Theology

At the Watchtower: An Advent Meditation

Editorial Note: This piece by Andrew Arndt is the first of several pieces on significant moments within the liturgical season that Missio Alliance will publish in the coming year. As a team, we are praying that your Advent season is filled with the quiet, patient, grace-filled disruption of God, in the best of ways.


 

Behold, I am coming soon.”
Jesus

 

Consider this a kind of watchtower dispatch.

For almost as long as I can remember, I have loved the Advent season. I grew up in a peppy Pentecostal church, so it was somewhat out of character for us one Sunday morning in early December when my worship-leading, theater-trained, born-and-raised Lutheran father took the stage after the main worship set and belted out the haunting lines of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”—a capella, I might add. No mean feat.

I remember being gripped then by a spiritual tone that was altogether foreign to me—by the sonorous cries of deep ache resolvable only by the full coming of the Kingdom.

Advent, I came to learn, is the name of that spiritual tone, and I am still gripped by it. As the shadows lengthen and the darkness of the Northern hemisphere winter deepens, each year I gather up my own ache and longing, and with the church, begin once more to watch with a renewed focus for the coming of the Lord. “Keep awake therefore,” says Jesus to his disciples, “for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming” (Mt 24:42). Or more directly, in Revelation: “Behold, I am coming soon” (Rev 22:12).

Advent is, in reality, a spiritual tone, the sonorous cries of deep ache resolvable only by the full coming of the Kingdom. Click To Tweet

How soon is soon? We don’t know. We’re simply called to watch, to wait, and to keep awake. “More than watchmen wait for the morning” is how the Psalmist describes this posture (Ps 130). Advent calls us to sit at the edge of our seats, allowing the electric thrill of anticipation to surge in our minds and bodies as we watch and wait for the Lord, knowing that our good God is always up to something—and that that something is always for our good.

Advent calls us to sit at the edge of our seats, allowing the electric thrill of anticipation to surge in our minds and bodies as we watch and wait for the Lord, knowing that our good God is always up to something. Click To Tweet

In the Know

These days I find myself asking often in prayer, “Just what are you up to, God?” I pose my query just about on the daily. I believe—on solid biblical ground—that God loves and welcomes such questions, that he invites our curiosity. “Call to me and I will answer you,” says the Lord to Jeremiah, “and I will tell you great and unsearchable things which you do not know” (Jer 33:3).

So, I ask. And then I sit in the deep, dark quiet of the early morning hours, or stare wide awake into the night sky as I drift off to sleep, and await the revealing of the great and unsearchable things. I want to be in the know. So do you.

I believe—on solid biblical ground—that God loves and welcomes questions, that he invites our curiosity. Click To Tweet

There are times, I have discovered, when the work of God is very evident, and being “in the know” is almost effortless. I think about some of the revivals I witnessed in the Pentecostal church of my upbringing. Signs and wonders and miracles. The work of God was easy to see—it was bursting into view everywhere.

I think also about the great transformations we witnessed in the evangelical church fifteen to twenty years ago—days when old structures and ways of being the church failed and new movements and churches and networks were forged to testify to the fresh in-breaking of the Kingdom. Again, easy to see.

Closer to the present moment, I reflect on the last several years and how the challenges posed by COVID-19, overlaid with the social and political upheavals of our nation, exposed so many fears and idolatries within us. These challenges forced us to ask new and deeper questions about what it means to be faithful to Jesus and how to maintain unity when the fault lines of division run across not just our culture but across the very body of Christ itself.

“The world is charged with the grandeur of God,” wrote Gerard Manley Hopkins. “It gathers to a greatness like the ooze of oil crushed…”[1] In moments of high drama, when miracles and signs and wonders—even portents like social upheaval or calamity—are flashing in the skies, we feel the gathering greatness of God displayed with our world and the summons to dive headfirst into what God is doing comes to us loud and clear.

But there are other times. Times when it is less obvious. Less evident. When the wind and earthquake and fire have passed by and what we’re left with is the sound of sheer silence (1 Kings 19:12, NRSV). What then?

There are times when the work of God is less obvious. Less evident. When the wind and earthquake and fire have passed by and what we’re left with is the sound of sheer silence (1 Kings 19:12, NRSV). What then? Click To Tweet

I wouldn’t dream of speaking for anyone but myself, but from my watchtower, I think that is my sense of this moment. The sound of silence. A quietness that makes me deeply curious. From my perch, poised in watchful prayer amid the semidarkness, I look out on the landscape. And while I see skirmishes here and there and some of the usual suspects up to their usual chicanery, I find myself asking, “Does what I see add up to a great storyline? One I can wrap my mind around? One that I can plan and prepare and mobilize for? One that I can preach to with strength and passion?”

As a leader with a prophetic bent, I have to tell you, I live for those moments. Moments when the gathering greatness is suddenly impossible to ignore and it falls to me—as to each of us who are called to lead—to bear witness and speak boldly and rally the people of God for creative, faithful action. I love those moments. They energize me. They call out my best.

But again, what if all you have is the sound of silence?

Oil in the Lamps

There is a seduction, I have found, in the high-drama moments. The temptation is that we will become addicted to them, to the adrenaline rush of the blatantly obvious, to the sense of purpose that is ours when heavenly bodies are flung from the sky and the world is in upheaval. Let me suggest to you that, if you yield to that seduction, you will find it increasingly difficult to stay focused and attentive when the volume is turned down and the work of God in your world is less obvious and clear.

If you yield to the seduction of high-drama moments, you will find it increasingly difficult to stay focused and attentive when the volume is turned down and the work of God in your world is less obvious and clear. Click To Tweet

Immediately following his charge to his disciples to keep awake (Mt 24:42—the Greek is gregoreo—which means something like “be alert” or “keep watch” or “be ready”), Jesus teaches the parable of the ten virgins. We know the tale. The foolish ones took no extra oil for their lamps, while the wise ones did. When the bridegroom arrived, the wise ones had oil and escorted the bridegroom into the wedding banquet. They were ready. The foolish ones were not. And they missed out. Jesus concludes the parable with a callback—gregoreo—echoing his earlier charge to his disciples: “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour” (Mt 25:13).

And just what is the oil? Karl Barth is helpful here. The oil, Barth writes, is “the self-witness of Jesus by the Holy Spirit, apprehended [by the church] in faith and love,” which, in turn, “is the content of [the church’s] witness.” Insofar as the church stores up this spiritual oil as it awaits the coming of the Bridegroom, it possesses “the vital element in virtue of which the community can be equal to its returning Lord . . . associating itself with Him and having a place at [His] side in His final revelation.”[2]

Pause and linger there for a moment. According to Barth, what readies us to identify and welcome the Lord when he breaks in among us (whether at the end of time, or in one of the many dramatic divine in-breakings prior to the end) is precisely the Lord’s own self-witnessing presence among us in faith and love. That is to say: We’ll be able to see him “then” because we know and are living with him in faith and love now, having cultivated an attunement to his presence and activity, even—especially!—when such presence and activity lack the pop and sizzle of high drama. We’ve learned to discern him even in “the sound of sheer silence.”

We’ll be able to see Jesus when he breaks in among us because we know and are living with him in faith and love now, having cultivated an attunement to his presence and activity, even when we lack the pop and sizzle of high drama. Click To Tweet

Watching for God

Some months back a man and his wife started attending our church. I asked him what brought him to our congregation. “Our other church decided to allow women to preach,” he explained, “and that’s not biblical, so we left.”

I groaned inside. And then summoned my courage. “Oh,” I said, “well, I’m sorry to tell you—but better now than later—that we also support women preaching and leading at every level.”

He paused to take that in.

“Well okay,” he said, “we like this church and your preaching, and we’ll be here until we see a woman preach. Then we’ll move along.”

True to his word, they continued to attend. I watched them integrate into the community and find a home among us. Also, I grew to really like them. They’re good people.

We preached 1 Timothy this fall. I circled the Sunday I’d be preaching chapter two on the calendar, not only because I knew it would be a pivotal moment for many women in our congregation, but also because I wondered how this man and his wife would receive my teaching (which argued that Paul’s words are a temporary and context-specific injunction given to address a problem he saw in the Ephesian church and not a binding commandment for all time). Would this be the last time we saw them? I hated the thought.

They sat attentively in the congregation as I spoke that Sunday

about God’s dream for equality,

about the many women who led in the Old Testament,

about how Jesus dignified women and gave them a place in his ministry,

about Mary Magdalene (an apostle to the apostles!),

about Priscilla and Junia and Phoebe and the seven daughters of Philip who prophesied,

about the cultural context of first-century Ephesus and the Temple of Artemis, which gave rise to Paul’s cryptic sayings in 1 Timothy chapter 2,

and so on and so forth . . .

As I preached, I kept expecting them to throw me shade. But they didn’t. When we rose for communion, I thought there was a very good chance they’d stay in their seats in protest. But they didn’t. When I called the congregation to lift their hands to receive the benediction, I thought it likely that they’d keep their arms tucked at their side. But they didn’t. And when I dismissed, I had half a mind to think they’d make a beeline for the door. But they didn’t. They received the word, the bread and the cup, and the blessing, and then they lingered long after in fellowship, as had become their custom. Astonishing!

I found out later that their small group followed up my sermon that Sunday with some conversation to process what they’d learned. Everyone shared their opinion. His remark? “Well, it’s complicated, isn’t it?”

They remain with us.

“Keep your eyes open for God,” says the Psalmist, “watch for his works; be alert for signs of his presence” (Ps 105:6, The Message). You may interpret the above story however you’d like. But I take it to be a sign of the Lord’s self-witnessing presence among us in the faith and love given by the Holy Spirit. It wasn’t dramatic. It was subtle—so subtle you could miss it.

Subtle like the sound of leaves rustling in a gentle breeze.

Subtle like the sound of quietly falling snow.

Or even better…

Subtle like the sound of sheer silence.

And it was God. I believe it in my bones. When I heard the report of the man’s comment, I gave thanks. And even now it is filling me with faith. It’s oil in my lamp.

We tend to forget, I think, that most of the work of God is wildly understated. The divine governance of the cosmos rarely draws attention to itself. But if the Scriptures are to be believed, such governance is leading the world inexorably to salvation.

We tend to forget, I think, that most of the work of God is wildly understated. Click To Tweet

Why God does it this way I do not know. The Apostle Peter seemed to think that it had something to do with the limitless patience of God—with the way that God takes time to woo rather than bully the cosmos into the Kingdom (2 Pet 3:9). I like that. Robert Farrar Capon likewise suggests that God’s meandering, mostly hidden, generally noninterventionist path through salvation history is in keeping with and indeed epitomized in what took place at the first advent of our Christ—a Messiah who saves the world in the most counterintuitive way possible: “dying, rising, and disappearing.”[3] No wonder the gospel was (and is) scorned as foolishness. It’s hard to believe. Indeed, apart from the gift of faith, it’s impossible.

The limitless patience of God ensures that God takes time to woo rather than bully the cosmos into the Kingdom. Click To Tweet

But this is the story we are given. This and no other. The story of a God who remains largely hidden. The story of a Messiah who died and rose and disappeared indefinitely. The story of a salvation aeons in the making, taking aeons to unfold.

And the story of a people who amid the lengthening shadows and deepening dark of the present age, still cries out in faith, hope, and love: O Come, O Come, Emmanuel and then keeps its lamps burning at the watchtowers, alert to the signs of his presence.

Maranatha.

Come quickly, Lord Jesus.

 


[1] https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44395/gods-grandeur
[2] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, vol III/2, p. 50
[3] Robert Farrar Capon, Kingdom, Grace, Judgment, p. 19

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