John 1:6-8, 19-28
The name for this season in the Church year, “Advent,” derives from the Latin, adventus, which means “a coming, an approach, an arrival”: the arrival of the long-awaited Messiah, the Christ, whom we as Christians know as Jesus. Meanwhile, we wait. If we were to open the Gospel accounts according to Matthew and Luke, we discover a great many people waiting for the Messiah, the Christ. Mary and Joseph are waiting. Zechariah and Elizabeth, Symeon and Anna, are waiting. Shepherds who are waiting. There are some sages from the east – wisemen – who are waiting. The only persons who are not waiting are in Bethlehem, the keepers of an inn. And there’s no room in the inn. They’re all full up. It’s almost impossible to wait if you are full up, because waiting takes space; to be able to wait requires an openness or emptiness. And that’s a particular challenge and problem, especially here in our own culture.
There is a certain ingrained presumption that we should nothave to wait. There are two compromising influences in our cultural zeitgeist when it comes to waiting. The MasterCard people tell us, “You can have it all, and you can have it now.” You don’t have to wait. You shouldn’t have to wait. (Waiting is a problem. Waiting is un-American.) A second confusing influence is more subtle, symbolized by the internet. The technicians who create internet search engines know that the response to someone’s click must be within a couple of mini-seconds or else the person moves on to surf somewhere else. I did a Google search on the word “waiting” and I waited 0.38 seconds to get more than 898,000,000 web addresses on this topic of “waiting.” But the rest of life is not like that. Life is full of waiting… which can be so difficult
Waiting often implies an impatience, or agony, or anguish. Waiting may seem vacuous or unproductive or useless. And yet, we have to wait all the time. We wait for a response to our inquiry. We wait for a spouse or lover or friend to arrive, or to depart, or to change. We wait for the traffic light to turn, for flowers to bloom. We wait for someone to be healed or for someone to die. We wait for children or godchildren to grow up, or to come home. We wait for what will happen between Israel and Palestine, with Syria and Egypt and Zimbabwe. We wait for justice in our own land, especially for those who have suffered appalling injustice. We wait for what will happen with the world economy and with the global ecology. We wait to finally get our exam results, our credentials or degree, or our new job, or our vacation time. You may wonder sometimes, “Will it ever happen?” We watch and we wait and we work… and sometimes some of us worry. –So what are you waiting for, and how’s the wait?
I’ll return to the opening scenes in Matthew and Luke’s gospel where the common theme is waiting. The reason we can call it “waiting” (what many of these people are doing) instead of fretting, or stalling or biding time… is because these people have a kind of promise. Each of them, in their own way, was able to wait because they had some kind of assurance, some reminder, some sign, some inner knowing which spanned the chasm – that empty space – between the present and the future. Somehow they all knew that “in the fullness of time” what they needed would come to be… and so they waited. (1) And so for us. Here are several clues that can help lighten the weight of your own waiting:
- Having to wait presumes that something is not yet complete. If you find yourself anxious just now, in what you’re waiting or in what you sense awaits you, there may actually be some good news rather disguised. Inside the experience of anxiety about the unknown is a seed of hope. Anxiety is an anticipation of the future… and so is hope. Saint Paul writes (in the Letter to the Romans): “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation but we ourselves… groan inwardly while we wait…. For in hope we are saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” (2) If you find yourself waiting anxiously just now, pray for the conversion of your anxiety. Converted anxiety is hope. Anxiety is dreadful expectation; hope is expectant desire. And they are like cousins to each other. Pray for the conversion of your fretful anxiety into promising hope. That would be a wonderful Christmas gift. If you are anxious just now, you are almost already hopeful. Something hopeful is happening in the wait. The Psalmist says, “I wait for the Lord, my soul waits for him; in his word is my hope.” (3) If you are anxious, you are almost hopeful. Pray for the conversion of your anxiety into hope.
- Waiting conforms us to the image of God who waits. God waits with us, until we are ready. If we take our cues from the scriptures, we hear God’s calling us children, “children of God.” And we know that children are not developmentally ready to know everything at once. There is a reason why today is not tomorrow. If God chooses to give us as much as one more day to be alive, we shall need the provision of today to equip us for the prospect of tomorrow. God knows what we do not know. In the language of the psalmist, we are “like watchmen waiting for the morning,” (4) waiting in the dark. What we can bear to know, God will dawn on us when we are ready. And in the mean time we wait, we must wait, and until we are ready or readied. God waits with us. God also waits on us, like a waiter stooping low to serve us where we are and how we are. Sometimes that means that God keeps us in the dark, “hidden under the shadow of God’s wings,” (5) until we are ready for “the eyes of our heart to be enlightened.” (6)
- Thirdly, our having to wait invites us into the sacrament of the present moment. A sacrament is an outward sign of an inward grace. The outward signs – why and where we’re having to wait – are not accidents, nor impediments, but rather invitations to know God’s real presence in the present, in the here and now. We know God as the alpha and the omega – the beginning and the end of life. We also know God as we meet Jesus along the way, God with us now, along the way. The present moment is sacramental, not to be missed. Today is an occasion of grace. Now is the time. There is no future of God in our lives unless there is a presence of God in our lives, now. If you find yourself tempted to flee from the present – which is to flee from the presence, the presence of God – these are the moments where God is meeting you, now. The present moment is sacramental. God is with you, really present with you now. Really.
Waiting is nothing passive. It is not about bearing one blow, one shove in life after another, with our only response being a limp resignation. Waiting is not a limp submission. Rather, waiting is an active acknowledgment to God’s being at work in our life, even in ways beyond what we could ask or imagine, probably in the waiting. (7) We read in the Gospel according to Matthew, “You must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.” (8) That’s a promise. That’s not a caution about how God might come to us in the end, but an assurance of how God does come to us all the time. The waiting is promising. “You must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.” We can expect that God will come to us, again and again, even unexpectedly. Look for it; watch for it; wait for it.
This Advent embrace this word “waiting” into the vocabulary of your soul. It’s a rather counter-cultural word – waiting! – but it actually is an important foundation piece to our faith. (9) What are you doing? You say to yourself, “Oh, I’m waiting,” which can be quite adventurous and promising. If you need a sign from God while you wait, ask God for a sign. Let the word “waiting” replace worrying, or clamoring, or demanding, or resigning. You’re waiting for what is coming-to-be in your life. You are waiting on God, who is waiting on you, for what shall come to be in your life when you are ready or when you have been readied. Watch for it, wait for it, with thanksgiving and with great expectation: how the God of life is coming to you in good time, all the time, even now. Really.
- “…When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.” (Galatians 4:4)
- Romans 8:22-25.
- Psalm 130.
- Psalm 130:6.
- Psalm 17:8.
- Ephesians 1:18.
- See Ephesians 3:20-21.
- Matthew 24:42-44.
- Simone Weil (1909-1943), the great French activist and spiritual writer, says “waiting patiently in expectation is the foundation of the spiritual life.”
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