“Wait and Seethe” was the title of a segment of the CBS Morning News on Monday. The story was about the 50 worst traffic bottlenecks in the country, places like one from New Jersey to New York where there are red lights and waiting cars for 12 miles every day. These bottlenecks, said the report, cause 16.9 million hours of waiting and wasting time. “Wait and seethe.”
And for many, waiting does seem like a waste of time and can produce seething. I am among those who do not like to wait in the line at the grocery store, or even at the bank (we can do most of that on-line now anyway), or for fast food (which defies its very name!). We are a nation that likes instant gratification, and we can achieve that more and more with internet shopping. Waiting is generally not one of our better gifts.
And yet here we are in church, where waiting is often a part of what we do. With the prelude, we wait for worship to begin, hopefully with some moments of silence and reflection. We wait for our children to finish the craft they started in Sunday School. Sometimes we wait for worship to be over, so that we can get to lunch or a ballgame. But much of that waiting may also be a bit impatient on our parts.
Yet the church continues to call us to seasons of waiting, especially during Advent and Lent. Today we begin the season of Advent, which is actually the start of a new year for the liturgical calendar. For the next four weeks, we will wait for the celebration of Jesus’ birth. This practice of Advent, which started long ago, traced back to at least the 400’s, was at first a penitential time of fasting and waiting, similar to Lent. Even the color of Advent, the purple, is a solemn color of repentance, also used during Lent, though more churches are changing to blue, in order to lose some of the somber note, and to distinguish it from Lent. With the commercialization and secularization of Christmas, Advent has become much less of a spiritual experience of waiting and reflecting.
I suspect that most folks do not particularly like passages like the one from Luke today during Advent. This is a time we consider to be happy and fun, as we trim trees and decorate houses, and buy presents in anticipation of that big day on December 25. Yet, here are the scriptures that lead us not to the jolly nature of Santa Claus, but to a somber, simple manger in a dark stable, but also forward through Jesus’ life and resurrection to the second coming of Christ at what some call the "end times." As our passage says today, at those times, "There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on earth, distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heaven will be shaken" (Luke 21:25-26). Maybe we do need to pay attention, for that sounds too eerily close to what is going on in our world these days.
We are offering a study during the Sunday School hour these next four Sundays of Advent, based on a book by Paula Gooder, titled The Meaning in the Waiting: The Spirit of Advent. Paula says:
"One of the oddest features of Advent is that it requires us to wait for something that has already happened, as well as for something that has not. It is the double vision of Advent that we look both backward with anticipation as we wait for the birth of Christ 2,000 years ago, and also forward with anticipation to the end times. The awkwardness of Advent is enhanced by the expectation that we not only wait for the past, which seems impossible, but also for the end times – a doctrine that many people find increasingly uncomfortable and hard to talk about." (Gooder, pp.10-11)
Maybe we find it increasingly hard to talk about because it is all too familiar. Fear and foreboding fill our minds and hearts when we hear of terror attacks around the world, and we fear them coming closer to home. Fear and foreboding abides in us with shooting after shooting in public places in our own country. Fear and foreboding fill us when we receive a diagnosis of the "C" word, cancer or other dread diseases. Fear and foreboding nag us when natural disasters get bigger and deadlier, out of our control. There are those who look around at all that is happening and say we are approaching the end times. But then, people have been saying that since biblical times. The Gospel of Mark was written with the assumption that Jesus would come again very soon. Periodically we hear of groups that are predicting the end of the world on a certain date. Yet it has not happened, and even Jesus said that only the Father knows when it will.
So then, what are we to do with scriptures like this one? "Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near," said Jesus. Then Jesus told a little parable about a fig tree, or any tree, sprouting leaves. We know that new life on the trees signals spring and summer coming. These are natural signs, as clear to us as night and day. So God will give us clear signals when we need them. And "this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place," he says, but the word meaning generation can mean the 30 or so years between generations, like what we name as Baby Boomers and Millennials, etc. But it can also refer to an age or era of history, or even all of human history. So we are not given a deadline or certain date. "Heaven and earth will pass away," Jesus says, "but my words will not pass away." So we are to rely on that which never fails, the Word of God, and our faith. We are to trust God, to "be on guard," to "be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape." Jesus is giving us instructions for how to live as we wait. Jesus is reminding us of what scholars call "salvation history," the ways in which God has saved the people over and over – from Noah and his family in the Ark, to the Israelites escaping Egypt when Moses parted the Red Sea, and God provided manna and water in the desert, to Joseph saving his brothers in the famine, and on to Jesus dying on the cross and rising again for us. God has a history of being with us, of getting us through the hard times and raising us back up again. Remember salvation stories, and in the hard times, live in anticipation of them, says Jesus.
Again, the words of Paula Gooder in our study book are helpful:
"Salvation history continues today. The point of telling and retelling the history of salvation is so that we can recognize it when it breaks into our world. The message of salvation is that God is the kind of God who breaks into our world: creating, liberating, healing, raising from the dead, and saving. God has done it so often in history, and because the snowball keeps rolling, will do it again, but we need to train ourselves to be able to recognize that creation/Exodus/return from exile/birth of Jesus/resurrection moment when it appears before our eyes." The problem is with us, and our lack of waiting and watching faithfully. "So often," she says, " God is present in our world but we fail to recognize it." Then she quotes Elizabeth Barrett Browning from her poem, "Aurora Leigh:"
"Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees takes off his shoes –
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries." (Gooder, p.14)
The question is, will we be among those who see God and take off our shoes, as we recognize, even in the midst of turmoil, that we are on holy ground,…..or will we be in the crowd who sit around and pluck blackberries, taking advantage of whatever we can grab here and now?
Surely we are a "hurry up and wait" people, wanting what we want now -that instant gratification, wanting answers to problems and issues here and now as well, though often the answers do not come. Gooder compares the waiting to pregnancy, and says she did not truly understand waiting until she was pregnant. "The only thing to do in pregnancy is wait," she says, "and not only that but to hope against hope that the period of waiting does not end prematurely" (Gooder, p.7). Pregnancy is a long, slow wait, when we do whatever we can to take care of our own bodies so that we can take care of the developing life inside of us. But it is not an easy wait. It takes work, it takes patience, it takes trust. We should wait during Advent with such anticipation, patience, and faith, says Gooder. For God is present in our world. Indeed we see glimmers of God’s presence all the time, if we but look with faithful eyes.
As Christians, we often look to see how Jesus did to help us know how to live rightly. As the bracelet movement of some years back asked, "What would Jesus do?" Maybe we find that in the final two verses of our passage for today:
"Every day he was teaching in the temple, and at night he would go out and spend the night on the Mount of Olives, as it was called. And all the people would get up early in the morning to listen to him in the temple" (Luke 21:37-38)
After these words that seem so ominous, these words of warning and foreboding, Jesus went right back to his routine of teaching in the temple, and resting at night. But he, the Savior himself, rested in the very place where he would be arrested, where the Passion narrative would begin – where our salvation would commence. Jesus showed us that in the end times, or in any time, we should continue to live as followers of God. In the meantime, in the time of waiting, we live as if Christ were our next-door neighbor. We offer what we have to help others, as did the poor widow with two small coins. We hurry down from the tree like Zaccheus to walk with Jesus, repenting and repaying those we have wronged. We welcome the little children, and see in them a glimmer of the kingdom, as Jesus did. We invite "the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame" into dinner. We look to the words and deeds of caring and loving and finding justice for all that Jesus taught us and showed us. That is how we live and wait, in Advent and always, because we trust that God is already present and working out the promises of hope even here and now, as well as somewhere in the future.
Today is the first day of Advent. Our waiting starts anew here and now. We await the past with recognition of its saving grace originating in a humble and dark stable, and we await the future with the knowledge that God is always with us, even, as Jesus said at the end of the Gospel of Matthew, "to the end of the age." We await, with no indication of when or what "the end" will mean. Yet while we wait, we work to make the kingdom of God where we live, because we trust that God is at work in the world even now. Will we sit around and pluck blackberries with others, or will we help each other to recognize that even now we are standing on holy ground? The choice is ours, even as we hurry up and wait.
"Come, Lord Jesus, come."
Gooder, Paula, The Meaning in the Waiting (Paraclete Press, MA, 2008)
Ringe, Sharon H., Luke (Westminster/John Knox Press, KY, 1995)