There is an insistence in the special prayer for the last Sunday in Advent that is answered in the passages of Scripture recommended in the Lectionary. It is a plea that arises from the human predicament and all its repercussions: "O Lord, raise up, we pray thee, thy power, and come among us, and with great might succour us". It is an urgent request that emerges from the extremities of human experience, but it is encouraged in its vehemence by God's revelation in Scripture that he truly hears the cry of his people, inviting and answering it.
Prayer is not the last resort in an attitude of despair but the first action of the believer alerted to a crisis or a need. It is instinctive to call upon God because the Spirit inspires the urge and the written word of God is the warrant. We appeal to God because he desires and demands that we should approach him. Prayer is faith given the voice of the supplicant, not the shout of the person who has run out of options. So the prayers of men do not prompt God to action: God prompts the prayer as his opening action in his work of deliverance.
He awakens us to a need, we register concern, we formulate our request, and in doing so we are better able to recognize the intervention and aid of the Lord. Prayer makes us conscious of his constant and active concern. Without anxiety and petition we would be oblivious to the hand of God in all things and our gratitude towards him would be minimal. True prayer is always provoked by God and the best promoter of prayer, given our spiritual torpor, is some degree of trouble or perplexity: it stirs the soul effectually, otherwise we are apt to attribute good fortune to luck, or some clever move on our part. Rescue from our distresses, and amelioration of our sorrows, come from the Lord whose providence prevails everywhere without limit.
It is significant that in the cry for God to summon his power on our behalf there is the longing that he should actually be present in the midst of our troubles and not simply alleviate them from a distance.
God could exercise remote control over our circumstances, but the craving is also for his consolation, and true consolation is always intimate in its contact. It is designed for the heart of a sufferer and there-fore it must be heartfelt. The believer does not just want extrication from his grief; he wants his God. He isn't longing simply for the exercise of divine power; he wants the presence of the divine person. It is the touch of God that brings hope and comfort.
The hindrances and hurts in life are, in the broad sense, the results of sin and the Collect recognizes the basis of our general misery and danger for which we are responsible. It is from self that we need saving: "That, whereas, through our sins and wickedness, we are sore let and hindered in running the race that is set before us".
Such is our plight, originating in ourselves personally, that our Helper must be near and at work "on site" in our hearts for deliverance to be of any avail. It is admitted to God that only, "Thy bountiful grace and mercy may speedily help and deliver us". Again, it is remarkable that the power sought from God is not merely his strength or the force of his nature, but power displayed in grace, and grace that is not meagre or minimal but bountiful. The nature of God is not only perceived as almighty but also as loving. God is almighty and attractive and that is why the Collect asks him to come among us.
He is terrible and tender and that combination melts the human heart.
To the advent cry, "Come among us", the Scriptures are responsive both with words of promise and fulfillment. In one sense God is on the way, with reference to the last day. In another sense, indeed several, he is already come. The Bible alternates in its assertions depending on the context. He is both already here in the historical and risen Jesus and his residence in our hearts, and he is hurrying towards us for his second appearing at the end of the age. Here we are blessed by his grace. Hereafter we will be amazed at the full blaze of his glory.
Our first portion of Scripture for Advent 4 (Philippians 4: 4-7) assures us that our pining for the closeness of the Lord is already being answered. Paul intimates to believers under pressure that "the Lord is at hand". His aid to us in adversity is available. And in assisting his people the Lord is not only exercising "technical skill"
but also tender care.
The second reading (John 1: 19-28) records a part of John the Baptist's witness to Christ. "But among you stands one you do not know" (v26). Until his baptism the Saviour is incognito. It is necessary for him to be announced by the forerunner, and John points to Jesus when the time is right (v29). But when he alludes to the anonymity of the Messiah he may also be alluding to the spiritual blindness and hardness of the people. They may stubbornly choose to continue not knowing Jesus, especially those of the establishment who were quizzing John. These men formed the opposition to John and to Jesus. The majority never truly came to know Jesus for who he was or could be to them. They cut themselves off from that knowledge through malicious pride.
At heart every believer is always yearning for Jesus, and then more of him. At all times, whether the Lord is available or seemingly absent, the yearning grows more deep. The advent cry is perpetual, "Come among us", and it is uttered in many variations by the waiting people of God, as expressed in the Psalms and Prophets especially.
"Come among us" is often the cry of God's people in trouble as they plead for an abatement or cessation of their woes. The same words may give vent to the desire for fellowship with God in word, sacrament, worship, and private devotion. We call on God from a sense of emergency, or from the wish to enjoy him through the ministry of the Spirit. But the plea, "Come among us" culminates in the season's celebration of the wondrous miracle of the Incarnation. John summed it up when he said, "One stands among you". In our flesh God stood among us. He planted his feet upon our earth and dwelt among us. He lived in fully human fashion except for sin, the fatal sign of our abnormality through our evil rebellion as a race. Our yearning for God yielded the coming of Jesus and we are satisfied beyond all dreaming and imagination. Our plight and plea as sinners produced the most marvelous provision of God that only his wisdom and generosity could supply. Nothing can surpass the gift of Jesus. Our ill-desert necessitated his appearing. "O happy fault!", exults the Easter Liturgy, for in Christ God has made himself sufficiently known and given himself fully to us: "No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father's side, has made him known" (John 1:18).