What do you mean, wake up? Of course I’m awake! I have errands to run and kids to drop off and meals to cook and presents to wrap and a house to clean and parties to attend. How on earth could I have time to sleep?
It would make more sense for me to tell people to go to bed than to push their rushed schedule. But while the world is busy around Christmas, we are rarely paying attention to the reason for our business.
Like the person who moves in near the highway, the noise that originally was so clear has faded into the background. The wonder of advent has become common place over the years. We’ve become numb to this time. And we’ve forgotten how to wait.
We’re entertained in convenient ½ hour portions available at the click of a remote control. We’ve been fattened by fast food and by the promise of getting there faster if we drive instead of walk. We’ve been indoctrinated by an economic system based on the false promise of buy now, pay later. We’re up to our eyeballs in debt.
We’re programmed to expect instant gratification. We quicken our pep up in the morning with a cup of caffeine and quicken our relaxation at night with a glass (or three) or red. The questions “why wait?” is now only offered rhetorically and we are faced with the temptation of responding with the great cliché of our time: why wait? Just do it!
Advent, a season devoted to our watchfully waiting, is sacrificed to that mentality.
This world of ‘why wait’ is my world – and I, most of the time, live in it quite comfortably. So that struggle is my struggle too, and when I stand here to talk about the season of waiting, of ‘not yet’ – I am not standing here as an authority, or as one well-practiced in the art and discipline of patience. I’m actually extremely bad at patience. I’m terrible at meditating. I don’t grow my own vegetables, I sometimes drive when I could walk.
But the problem of right now also goes deeper than that. Many of us are struggling in a wait for things which are far more important than the superficial ones I’ve described. People who are lonely and desperately hoping to find someone to share their lives with are forced to live in a time of waiting. People who hope to have a child but are unable to conceive or have not found a partner to share this with wait – often painfully. Those who are sick wait to feel better, to move out of their depression, to be able to move without pain.
Those who have had relationships break down or whose relationships are marked by awful tension or violence or lack of communication are waiting for something to change; waiting for reconciliation; or waiting for the courage to leave; or simply the wisdom to know what to do. Some are plagued by the feeling they are meant for something different than the job or role they have today. Some feel they have potential they cannot find a way to fulfill. Many of us have a vision for the world – a vision of no more poverty, injustice and war and some have prayed for these things for years. And yet – here we are. Have we even made any progress? Where is God and what is God doing? When will we see the things we hope for?
In today’s reading from Isaiah we hear the prophet join with us in our hopeful yet painful wait: “If only, LORD; if only you would rip the sky open and come on down!” Together we wait.
And as much as I as an individual, and us collectively, seem to struggle with waiting for anything, deeper inside our spirits and memories I believe we know more than we realize about the goodness and necessity of the wait. It still takes 9 months to grow a baby, and the wait is not always pleasant. We know that old wine is far finer than new wine. Those of us who have made terrible, stupid mistakes in life know that wisdom is not gained quickly or easily but is discovered over time through the sometimes messy episodes of a life lived.
Like us, the people of the New Testament churches lived in the tension of the wait. Jesus had been and lived among them. He had authored their faith and promised to return. He had come yet there was still more to wait for. He had been with them, yet they were still waiting for him. In today’s gospel reading we find a people impatient – as we are – for God to once again “rip the sky open and come on down!” The people of Mark’s community struggle in their wait for their Saviour to come back. When will he come? What will it be like?
The biblical answer gives us our cue to advent waiting: people of faith are marked not by quick answers to prayer or special knowledge about future events; people of faith are marked by the way in which we wait. The message from today’s gospel passage is to not wait passively but to use this time to get ready, to live rightly, to be active in bringing about God’s vision of what the world could be like, rather than waiting for God to do it alone.
For us, there are times in life, in faith, in the history of the world where it feels much like the movie Groundhog Day. We make the same mistakes over and over. We live the same routine over and over. We long to have greater faith or a more experience of God. We go to church – over and over. We wait.
We wait, but we aren’t really paying attention to our waiting. We wait, but we blame God for the waiting. We wait, but only reluctantly. We have failed to keep watch while we wait. As I said, I’m terrible at waiting. I refuse to go anywhere I might have to stand in line without a book. Airports, bus stops, particularly busy days at the store, I can be found standing in line, reading. When I notice the line has moved I’ll shuffle forward with everyone else, but I can hardly can be said to be paying attention. I have found a way to avoid the boring part.
Yet what can seem like the meaningless marching on of time, what can seem like the same thing over and over, can be part of God’s work of redemption. Sometimes, the prolonging of history – the time we are given which can be seen as too much time – too much waiting – can be a gift that allows us to become aware of God’s purposes. Sometimes our advent task – our task in the season of ‘not yet’ is to become more of who we were created to be and to join with Mark’s New Testament friends and “get ready”. But in order to see that, we need to be paying attention while we wait. We must be watchful. We must keep awake.
For me, today’s passage from Mark is not actually offered to us as to inspire a debate about how many hurricanes constitute the end times or how many wars indicate the apocalypse is near. (Sorry to disappoint anyone who was hoping to hear that.)
But I hear this message as actually the antithesis of this kind of ranting. Its message is that living as people of faith is as much about how we live in between huge events and great moments as it is about the great events or celebrations of faith. Christian faith is seen as much in Advent as in Christmas because it is here that we can demonstrate to a world which struggles with the “not yet” of life that people of faith wait differently. Advent waiting is different from hopeless, passive waiting. We cry out with Isaiah, “If only, LORD; if only you would rip the sky open and come on down!” but we do so knowing that God has and will “come on down”. We wait with hope and with purpose, watchfully.
Advent is the season of “not yet”
In Advent we refuse to jump straight to Christmas and to take for granted the presence of God. We wait to discern more carefully the One for whom we wait, and the One who waits for us.
To me, waiting in watchfulness is embodied in my dog, Dylan.
I have never in his entire life fed him while I am eating. Yet when I sit down at the couch with a bowl of popcorn, Dylan stations himself at my feet and sits ramrod straight. Every piece of popcorn I lift from the bowl, he watches leaning forward slightly to track its progress to my mouth. During each bite, he tenses, ready to spring into action to snatch up the piece should I drop it or choose to toss it his way. He doesn’t leave his vigilant post until he’s sure that there isn’t a morsel left.
I have never fed him, yet he eternally waits in hope, tensed in eager anticipation for the feast that might come.
That is how the Scriptures call us to wait during Advent. Tensed in eager anticipation and hope. That is how I lived during Advent in my childhood – eagerly watching the signs of the season: the advent wreath appearing, the decorating of the church. If I was lucky, the first snowfall. A room lit with Christmas tree lights was to me a holy place – they filled the ordinary with a sense of wonder.
But I grew up. I went to college. I didn’t take the time to go to church. Instead of Advent, I focused on finals in the weeks before Christmas. Even when I went back to church on a regular basis, it wasn’t the same. I had become numb to the wonder of Advent. But I didn’t have to be. With some effort, I reminded myself of why this was my favorite time of the church year.
You don’t have to be numb either! We can still be filled with the joyful, watchfulness of the season that we are called to. If you feel yourself just being carried along by the errands of the season and the business of your lives, stop for a moment. Remember what it is we are waiting for. When I find myself growing impatient or feeling overwhelmed during this season, I picture a little dog waiting on faith alone.
Waiting here and now is not so different from the waiting that happened so long ago in Bethlehem, except that we have already received a part of the great gift of God-with-us. We already know something of the story of Jesus – the unique one who came to tell us that it is reasonable and worthwhile to hope and to expect God’s vision of the world to come to be. Jesus has come but we are also still waiting for his coming. We have seen God – but God is still hidden from us so much of the time.
We wait for Christmas – because we have a sense – even if it is only a small sense – of what it might mean for God to be here among us in the fullest, closest way. And because the Messiah who came to Bethlehem did not look anything like the world was expecting, we learn during Advent and Christmas to wait for all those things we long for with the humbling understanding that the perfect gifts of God – the things we are really longing for, sometimes without even knowing it, may not look anything like those things we think we are hoping for.
And so during the season of ‘not yet’ we join with Isaiah, and the New Testament church in crying out, “O Lord, rip the sky open and come on down!” if in slightly different words. So let us pray together in song: “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”
We all are waiting during this Advent season – some more anxiously than others. If you are looking for a church home to wait in, we would be happy to have you join our church family. Just speak with one of us after the service and we’ll get you started.
Rev. Cara Gee November 30th, 2008