3rd Sunday of Advent

December 16, 2001
Reading 1: 
Psalm 146: 5-10
Reading 2: 
James 5: 7-10
Reading 3: 
Matthew 11: 2-10
By Bruce G. Epperly

Commentary by Bruce Epperly & Anna Rollins

Psalm 146: 5-10
James 5: 7-10
Matthew 11: 2-10

"A Time of Blossoming"
The essence of flowers evokes pure process. They visibly evolve as we watch…from the tight bud that develops and gradually relaxes in growth, eventually opening in soft fecund bloom, to their final closing in a loving embrace of fertilized space, or a slow falling away in naked self-disclosure to reveal potential unrealized…their life a continually transparent process of creative transformation. The real beauty of a flower lies not just in its pleasing appearance at any stage along the way, but also in its beautiful promise of something more. Flowers totally live in a process of hospitality in which they welcome the stranger…not as possible pathogen, but as partner, in the process of fertilization, and they later share with other parts of the plant in the faithful nurture of what will be fruit. Flowers live with the hope of intimacy; they patiently wait to receive. In receiving, they give birth to abundant new life.

"Open to me, my sister, my love…" says the Song of Songs…in an invitation that suggests opening to the beloved. Advent is a time to open to the abundance of life and to receive the Love of God. It is an opportunity to be transformed in our life like the blossom as it flowers - a process that requires both vulnerability and a quiet courage. As partners in the Holy Adventure, God calls each of us to bloom…to receive the beautiful promise of something more.

Rainer Maria Rilke celebrates bloom’s receptive gift:

Floral muscle,
Little by little open
Morning meadow’s anemone
Til in her lap
The polyphonous light
Of sounding skies
In the quiet blossom’s star, flexed,
Muscle of infinite receptivity
Often so overwhelmed with fullness
That the sunset’s call to rest
Can hardly return to you

The wide-relaxed petals:

You, the firmness and fortitude
Of many worlds.
We are violent
And stay around longer
But when, in which of all our lives,
Will we finally open up
And become receptive?

It takes courage to bloom - to leave the comfort of what we are to become something else, because blossoming entails a softening in our opening that makes us vulnerable in our receptivity. The beauty of transformation comes at a price. We have to let go in order to let in something new."The process of transformation is not without pain," writes James Fenhagen."In becoming open to all that is new, there is the pain of letting go of all that is old. Sometimes the things that hurt us the most are the hardest to discard. The promise, however, is that in the struggle – that ongoing, ever-changing struggle for growth - God is always present. Through [God] we are transformed." Transformation is holy process.

Isaiah’s pericope speaks of God’s loving transformation of creation, of all people, place and thing."Be strong, do not fear!" says the prophet, reminding us of the risk we take in blossoming, as well as God’s loving presence as we bloom. Though God’s grace is at work in all persons, God has a "preferential option for the poor" and the oppressed. God cares for those who are wounded and left out. We remember in the annual Advent ritual the transformation of a young peasant girl, Mary, who opened herself fully to God. We recall how the Spirit filled her, transformed her, and, by extension, the world in which she lived. Like a blossom, Mary as Godbearer naturally allowed herself to be the beautiful promise of something more in her loving embrace of God present within her. In her great vulnerability and openness, God astoundingly transformed all life. God used those of "low estate," the oppressed and vulnerable, to be the messengers of new life.

And as astounding as it sounds, we, too, are capable of welcoming Incarnation: "God makes human beings holy," writes Ron Foster and Kenda Creasy Dean."God dwells in our souls and works patiently and persistently to form Christ within us so that we can bear Christ into the world." If the fact that one man resurrected points to the human potential for that for us all, then the fact that one woman welcomed Incarnation bears witness to the fact that we are all gifted with that chance to partner with God to bring forth life’s Love in the world. We constantly live with the opportunity to lovingly embrace God’s presence within others and ourselves.

William Johnson writes "The greatest challenge of the Christian life is to receive love, to open our hearts to the one who knocks, to accept him in to the very depth of our being…authentic human love is God’s love made incarnate." Our love embodies Christ.

But, will we take the risk of embracing it?

Despite full participation in the growth process, not all flowers yield. Sometimes in our own lives as well, despite all our trying, we still experience barrenness in life: spiritual barrenness, known as acedia, or physical barrenness regarding fertility, perhaps job loss or professional dissatisfaction with our careers, or even alienation within important relationships. We can be profoundly discouraged when we want something very badly, and we try very hard to acquire it, and it just doesn’t happen or isn’t there.

"Bloom where you are planted" proclaims the illustrated artwork of Mary Englebrecht. Sometimes that’s easier said than done - and sometimes, even when we eagerly work to bloom, there is still no fruit. Anna’s second pregnancy resulted in unexpected miscarriage, and the decision to have another child was tempered by the firsthand knowledge of what could possibly go wrong. Incumbent in her and her husband’s decision to have more children, was a greater awareness of physical and emotional vulnerability in even just trying again. A blossom, like a pregnancy, is a testimony to the hope of intimacy. Not all flowers yield, but a bud that doesn’t try to open, forfeits any chance of ever yielding fruit.

Mechtild of Magdeburg once described herself as "a dusty acre" in need of "the fruitful rain of [Christ’s] humanity, and the gentle dew of the Holy Spirit," in an acknowledgment of her need for God to help her grow. God is always with us in our trying regardless of results. Matthew’s gospel passage proclaims that the Messiah is known by the restoration of those who have given up hope. In times of barrenness, God’s presence can offer us the courage needed to try again.

We need to remember that no desert is totally dry. The most barren land has underground supplies of continuous water hidden deep within buried aquifers. Acedia may cause us to feel dry in our faith, but always deep within us is the grace to open to living waters. God moves gently through our own vulnerabilities and wounds to bring forth abundance where we only imagine loss, failure and death. God has a bias towards healing and wholeness at every level of life, whether personal, relational or political. Jan Richardson’s prayer evokes spiritual aquifers: "You hollow us out, God, so that we may carry you, and you endlessly fill us only to be emptied again. Make smooth our inward spaces and sturdy that we may hold you with less resistance and bear you with deeper grace." The drought times of acedia call us to trustingly live in the hope of the rains promised in James…to prepare ourselves for God’s changes celebrated in the Isaiah passage.

Remarkably, deserts are hospitable places to a hidden surface life that just patiently waits for the natural opportunity to reveal itself – for the right time to transform. ‘The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom," says the prophet Isaiah. While living on the edge of the Saguaro National Monument outside Tucson, Arizona, Bruce and his wife, Kate, personally experienced both the stark barrenness of desert as well as the colorful texture of new life that follows spring rains. Wonder, beauty, and creation that lay almost hidden, just waiting for the right time, sprung forth in abundance in a process that naturally paralleled their own relationship’s blossoming that year, in the gift of their first child, Matthew. In the beautiful promise of something more, God’s love transforms all life.

The nurture of plants, persons, and relationships can’t be hurried. While we provide the environment of love, understanding, and kindness, we must, as the Epistle of James states, "be patient. ’" In the midst of the often imperceptible process of healing and growth, we must wait patiently, for we cannot see the future with any greater clarity than the seed can imagine the blossom and fruit that will emerge from its own steady growth. In the desert, there are seeds or small creatures like brine shrimp that wait fifty or even a hundred years for the chance to germinate or hatch in the gift of moisture. The hope of life extends that long.

Many of us, as we look at God’s healing work in our own lives, are a bit like our children who, on driving trips, ask their parents every five minutes, "Are we there, yet? Are we there, yet?" The healing of a wound, a relationship, a country, takes time, for every healing involves a new birth out of chaos of alienation and pain. Premature growth, like the early blossoming that occurs when spring weather comes too soon, may lead to future barrenness, just as a cold snap following several warm days can diminish a tree’s fruitfulness. Difficult as it is, there are times when we must wait patiently, trusting that "the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ." (Philippians 1:6)

But, patience does not mean passivity. Our growth, like that of the flower and true, involves our commitment God’s aim at abundant life and our trust that our experience of healing and fruitfulness will supply the needs of those around us. Psychologist and author Robert Wicks reminds us "We have a choice: we can see difficult times as a time to learn to appreciate that love is already in our lives and seek to share ourselves in ‘small’ ways through caring conversation and thoughtful little gestures, or we can hide from the ‘now’ and wait until the ‘springtime’ to do ‘big’ things for others. We have a choice: we can focus on the barren…or we can with God’s guidance – pick out the winter rose."

In the natural world, flowers serve as messengers of the fruit to come. In human relationships, pregnancy announces and "prepares" us to be parents. Perhaps, we can see the rough hewn message of John the Baptist as the growth an unlikely blossom which would reach fulfillment in the coming of Jesus as the Messiah. The hopeful expectancy of Advent is a yearly spiritual discipline that reminds us that Christ is slowly growing in our own lives. When we allow Christ to grow in our lives, we blossom and become fruitful. The divine vine bears fruit in what might have been a barren life. God’s lively energy fills us, and the in the process of receiving, we are "fulfilled" and able to share our fruitfulness with others.

God’s Shalom is all embracing. There are no gaps in God’s care and healing touch. God tends each moment’s growth with the care of a loving gardener, nurturing, watering, pruning, protecting. God tends our own lives gently even as God invites us to share in God’s dream for our future.

Mother Theresa tells the following story: "a group of professors asked ‘tell us something that will help us, that will help us become holy." And I said to them, ‘Smile at each other’ (because we have no time even to look at each other)". A smile opens us to joy and connection in this hectic world…

If we become so consumed by getting Christmas right – the right present…cards…dishes for Christmas dinner – we risk missing the surprising ways that God prepares us in this season. As we open to God’s guiding in these Advent days, we may discover, as Jan Richardson notes, that "the space being prepared for the coming birth lies within our own selves."

Thomas Merton writes "All the good that you will do will come not from you but from the fact that you have allowed yourself, in obedience of faith, to be used by God’s love. Think of this more, and gradually…you can be more open to the power that will work

Through you without your knowing it."

Either in worship, church school, or in a quiet time at home, take time to be still in God’s presence. In the stillness, let your mind wander. Ponder the goodness of God in the world. Take time to imagine the world as a fertile place blooming with God’s possibilities for fruitful beauty. Where are divine possibilities emerging in your life? What do you need in order to nourish these possibilities?

Visualize another person (a child, parent, spouse, friend). Image God’s possibilities for their life. What do they need for their growth and fulfillment? In what ways can you nurture and support the movement of abundance in their lives?

Conclude with a prayer of thanksgiving for God’s presence in your life and for the opportunities for growth in your life. Give thanks for the growth of the other(s), asking God’s guidance in your nurture of their lives.

Bruce Epperly is Professor of Practical Theology and Director of Continuing Education at Lancaster Theological Seminary. He is the author of seventeen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living and Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God, written with Kate Epperly, and selected as the 2009 Book of the Year by the Academy of Parish Clergy. He can be contacted for conversation, lectures, seminars, workshops, and preaching engagements.