Christ’s incarnation is often underwhelming. It is up to us to look at the evidence, and decide if it’s the real deal. (Listen.)
Is this all there is? Our faith tells us that God is neither distant nor remote. After the resurrection, Christ ascended into heaven to be everywhere present: and this gift of Christ’s presence was poured out into the world at the first Pentecost and continues to be in the world now.
Our faith tells us that the kingdom of heaven is not some future pie-in-the-sky dream in the clouds, but at hand; and this is as true of twenty-first century Warrnambool as it was of first century Palestine.
Our faith tells us that whenever we gather in Christ’s name, he is with us and forms us into his own body, given for the life of the world.
And yet we look around, and what do we see? The earth groans; people suffer; the kingdom of heaven seems very far away. And we are just a little church in the midst of this groaning, suffering world. We are small, young and vulnerable, not quite sure of who we are or where we’re going or what we’re called to do. For we’re just three years in.
Our initial vision was to gather together people who had left church and were looking for a way back; to develop patterns of worshipping and eating together; and to create opportunities for people to wrestle with faith and ask big questions and build relationships. This vision has largely been realised. We have a stable core; we have established times and patterns of worshipping, praying, wrestling with the gospel and eating together; and relationships are gradually deepening.
This, then, is a time when we can all too easily plateau. The excitement of being part of something new fades. Energies dwindle; disillusionment sets in; and all the ways we fail to embody the fullness of Christ become clear. We are still trapped in personal prisons of drivenness, guilt and fear. We are still a homogenous bunch. We are still captive to middle class culture. And we are still largely coming to church focussed on our own needs, rather than the needs of the church and the wider community. We have not yet named our new vision: that will be the work of early next year.
So in the meantime, we wonder: Is Sanctuary really the body of Christ and a sign of God’s kingdom come, or should we wait for another? A bigger church with better programs and a vibrant youth ministry, perhaps? Or a more attractive worship style, with newcomers flooding in the door? Or a focus on local outreach or overseas development? Or an embodiment of radical diversity? Or a viable social enterprise which funds ministry and doesn’t tax individual hip pockets? Or … well, there are so many ways to be the church which we are not, so … is this really it?
The prophet John no doubt felt the same way. Charismatic and dynamic, he had galvanized the crowds to risk the wilderness, turn to God, confess their sins, and change their lives; and all the while he had pointed to the coming of the one who would judge the people, sort the nations and put the world to rights.
Yet when Jesus turned up, there were no lightning bolts, no flamethrowers, no winnowing of individuals out of the crowd. Instead, there was just love. Love, and mercy, and hospitality, and healing. And around him were a bunch of ordinary men and women, who got things wrong and messed things up and argued about status and denied ever knowing him and kicked out children and blocked others from him and failed to understand what he was on about again and again and again.
And so of course John sent a message: “Are you the one who is to come, or should we wait for another?” Because how could someone this humble, surrounded by people so flawed, be the saviour the world is waiting for?
When asked, Jesus didn’t answer directly. Instead, he pointed to the evidence. He said, “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who is not scandalized by me.” In other words, he said, “These are the fruits of my ministry. You decide.”
For those of us who are wondering if what we have here at Sanctuary is the real deal, then, I suggest that this is our task: to look at the fruit of our ministry, and decide.
Since Sanctuary began, have we seen growth in faith, hope and love?
Since Sanctuary began, have people had their eyes opened to new ways of seeing the gospel and the world, and have these ways been good news to vulnerable people?
Since Sanctuary began, have people who described their faith as dead felt it rekindle and come alive again?
Since Sanctuary began, have those who had stopped praying found their hearts opening again in prayer?
Since Sanctuary began, have people rejected by wider society and other churches felt accepted, and loved, and served?
And do Sanctuary’s words and actions sometimes scandalize the religiously pure and upright?
If the answer to any one of these questions is ‘yes’, and I think it is, then we’re probably on the right track for now. But our progress is necessarily slow; our work is small and humble; and we do not know what the future holds. For we are in Advent: a time of waiting, and a time of unsettled and unsettling expectations, poised as we are between our present reality and our future hope. God is already working within us and among us and through us, but we are looking to the fullness of the coming of Christ Immanuel, God-with-us, and we are making ourselves ready for everything that he has in store.
So while we are watching and waiting and preparing, let us keep on keeping on. And let us never forget: Our faith tells us that Christ will not be born in locations of privilege and power and wealth and success. Instead, we will find him among ordinary people in unimportant locations and domestic spaces; and, when he arrives, he will be small, young and vulnerable. He will be, perhaps, a little like us. Amen. Ω
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