There is a story told a hundred different ways but with the same punch line; it is about a man who falls off a cliff. He slips over the edge, careening and banging downward. Then, as if by miracle, his pants snag for just a millisecond on the skinniest of tree branches. He quickly grabs hold of it, and for the moment remains alive, though he is hanging thousands of feet above the ground.
He can’t climb up, and he can’t lower himself to the canyon floor below. Stuck as he is, with no one else to call upon, and powerless to save himself, he looks heavenward and prays: “Dear God! Please help me!” A thunderous but calming voice answers from heaven: “Do you trust Me, My beloved son?”
The man cries out in return, “Yes, God, I trust you! Please save me!” God answers, “Okay, just let go of the branch and I will catch you.” The man thinks about this offer and his situation for a moment, and looking at the jagged rocks below him, calls out: “Well…is there anyone else up there who can help me?”
Sometimes we want God to intervene. To help us, save us; to show up. His voice and presence, more often than not, are slow in arriving. But sometimes – on rare and unusual occasions – God does speak. He acts. He intervenes. He appears. And when he does, it often results in more trepidation than if he had held his tongue and remained elusive.
Think of Moses standing barefoot at the burning bush; Jacob in a surprise wrestling match with the Angel of the Lord; Saul, blind and blathering on the Damascus road. As Annie Dillard said of those of us who casually enter our church sanctuaries each week, “Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? We should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews…For the waking God may draw us out to where we can never return.”
Advent, which begins this week, is no exception to this experience. It is the rule. God speaks – God arrives – and even though it is in the form of a helpless baby, the world is turned upside down. Shepherds quake. Angels sing. Mary trembles. Awe-inspired Magi bow in reverence. Joseph, a stunned carpenter, probably wonders if someone “else up there” could deliver him from the delivery of this child.
What was it all about? Faith, no doubt. All of these characters are asked to “leap” from their secure perches to land in God’s arms. They are all asked to believe that the baby, “wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger,” is indeed the Promised One of God, a uniquely born gift to the world. Are we not all asked to believe the same?
And this Advent season is about listening to the voice of God. I am very much aware that when one speaks of “hearing God’s voice,” it might be time to call the paddy wagon. Great lunacies have been committed by individuals convinced that they were on a divine mission. Some of these insanities have crossed over into atrocity.
But to hear God speak, deep within our hearts, is not necessarily a sign of mental illness. It can be; just like finding Jesus’s image in a bag of cheese puffs or an icon of the Virgin Mary on the back of a piece of raisin toast at the Waffle House. It can be a manipulative way to dupe the spiritually naïve (or sell a pile of books just before the holiday season).
Yet, on those rare and unusual occasions, Annie Dillard is right: “The waking God may draw us out to where we can never return.” Yes, Advent means that God has spoken and will continue to speak. It means that God has and will continue to intervene. And in the process, God will demand ruthless trust. But, he is trustworthy, and will never leave you hanging.