Sunday, November 29, 2009

Hurry Up and Wait!

First Sunday of Advent – Year C (RCL)
Jeremiah 33:14-16; Psalm 25:1-9; 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13; Luke 21:25-36
Sunday, November 29, 2009 – Trinity, Redlands

Hurry up and wait!

If you’re like me, you don’t like to have to wait. I hate waiting in line at the grocery store – I want to get checked out so I can get home or on to my next errand. I hate sitting at stop lights – I want to get wherever it is I’m heading. If I have an appointment at 10:00, I want to be underway promptly at 10:00. If I make up my mind to do something, particularly if I have spent a lot of time struggling or agonizing over the decision, I want do get it done right then – no waiting.

Ours is a culture of instant gratification. Ours is a culture that sees waiting as inefficient, a waste of time. But aside from that, waiting carries with it an element of uncertainty – uncertainty about when we will indeed get that meeting underway or about what will indeed happen when the waiting is over. And most of us don’t like uncertainty. We are not comfortable with the unknown.

The irony for us 21st century Christians, for a people who are not comfortable with waiting and the unknown that goes along with it, is that ours is a religion based on waiting. In the early days of our religion, Christianity was not known as Christianity. It was known as The Way. But given the nature of our religion, it might more aptly have been known as The Wait. A look at liturgical time demonstrates that.

It all began with the birth of Jesus, what we now know as Christmas. But after Christmas, we have to wait for Epiphany, for the arrival of the wise men. And after Epiphany, we have a period of waiting for the arrival of Ash Wednesday. Following Ash Wednesday, we have the season of Lent, where we wait for Palm Sunday and Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. But it doesn’t end with this triumphal parade. We have to wait some more, through the week that leads to the Last Supper on Maundy Thursday, on to Jesus’ arrest later that night, to his trial and his execution on Good Friday. And then there is the hardest waiting of all, the time between his death on Good Friday and his resurrection on Easter. But it doesn’t end there. We have to wait some more for his Ascension, followed by the fulfillment of Christ’s promise to send the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. But even that is not the end of the waiting. Following Pentecost, we wait and wait and wait some more as we explore and experience the meaning of Jesus’ life and ministry, of Christ’s reign – a time of waiting for Christ’s promised return, for the Second Coming.

While we know the path of the liturgical year and the periods of waiting that must necessarily occur, we also know what the next step will be. While we may not like the waiting, we know what to expect and can see a definite end of the waiting. But perhaps the most significant period of waiting actually begins today, the first Sunday of Advent. This is a time when we do double duty in the waiting department. We await God’s coming to earth in the form of the baby Jesus, born at Christmas. And we await the returning to earth of our Risen Lord, at a time that we do not know. The first of these we can readily see. We can see the first because Jesus has already been born. We don’t really need to anticipate that event, although we do anyway. What we truly anticipate is Christ’s coming again. But this, we cannot see. The hard part is that this coming again will be at a day and an hour that we do not know, that we cannot know. But the two events we anticipate, Jesus’ birth at Christmas and his Second Coming, are inextricably linked. For as one commentator notes, a “transformative chain of events was launched at the announcement of the coming of the infant, God-incarnate” (Kärkkäinen, 22) – a chain of events that would lead to that God-incarnate being crucified, risen, and ascended, and who would one day return. We cannot have one without the other. We cannot have the Second Coming without the first coming, Jesus’ birth. And so we wait.

It is because of this waiting for the Second Coming that we have the Gospel lesson we do today. In it, we do not encounter the baby Jesus, but rather a stern, adult Jesus, issuing warnings and injunctions about the end times. It is quite appropriate that these words are issued by Jesus from the middle of the Temple mere days before his arrest, trial, and crucifixion. Jesus, too, waits. And while he waits, he takes this opportunity to let us know what to expect while we wait for a situation that has not yet been fulfilled.

Dealing with situations that have not yet been fulfilled is nothing new in the Bible. Dealing with situations that have not yet been fulfilled is actually the subject of both our Old Testament lesson from Jeremiah and our Gospel lesson from Luke. While dealing with different situations, both deal with the subject of waiting for what is yet to come. In Jeremiah’s case, he is dealing with the anticipated end of the Babylonian Exile, when the people would be allowed to return home. But that had not yet happened. The people were anxious because of the waiting. Luke uses the words of Jesus to tell the early church that Christ would come again in the fullness of time. But that had not yet happened. These people, too, were anxious because of the waiting. In both cases, the people had grown weary from waiting and had begun to fear that the promised returns, of the exiles to Israel, and of Christ’s Second Coming, may not happen after all. In both cases, sloppiness had begun to set in among these two communities of faith. In both cases, Jeremiah and Luke attempt to convey a message of hope, of assurance, that the promised events would indeed happen. And in the case of Luke, regarding the coming again of the Messiah, he attempts to convey a message of what needs to be done during the time of waiting – to be watchful and alert, to be prayerful and humble, to trust in God and the awaiting redemption that only God can, and will, through Christ, bring.

Because of all the imagery of cosmic signs and distress among the nations and the powers of the heavens being shaken, because of predictions of people fainting from fear and foreboding, this text from Luke tends to evoke images of fear and damnation preceding the return of the Messiah. But this is not the real intent. The text from Luke offers not fear and damnation. Quite the contrary, what the Lukan Jesus is really offering is hope and expectation – hope and expectation because God loves us, because God wants to redeem us, because God through Jesus Christ is coming. To fulfill this hope, this expectation, we need Christ to come, both as a little child and as our Risen Lord. But we must wait.

And Jesus tells us what we must do in our waiting. He tells us that while there will be signs, that does not mean that we need to become obsessed with trying to interpret the signs, to second-guess what any potential sign might mean. People have been trying to do that for the last two thousand years, trying to pinpoint the day and the hour of the Second Coming. And they have always been wrong, because we don’t know the day or the hour of his coming. Rather, Jesus is telling us that we need to be alert. That’s different from trying to predict. In being alert, we are aware of what is going on around us and are able to act accordingly. In being alert, we see how the world falls short of God’s vision for it and for humanity. We see what we might do to bring a little bit of the promised kingdom to light in our own dark world. Since we know neither the day nor the hour, we need to constantly prepare, not wait until all the signs are right and it looks like this may be it, and only then begin to prepare. For if we continually prepare, it won’t matter when the day or the hour is. For when it comes, we will not have to scramble. We will already be prepared. We will be ready for Christ’s coming and for whatever may follow.

While Jesus tells us that we need to be prepared, he does not say much about what that includes, other than a passing reference to prayer. But I think part of our preparation is found in his statement that “heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” The eternal thing that will remain, and hence, the thing that will sustain us during the time of waiting, that will prepare us for what is to come, is that very word – the Gospel. The message of the Gospel, the good news of the coming kingdom, what it will entail, and what we must do to be a part of that kingdom, are integral to our preparations – the Gospel as explored and lived out in community.

We all know that when we have to wait, the waiting is made a little easier when done with someone else. For us Christians as we wait through Advent, as we wait not only for the coming of Jesus as a child, but even more so as we wait for the Second Coming of our Risen Lord, we are better able to wait, are better prepared for the coming events, when we do so in community. We are not meant to wait it out alone. We cannot wait it out alone. As one commentator notes, “Knowing and believing the ‘good news’ of the coming kingdom finds evidence in how we see that kingdom in the world around us – in others. Our own belief in the kingdom finds expression when we see it in others, when we name it in their lives and rejoice, giving thanks for the sometimes surprising ways that the people around us and in front of us reveal the coming kingdom in our midst” (Mulder, 5).

The church exists to help us through the waiting process, as we wait for the birth of God-incarnate, as we wait for the coming of the Risen Christ, as we wait for the fulfillment of the Kingdom of God. The church exists to help us prepare for all these promises, through our communal prayers, through our worship, through studying and learning how to live the Gospel. The church exists to give us a foretaste of what the Kingdom may ultimately look like, as we live into Kingdom ideals by working for the well-being of all God’s beloved children through outreach and pastoral care. The church exists to provide examples, through the lives of our sisters and brothers in faith, of what it means to live the Gospel. The church exists to provide the support and the companionship that we each need as we struggle with what it means to live the Gospel, as we wait for the coming of the Kingdom that is yet to come. The church, this faith community, will help us get through the waiting. It’s the only way we can get through it. If it were not for the church, the community of faith, the Body of Christ, Advent and all that follows from it would be pointless.

As we begin this Advent season, we anticipate the coming of the Christ child. We anticipate the Second Coming of our Risen Lord. We anticipate the fulfillment of the Kingdom of God. All this is promised to us. All this will happen in due time. But for now, we wait.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


Kärkkäinen, Veli-Matti. “Luke 21:25-36, Theological Perspective.” In Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year C, Volume 1, Advent Through Transfiguration. Edited by David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.

Mulder, Timothy J., et al. New Proclamation: Year C, 2009-2010, Advent through Holy Week. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009.

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