The season of waiting begins…
You might not know it from the way our society keeps time, but Advent begins next Sunday. Four weeks later Christmas begins, a season of its own that lasts 12 days. But in the world outside the church, where ringing bells have historically meant ringing cash registers, Christmas started before Halloween. We might roll our eyes at the commercialization of it all, but we eventually fall in line and shop our way to the manger. Because truth be told, we don’t really like to wait.
And yet, the season of waiting begins.
We are supposed to be a people who know how to wait. Twice a year, we set aside time in the calendar to do just that: to wait. Before Easter, we have Lent: a period of weeks meant for self-reflection so that we might celebrate the resurrection with readied joy. And before Christmas, we have Advent: a season of joyous expectation at the birth of the Christ child.
But in 2015, why bother waiting at all? Do you want to watch a movie? Just figure out whether it’s on Netflix or Hulu and watch it. Want to buy a product? Hop onto Amazon and it’ll arrive in two days – or, in some places and some products, two hours! Waiting, it seems, is no longer relevant. It has become something quaint that people did way back in history, like, in the 20th century when we lived uncivilized lives. Our phones were only used for talking to people! When we wanted to buy something, we had to put on clothes and leave the house! People used things like postage stamps! I mean, we were practically Amish!
I kid, of course; but the truth is that the pace of technology and change seems to be consistently accelerating. We have become really good at asking what we want and figuring out a way to get it without necessarily asking what we need. And in the process, we are losing the ability to wait.
I’m convinced that this is not just a question of temporary impatience; this is a matter of spiritual survival.
Of course, if you know me, you know I love technology. I use it all of the time. I am an impatient person by nature. So you would think I would be thrilled with the direction in which we are moving. And the truth is I am. And that terrifies me. I am exactly the kind of person who needs to be reminded to slow down and wait.
At the heart of Advent is waiting. It was born in the early years of the Church. The four weeks of Advent is meant to mirror the forty days that Noah carried the animals in the ark, the forty years that Moses led the people in the wilderness, the four centuries of Scriptural silence that followed the last of the prophecies of the Hebrew Bible. Each of those moments led to something momentous. Noah and his family found a cleansed planet to begin again. Moses’ people had left slavery behind and moved into a future of promise. And God’s silence was simply waiting for the birth of the Messiah, Jesus, the Christ child. Seasons of waiting always, always pay off – maybe not in the way we expect or want, but in the way that we probably need.
And that’s the other thing about waiting. We wait not just to remind us of what happened before, but to remind us that there is more yet to come. This world is far from the way that God desires it. But I don’t need to remind you of that, do I? Every day this past week has brought news of this attack or provocation as the pitiful Caliphate of Raqqa – or Daesh, the so-called Islamic State – gains far more recognition than their actual power deserves. These feel like scary times. And, indeed, if it feels scary, that’s all we really need to be scared.
Meanwhile, we revisit this arcane holy day in the church calendar of Reign of Christ, or Christ the king: the moment for which we wait, when Jesus will be in charge of it all. It is, after all, the promise of the lesson we read today. After Isaiah pronounces God’s judgment on God’s people, of a once sacred vineyard now destroyed, he then reiterates that God’s promises cannot be defeated by human pettiness. The once mighty tree of Jesse, the father of King David, will sprout again. And this promised one to come will be just, righteous, fair, wise, compassionate, faithful. All he will need to do is speak and those wicked and violent destroyers will be gone!
The disciples believed that Jesus was the fulfillment of these prophecies about the Messiah. And because of that, they can be forgiven for thinking Jesus’ kingdom was to be a political one. If we remember, as they prepared to join him in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, they were convinced he was going to lead them in armed revolt, driving our King Herod and his Roman overlords, restoring the kingdom of Israel to its rightful lineage. As we know, the story didn’t quite turn out that way…but Jesus did tell them he would come back.
And so, not content with failing to learn our lesson once, we have built up the mythology around this return of Jesus so that it will be the militant overthrow of evil powers that Jesus failed to accomplish the first time around; but this time, it’ll star Nicolas Cage and Kirk Cameron!
The season of waiting begins…
Not that we sit idly by. But if we, for even a moment, think we know what it is that God has in mind, we really haven’t learned anything. In the meantime, we build the kingdom.. We do our best to follow Isaiah’s promise of the coming Messiah. We delight in the awe of the Lord. We give justice and righteousness to the poor, and fairness and equity to those who suffer. We clothe ourselves in faithfulness. We follow what it is that Jesus taught us to do: to feed the hungry; to give drink to the thirsty; to clothe the naked; to visit the prisoner; to welcome the stranger. And we do these things because Jesus told us that when we do these things, we do them to and for Jesus himself.
Friends, I have to be honest with you. I have been seething this week. Our political climate has disheartened me in brand new awful ways. I have never been a fan of presidential primary season, because it tends to appeal to the worst and most extreme segments of our society and widens gulfs that already exist. I know that being angry is not always the most helpful approach in our ever-dividing world of blue and red, conservative and progressive, tribe and tribe. I get that there are reasonable political differences of opinion when it comes to just about every political issue we address as a nation and as a world. I want to be a good steward of my citizenship, and I want to engage in those conversations – those reasonable conversations.
Beyond that, more than that, I am a Christian. That’s far from a simple thing to say. Depending on where I am, or who I’m talking to, that’s a good thing. Or that’s a bad thing. Or they might think I agree with them when I don’t, or think I disagree with them when I don’t do that, either. So here’s what it means to me:
I have tried on other ways of seeing the world and being in the world; but I have found no other way that calls the best out of me and restrains the worst in me and puts all of it in a context that just makes sense to me. And so, because of that, regardless of my politics, I am horrified by the rhetoric and the decisions being made around refugees. Like I said, politics is one thing. But if, as a politician, you cloak yourself in faith, and if you claim that your faith – your Christian faith – is a qualification for office (which is problematic for all kinds of reasons), then just as you must feed the hungry and visit the sick, you must welcome the stranger.
The faith that God makes real, physical, embodies in Christ calls us to many things. It even calls us to things that contradict our natural inclinations. One thing it never calls us to us is self-preservation – not personal preservation, not family preservation, not institutional preservation. We cannot follow Jesus at the manger and leave him when he flees to Egypt. And we certainly can’t ignore him at the cross.
What we do, especially during this season of waiting, is follow as faithfully as we can. We live as faithfully as we can. We act as faithfully as we can. In other words, we build the kingdom – not of our own design, but of God’s. We do so prayerfully, led by the light of the manger that shines even in the shadows of the cross.
And where we fall short, where we misstep, where we go off track, we lean into the grace of God that makes all of this possible. If not even death can defeat Jesus, how can we think that our imperfections can derail God and God’s desires?
That’s what this table is ultimately about. God meets us around this table, even with our imperfections and arrogance and uncertainty and fear and anger and despair and brokenness. In broken bread and poured cup we meet Christ, who chose his own brokenness as the means of healing the world. And we, following him, open ourselves to the hope that our brokenness and imperfections can be a means of healing a broken and fearful world. Perfect love – perfect, holy, sacred love – casts out all fear. So let us come to this table with the courage God desires. Let us come to this table to be fed and sated, so that we might have the strength to build the same kingdom we await.