Church because the End did not come.

Our experience is that although we are reminded every year that we believe in an End, we don’t expect it to happen. I don’t think in my life I ever woke up to think that these are the last moments of the world. If I thought the end was today, I wouldn’t have prepared a sermon, and would not have graded student papers. We know the solar system will one day cease to sustain life, but it is millions of years away, and not our concern.

Our readings warn us to be alert and not miss the coming of God. And so let us reflect on how God does come to us, and how we might miss God.

In Holy Scripture, God continually speaks to us and with us, and nourishes us. Unlike our forebears, we have become lazy, and all of us are far less familiar with the Bible than they were. It is not just that we don’t understand parts of it; we don’t even know parts of it to begin with. And in this neglect, we fail to be awake and alert, and miss the Lord. He is always ready to come and to speak to us in the words of Holy Scripture, even if we don’t always understand every word or every book.

The Psalms often put into words the feelings of despair, doubt, and sadness we have; they also give us words to express our thanks and joy. The Old Testament passages can give us hope in adversity, and remind us that our God is a God of surprises and works in ways we don’t expect. In the gospels we see God in Jesus, face to face, proclaiming his love and forgiveness and inviting us into fellowship with him, to trust him, and believe.

In Holy Scripture God still comes to us and speaks words of healing to the wounded spirit and gives strength to the weary soul. He speaks of judgment, yes, but much more about forgiveness and the love of God. The Son of Man is ever present with us in Holy Scripture.

Second, he comes to us in the sacraments and sacramental rites. In marriage he is present as he was at the Cana of Galilee wedding — quietly attending and blessing — in the background, but ever present.

In ordination he is there, expanding his Church and sending out those with a mandate to pronounce forgiveness of sins to all who embrace that free gift. Sometimes people expect me to denounce someone’s morality and way of life. I was never called to be a judge, but only to proclaim the good news of God’s love. Judgment is God’s business.

In baptism he takes us into his own baptism, and allows us to die and rise, and be born again. And in the Holy Communion he gives us himself as bread and wine. The “how?” of this has divided churches. For me, at least, the “how?” defied human understanding, and remains God’s secret. It is the who that is important. However it may be, it is the Lord Jesus Christ who comes to us in this banquet of bread and wine.

And he comes to us in each other. St. Paul said to the Corinthians, “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” Christ in you, in each other. We don’t always behave Christlike, and often don’t see our fellow humans as Christlike, but Christ took our humanity so that we can share his divinity. Christ comes to us in the other, in the stranger and friend, the one with plenty and the one in need. Now is the time to wake and be alert, says Paul, and Jesus says, “the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” In Scripture, the sacraments, and the other. Wake up. Be alert. Don’t miss him.

Bryan Spinks is Bishop F. Percy Goddard Professor Emeritus of Liturgical Studies and Pastoral Theology at Yale Divinity School.


Online Archives