The activities of the Christian community should be no less vigorous as we enter the mid-month point in January 2016 and the energy of the Christmas season has passed. In fact, it is on this second Sunday after Epiphany (the Christian feast day and season known as “manifestation”) that an honest evaluation of our situation locally, regionally, and abroad should be made.
I wonder if God calls us to celebrate waiting because the lie we’re all most susceptible to is that if we just get what we want, we’ll be ok. When this is our mentality, we actually forget to live. We become so future-oriented that we can ignore the presence of God in our midst and the signs of the Divine work in this world. We can miss out on the good things he provides daily, hourly.
This is my first Advent as an ordained minister, and I am attempting to quickly learn so many things. Including: what Advent means in different cultural contexts; how to determine the "accurate" themes represented in each Advent candle on the wreath (I've come across at least 4 or 5 different versions thus far); preparing our first discussion series informed by our devotional readings; creating children's worship lessons for the season; writing liturgy and sermons to reflect the mood of the season; and crafting a Christmas Eve service to include children, musical numbers, poetry, and stories.
All this while also correcting 35 final essays, grading 35 final presentations, and finalizing semester grades for my delightful students.
So what's the irony, you ask? Well, in addition to preaching on signs of hope last week, I also spoke about Advent as a space carved out in our church year to wait in eager anticipation of a promise not yet realized. To be still and contemplate the movement of the spirit in the midst of the bustle all around us. To think on hope even when so many are simply thinking of shopping and trips to the mall to snap a photo with Santa.
And yet what do I find myself doing? Anything but waiting, being still, and taking time to ponder hope.
“A time to wait.”
I’ve always struggled with Advent as a time of waiting and awakening. What exactly are we waiting for and what do we need to be awakened to? Are we waiting for the baby Jesus? Is it a sentimental journey of ‘feel good’ when Christmas comes so I can contribute to the treasury of empire? Am I to wake up to some coming event that will happen in the future?
The historical Jesus has already come. God has entered our humanity. St. Paul says that humanity is now God’s temple (1 Cor. 3: 16-17). If we really believe that, are not we — who call ourselves “Christian” after our founder — the incarnation in our time? I think we need to wake up to that reality. As my spiritual mentor Richard Rohr says, following the mystics, “We already are that which we are seeking.”
One summer my cousin Betty and I sneaked through the barbed-wire fence of a neighbor’s orchard and ate so many wild plums right off the tree that we almost made ourselves sick. Betty was 13 and I was 9, and I adored her. I still do.
Betty is dying right now. She might not make it till Christmas, which is really bad timing in my opinion. Yes, I talk with God about this. It’s one thing for me to lose a beloved cousin: I’m old enough to know from experience that, while the pain can feel like a raw wound that might never heal, losing those we love is a normal part of life. But I keep wondering, What kind of message is God sending to Betty’s family by jerking her away from them during this holy season of Advent? Doesn’t God care that they are already plunged into grief in anticipation of losing someone they love so much?
Yes, I talk with God about my fears, too, mostly in the form of questions from the little five-year-old kid inside me. What’s going to happen? Where are we going? What will it be like? Will it hurt? Do I have to? And, Why?
But wait! What if we‘ve got it backward? To revisit that waiting-goes-both-ways thing: Instead of us waiting on God, what if God is waiting on us?
John Dominic Crossan poses that question in his book The Power of Parable. He notes something that’s obvious: Jesus could be very impatient. He wasn’t one to just sit back and wait for things to change. As Crossan sums it up: “You have been waiting for God, he said, while God has been waiting for you. No wonder nothing is happening. You want God’s intervention, he said, while God wants your collaboration. God‘s kingdom is here, but only insofar as you accept it, enter it, live it, and thereby establish it.”
There’s so much to be done — what’s important is to do it now. This moment is a gift. This opportunity to love someone else is too precious to waste.
If all we do is sit and wait for things to change, then we’re like people trapped in a perpetual state of Advent. We never get to our own Christmas morning. We do nothing more than wait.
And all the while, someone is waiting on us.
What does the Christian life consist of? What does God expect from us?
Here’s Jesus’ answer, according to Matthew’s Gospel: “Wait faithfully. Together. Or else.”
Sure, that isn’t an exact quotation, but it sums up — again, according to Matthew — what Jesus says to his followers when he instructs them about how they should live after he has departed from this earth.
Let me address the “or else” part first. That usually attracts the greatest attention.
In the Gospel according to Matthew, Jesus seems a little infatuated with judgment and retribution. At the conclusion of each of the four parables he tells within Matthew 24:45-25:46, the section that comes just before the plot to seize and kill him springs into action, certain characters don’t fare so well. They are cast out to where there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth,” locked out of a banquet by the guy who presumably invited them in the first place, tossed into “outer darkness,” or punished in “eternal fire.” Along with the book of Revelation, Matthew’s Gospel has generated a large share of distress through the centuries.
Are these promises about judgment authentic warnings spoken by an uncomfortably stern Jesus, or are they brutal revenge fantasies put into his mouth by ancient Christian communities that had lost the ability to trust their own members or to put up with differing opinions and practices? We may never know.