We have arrived again at the gateway of the Christian year. Advent is a time of frost and waning light, the time when we enter the desert and find it a place of darkness and cold; in these few months we feel it more deeply and with more poignancy than ever before. We are still sorting out what has happened to us as a church and as a nation. We are beginning to realize that what has come on us is large and mysterious and will change us all for years, perhaps for decades, perhaps for centuries.
We are coming to understand that we have crossed a spiritual Rubicon, and there will be no returning. Now we are waiting and we are not certain what we are waiting for. But if course we never were. How many people two thousand years ago could have dreamed they were waiting for a baby? How many knew they were waiting at all? How many thought that an unlikely gaggle of fishermen and tax collectors and (gasp!) women could found a religion and that a fractious tentmaker named Paul could take it across the known world?
But every time we seem to get things nicely in order and all is running smoothly for a change, every time we settle ourselves for a spot of comfort and self-congratulation, God pulls some unlikely outcast from the raggedy fringes of our complacent world : a Francis, a Terese, a Rose Parks, a Gene Robinson : out of the wings, plants this unfortunate soul in the center-stage spotlight, and says "You're on!" To the rest of us God says, "Pay attention. This is the way I work."
Some of us some of the time do manage to pay attention.; enough, apparently, to change the world. The change is slow, to be sure, and uncertain and erratic : we have always had a talent for sliding back a step for every two we take forward : but our ethic is not what it was two thousand years ago, or even fifty years ago. In his World War II play A Sleep of Prisoners, Christopher Fry wrote that the human species was "about to take the greatest step that mankind ever took." It was an imperfect prophecy, as prophecies often are. The greatest step turned out to be not one giant stride but a series of much smaller ones; and there is still much distance to be covered.
Even so, we see the goal. It is the same goal that was defined for us by a certain Galilean twenty centuries ago. Every human being is eternally precious. Every violence offered even to the least of these is ultimately violence against ourselves and against God.
There is more, for we are finally beginning to value (in Dorothy L. Sayers' biting phrase) "the integrity of the mind equally with the integrity of the body." We are beginning to understand that to force anyone's conscience is an act of violence; to deny anyone's full personhood is an act of violence; to harm anyone's spirit by exploitation or betrayal of trust is an act of violence.
So perhaps we are wrong to think of Advent as a time of waiting, if by waiting we think of ourselves as huddled and silent until God comes to save us. God has already come and God has already saved us. God has given us dream and vision and blessing; but none will ever be force upon us. It is for us to reach for them, to claim them, to bring them into being. We have been promised that the light will shine and the desert will bloom. Until that time we must kindle our fires and cultivate all that has been placed in our keeping.
We must also sing, and the song must be joyful : a great shout of courage and steadfastness and faith. God is here. God is with us. God will never falter or fail us. Our banners fly in the wind of night.