preached at Lighthouse Free Methodist church Sunday morning
Happy New Year! I see some of you glancing at your watch – no, you didn’t eat too much turkey and sleep through December. According to the church calendar — which this church follows — today is the first Sunday of Advent. Advent marks the beginning of the new church year. We ended the year big with Christ the King Sunday. Last week, the lectionary – the three year rotation of Scripture passages that the church uses – had Jesus on the cross, announcing that we would be with him in paradise. And this week… well, this week we are waiting. Doesn’t that seem a strange place to begin? We are used to starting the New Year with a huge bang – often quite literally with firecrackers. When January 1 rolls around, we celebrate. We have a list of resolutions or at least a plan of how we are going to make this year better. And for about three days, we go out of our way to check off our “to do” list and give ourselves gold stars for meeting the goals we established.
Not so with the church calendar. Just look at the passages we read today. In Isaiah, we mention that “in the days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house will be established.” The psalm is one of the “Songs of Assents,” which means this was a song that was sung while traveling up to the temple in Jerusalem. It was a journeying song – a “we have not yet arrived” song. Romans describes the day being near – it is not here yet. Matthew talks about a day and hour that no one knows. We are waiting.
Many of you know that my husband, Allyn, is the choir director at Third Baptist Church here in the city. One of the songs the choir is currently working on is about this very thing. The anthem, by Pepper Choplin is appropriately called “Waiting.” The song is a prayer that opens, “Waiting, we are waiting, Lord. Waiting, we are waiting Lord. Fill the mind ‘til we find your light, your truth.” The instructions in the music say it is to be sung “with openness and expectation.” How many of you are good at waiting for God’s wisdom with openness and expectation? I can do that for about 10 minutes, and then I begin looking at my watch and pacing back and forth. We hear over and over that God’s timing is perfect, but all too often if feels as if God is late for an appointment, and we are ackwardly sipping our water wondering when – or even if God will arrive.
Even the great Dr. Suess tells us that waiting is a bad thing. When I was a graduating high school senior, my history teacher read us “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” I’m not sure what age group Dr. Suess had in mind when he wrote this book, but it is perfect for those who are heading out on a new adventure in life. It tells us “you have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose.” The book gives lots of ideas of the exciting places we can choose to go. But it gives one warning, one place to avoid. Dr. Suess describes this one location as “a most useless place.” And that place is, of course, “The Waiting Place.” Everyone in “The Waiting Place” is just waiting. There is a picture of people standing in line and sitting by the phone and waiting on a bench… sitting by a kettle or staring at the clock or leaning against a parked bus. And no one in this picture is happy. Most have a zoned out look about them, as if they have been waiting for years and, in the process, checked out altogether. “NO! That’s not for you!” Suess urges us. We belong in the exciting places.
And yet, we all have times of waiting, don’t we? We wait to hear about a job offer. We wait at the doctor to find out whether or not we are healthy. We wait in line at the supermarket. We wait for a response to e-mail. We wait nine months for babies to be born. We wait to see if Santa brings us what we requested. We wait for cookies to come out of the oven. We wait. And we wait. And we wait.
As we look through the Bible, we can find lots of examples of God’s people waiting. Noah waited on the rain that would flood the earth. Abraham and Sarah waited for the child they were promised. The Israelite slaves in Egypt waited to be freed. And then they waited 40 YEARS to enter the promised land. Jacob waited to marry Rebekah. Joseph waited in prison. The disciples waited for Jesus’ stories to make sense to them. Paul waited for Christ’s return and now we join in that wait.
But we also recognize from those stories that waiting is hard work. Have you ever noticed how much people in the Bible grumble? They wait. And they get frustrated. And they give up. Then they have to be reminded all over again that the God they wait for is faithful. I think that is the situation where we find Paul in the book of Romans. He is reminding the people about their Christian faith. In the verses before our passage begins, he outlines the commandments and urges folks to love one another. And then his words mirror that of Matthew – “WAKE UP!” He reminds us that we aren’t just wasting away in The Waiting Place, but that there is hope – salvation, the return of Christ, is coming. And it is coming soon!
And nearly 2,000 years later, we wonder what that means. By our standards of time, Christ has not come soon. The Israelites grumbled and complained while wandering in the wilderness for 40 years as they longed for the Promised Land. They’ve got nothing on us. But what do we do with that? What does it mean for us as we begin this time of Advent? We live in a world that certainly does not seem any more peaceful. We read Isaiah’s words about beating swords into plowshares and the end of war while we send soldiers to the Middle East and install full body scanners in airports to promote a sense of safety.
Like the singers of the psalm, we too want to journey to the house of the Lord, to the place and time where all that we have experienced while waiting will make sense. We don’t know where or when that will be, but we know that it hasn’t arrived yet. Is it simply time to give up?
During Advent we are waiting for Christmas – for the day of Christ’s birth. But we also know that Christ was born a long time ago. The big fancy church term is the “incarnation.” The gospel of John describes it as “the word became flesh and dwelt among us.” God responded to a hurting world in a remarkable way by entering the world as we do, through a mother’s womb. The word became flesh – God took on human skin – and lived as we do. During Advent, we go back in time to remember that amazing day when God entered human form, but we also look forward to and hope for Christ’s return.
Matthew tells us that day will come like a thief in the night. This seems a particularly meaningful image to me, because in the last few weeks, Allyn and I had our barbecue grill stolen. We owned about the cheapest make and model available and had it sitting in our back yard. We felt pretty confident in leaving it there in the open because our neighbor has a much nicer grill sitting in his back yard. We figured if theirs had not been touched, we had nothing to worry about. But one morning I walked outside and realized it wasn’t there. The sad thing is, we aren’t entirely sure how long it had been missing. With trips to school and days of cold weather, we hadn’t used it. And because we weren’t using it, we had stopped paying attention. I think that is Matthew’s point. God isn’t sneaking around, lurking in the shadows waiting to pounce when you aren’t looking. But when we stop paying attention to God – like I stopped paying attention to my grill – we miss even the big and miraculous. We might still be waiting for the return of Christ, but God has not stopped coming down from the heavens to dwell among us. It is just that we fail to look at the world in such a way that we see.
Jesus constantly told stories about what the kingdom of God looks like. And his stories were full of the kind of everyday images that we walk by without acknowledging. The Kingdom is like a woman who finds a lost coin, like a king who invites folks on the street to a wedding banquet. It is like a mustard seed, which is small, but grows into something large. The kingdom of God is like yeast mixed with flour or a pearl of great value or a basket of fish. The kingdom of God is hidden in plain view all around us. We just need to pay attention.
We are called to wait, but our waiting is infused with hope. Have you noticed how children wait for Christmas? They bound around dripping with liquid energy. They have problems falling asleep and when they do, they sleep with one eye and ear open waiting for any sign of Santa or any hint that it might be morning. Their waiting is full of excitement – nothing like Dr. Suess’s Waiting Place. Their waiting has joy because they know they are waiting for something good. Have we forgotten that goodness?
In 2005, Sojourners Magazine published an article titled “Speaking of Maybe: Why blessed uncertainty is the language of Advent.” In the article, Andrew Hoeksema writes about his frustrations with waiting, with holding onto hope while hearing about terrible things on the news and seeing pain and hurt around him. Hoeksema describes Advent as a time of possibility, a time to focus on the maybes – “maybe things will be radically different than we have experienced thus far…” because God took the form of a baby and lived among us on earth. Because he fed the hungry, healed the sick and paid attention to those on the outskirts of society. Because he died and came back to life we are free to proclaim possibility. We wait for a God who does the unexpected, who brings life and good news.
This Advent, may we wake up to the presence of God all around us. Instead of closing our eyes and praying that we can rush through till January, may we notice all of the seeds of hope – the seeds of possibility that surround us. May we be like children, jumping up and down in our excitement that God is doing something unexpected and wonderful. We aren’t there yet, but this Advent we have hope that God is guiding us as we journey. Who knows, maybe we can even redeem the Waiting Place as we rush through with our Advent excitement.