And so this is Advent… and once again the blessed season of waiting begins…
Actually, having said that I also have to wonder just how “blessed” this waiting thing really is! It’s a thought that first occurred to me one day earlier this week while in the midst of my third hour on the phone with a technical support person who was trying to help me resolve some issues on my laptop computer; what I’d naïvely thought would be a quick fix turned into a two-day odyssey of waiting for lengthy software downloads interspersed with being put on hold for inordinate periods of times while the “specialists” tried to get to the bottom of things! And though the temptation was always to just hang up the phone and forget the whole thing, I hung in there for fear that giving up would make me have to wait all the longer for someone to actually fix the computer!
Is it not true that so much of life, one way or another, is spent waiting: waiting in long lines at Market Basket or at the Division of Motor Vehicles; waiting in crawling traffic while driving I-93 South to Boston; or for that matter, spending our time wondering when things are ever going to get better for us in our lives; if all the effort and patience that we’ve put into that job, or that plan, or that relationship will eventually pay off; or, waiting to see if, against all odds, the world itself will ever change! Life just seems to be this never-ending cycle of anticipation both hopeful and anxious; we just seem to spend our days dwelling in what Dr. Seuss, in his wonderful book Oh, the Places You’ll Go!, refers to as “The Waiting Place.” You know…
“The Waiting Place… for people just waiting. Waiting for a train to go or a bus to come, or a plane to go or the mail to come, or the rain to go or the phone to ring, or the snow to snow or the waiting around for a Yes or No… …or waiting, perhaps, for their Uncle Jake or a pot to boil, or a Better Break or a string of pearls, or a pair of pants, or a wig with curls, or Another Chance. Everyone is just waiting.”
Dr. Seuss understood, and so do we: in this life we’re all “just waiting,” but the truth is that nobody really wants to wait; we’d all just rather get to those places we’re going! And so here it is, the season of Advent in the church, a time which by its very definition – the word Advent comes from the Latin adventus, which means “coming,” – we’re called to be waiting yet again; specifically, to watch and to prepare for the day of the Lord’s coming in the birth of the Christ child! For us, Advent is the season of the “soon but not yet,” and as such it is our “waiting place.” And that’s particularly difficult for us as faithful Christians, especially considering that all around us the holiday season has long since come in earnest; I mean, why should we have to hold off on the celebrating for four more weeks when the rest of the world is already caught up in carols and presents and the golden glow of Christmas? For us, who are supposed to be the people of what Christmas is all about, to have to sit and wait for it is just not practical given the world as we know it; and frankly, it’s not fair!
…as this particular season of Advent begins and Christmas does indeed come like a juggernaut into the world around us, perhaps it’s precisely this “Waiting Place” where you and I need to be the most.
In our reading this morning from the Old Testament prophet Isaiah we’re given those wonderful and familiar words of the days when God’s ways will become the ways of the world; a time when swords will be beaten into plowshares, spears will become pruning hooks and “nation shall not lift up sword against nation, [and] neither shall they learn war any more.” And, to be sure, it’s a vision… God’s promise to his people Israel that as of yet hadn’t come to pass in its fullness; in fact, in those days of exile the very idea of “the mountain of the LORD’S house” being “established as the highest of mountains” must have seemed to them a beautiful yet utterly distant dream, not unlike our own deep yearnings for peace on earth and goodwill amongst all people. And yet if you look closely at this passage, the fact that this promise is still “not yet” is almost beside the point.
The NRSV translation we read this morning begins by telling us that these things will be “in days to come;” the NIV gets a bit more time-specific by saying that it’ll happen “in the last days.” But if you go back to the original Hebrew text, you’ll find that it literally translates as “in the back of the days,” or “in the midst of the present.” In other words, it’s present perfect tense; it’s how you and I might refer to something when the moment is ripe for its happening; when God’s promises are so sure and so certain it is as though they’ve already come to pass! It’s the hush in the theater just before the curtain rises, or that instant as the conductor raises his baton for the orchestra to begin to play; it’s that tiniest of sounds you hear off in the distant forest, the wisp of wind or the snap of a twig that you have to lean into the silence in order to simply hear; it’s the hazy ring around the winter moon that means that snow is coming. As Frederick Beuchner has so beautifully put it (one of my absolute favorite quotes from Beuchner!), “The extraordinary thing that is about to happen is matched only by the extraordinary moment just before it happens. Advent is the name of that moment.”
What Isaiah proclaims unto Israel and unto us is that God will act; that the cycles of violence and injustice that run rampant in this world will soon come to an end, and in fact “in the back of these days” all of the things that God has proclaimed are coming to pass: its coming, its Advent is nearer than we can even imagine! And so our task in this extraordinary moment “just before” is to wait; to wait on God’s sure and certain promise to be fulfilled.
Understand, however, that we’re not talking here about passive waiting; this is not God putting us a cosmic version of “on hold” forever. This “waiting place” has to do with readying ourselves for the time that is coming. Did you happen to notice that in our passage from Isaiah today that the prophet’s words begin and end not with what God is just about to do, but what you and I are to be doing in anticipation of what God is doing! “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” And then, upon receiving that vision, it’s “come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!”
Advent is about us getting ourselves ready for that which the world continually informs us can never, ever happen, and yet God is doing even now in the world: that hatred can be changed into love and war might be displaced by shalom; that quarrelling yields to listening, rejection to acceptance, apathy to service, selfishness to sacrifice and greed to generosity. What we’re talking about here is no less than fitting our lives and our hearts to the new reality of God’s kingdom that is “nearer to us now than when we became believers,” as Paul says it in the reading from Romans, “lay[ing] aside the works of darkness and put[ting] on the armor of light,” living unto the fullness of God’s promises in the here and now so that our hearts might be truly ready for that long-expected and extraordinary experience of an angels’ chorus singing praises for “God in flesh appearing.”
Of course, for us in the church this Advent season holds a dual meaning; and so in one sense, at least, our time in this “waiting place” will be relatively brief: I can tell you with reasonable certainty that 24 days from now we will gather in this place to light candles and rejoice at the birth of a Savior! But in a larger sense, friends, our waiting will continue far beyond December 25 and this season of celebration; our preparation goes on until that promised moment when God’s amazing vision for his creation comes to full fruition; when the Son of Man returns in glory and all that we have yearned for in faith and hope becomes a reality in the world and in our lives. This is the promise inherent in the mystery and wonder of our Christian faith, the glory that that we will proclaim again this morning at the communion table: that “Christ has died, Christ is risen, and that Christ will come again.”
And so, this is Advent, and once again the blessed season of waiting begins; and this, beloved, is our waiting place as God’s people: waiting and watching calmly for signs of his coming, displacing the darkness of this season and these days one candle at a time, waiting for God’s plan to come to full fruition. As the waiting goes on, yes, we’ll join the world in wrapping ourselves up in all the trimmings of the rest of the season: we’ll sing the songs, we’ll deck the halls (and the sanctuary!), and we’ll dress the children up in shepherd costumes and retell the familiar old story of a baby born in a manger in Bethlehem. But first and foremost, we’ll wait by preparing the way for his coming: living out the hope, the peace, the joy and the love that is promised the world in the Christ Child. By Word, by Deed and, today, by Sacrament, we will wait; wait for that glorious day when light comes into the world, even as we walk in that very light ourselves!
Let our waiting begin; and as it does, may our very lives be that sign of both the promise and its fulfillment. And may this be our prayer: “Come, thou long expected Jesus… born to set thy people free. From our fears and sins release us… let us find our rest in thee.”
Thanks be to God.
Amen, and AMEN!
c. 2013 Rev. Michael W. Lowry