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Last week I sat perched in my favorite perching place, where fallen tree meets standing tree. The Y-branches of the fallen tree jut out from where it intersects the still-standing tree and are just low enough that you can hop up and walk yourself to the meeting point, a comfortable seat above the ground that falls away in a hill below. Our church Advent calendar had directed us to get outside, find a quiet place, and sit for ten minutes, listening, looking, dwelling in the presence of God. So after lunch I headed to Duncan Woods, a small wooded park that’s just big enough for you to forget you’re in the middle of town, and followed the path up the hill.
I set the timer for ten minutes, shoved my phone back inside my coat pocket, and sat. We’ve had marvelous, miraculous sunshine these last few weeks in West Michigan, and this day was no different. The brownish-red of the fallen leaves, the green of the pine trees – everything was bright and vivid and warm.
It was peaceful, but certainly wasn’t quiet. It seemed all the squirrels in Duncan Woods had gathered on that hillside for an acorn-finding contest. They rustled through the dry leaves, leaping from fallen logs, all but their tail disappearing as they dug, shifted, and searched, only to pop their little noses out, hop back onto the log, give a big sniff, and leap again. The very definition of industrious.
The squirrels weren’t the only scavengers in those woods. Drifting up from the path at the bottom of the hill came the eager and enthusiastic voices of kids doing the only thing kids do now in Duncan Woods – searching for painted rocks. I don’t know if this is as big a deal where you live, but here in Grand Haven it’s become quite the thing. I’ve painted rocks, hidden rocks, looked for rocks – though I’ve discovered I’m rather useless when it comes to finding rocks. Mostly I’ve accompanied my friend and her two boys as they look for rocks and am privy to the exclamations of utmost joy upon discovering a flamingo, an eggplant, or – if you’re really lucky – a troll.
Now, I would argue that even a four-year old knows that a rock – painted and all – isn’t the world’s most exciting prize. But it’s not really about the rock. It’s about the finding of it. The unexpected, though worked for, result. The surprise and delight of finding something that you’ve been looking for, without knowing what exactly that something would end up being.
So it is with God.
As I listened to the searchers – of both child and squirrel variety – I thought about the sermon I had just preached on the parable of the Doorkeeper in Mark 13. Jesus tells his disciples to stay alert, to watch at the door, senses heightened, eyes scanning the horizon for any sign of the Christ. And he tells them to work, each member of the household carrying out their assigned tasks as they wait for the master to return.
It’s a good parable for the Advent season, particularly as this particular year draws to a close. We know waiting well. We’re all waiting. For a new year (because 2021 can’t be as bad as 2020, right?) for a vaccine, for things to return to some semblance of normal. And waiting usually calls our attention forward, to some future time, with a mentality of “if we can just reach this point, things will be okay again.”
But the Parable of the Doorkeeper calls us to an active waiting. It calls us to work while we wait, and to watch while we work. Because in Advent we proclaim the great double truth of our faith – Christ has come; Christ will come again. The Lord is here, and he is coming in fullness. Which means that even as we wait, if we are watchful while we go about those tasks to which he has called us, we will find him.
Fleming Rutledge puts it this way:
“The Lord has come – he will come. The life of the Christian church is located and lived at the intersection of those two advents. And in the meanwhile – “the Time Being”, as W. H. Auden calls it – we stay awake, like the doorkeeper, by watching for signs of his presence in the most unlikely places and the most unlikely people. It will take us by surprise every time, but we will be ready to recognize him when he makes himself known.”*
At the end of a year that has been long and hard, it might seem a preposterous thing to look for joy. But I have a hunch that because the year has been long and hard, joy may in fact be easier to find, because we are so, so ready to receive it. An unusually bright and sunny week in December. A Christmas card from someone far away. The indulgence of Lindor chocolates.
And the people whose voices carry up to our perching places, reminding us what eagerness, enthusiasm, and hope sound like. People who show us what perseverance looks like. Who shower others with kindness though their own life has been filled with sorrow. Who persist in hope, though all the evidence should lead them to despair. Who are the image of Christ to us.
No child knows exactly what rock she’s looking for. It’s a surprise every time. But you know a painted rock when you see one, and the joy is in the finding, is in the surprise.
We may not know how Jesus is going to show up in these darkening days. But if we’re looking, we will know him when we see him. We’ll recognize him when he appears in surprising, unexpected ways, in the most unlikely places and the most unlikely people. And there will be joy in the finding. Because, after all, to find Jesus is to be reminded that he never really left, that he is God-With-Us; he is Emmanuel.
*Fleming Rutledge, Advent: The Once & Future Coming of Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2018) pg. 267