Jesus is walking southward with his disciples to Jerusalem, a journey he would have made many times… but probably not on this particular route.[i] On this occasion they are walking from Nazareth – which is up north in the Galilee region – through the region of Samaria to get to Jerusalem. It’s 90 miles straight, following the hypotenuse of the triangle. However most Jews, walking from Galilee to Jerusalem, would set off east on a right angle, crossing over the Jordan River, then following the river southwards until cutting back westward over the river to go up to Jerusalem. This turned the 90-mile direct trek-on-foot into 120 miles; however it avoided Samaria.
Samaria was in the center of Palestine, 40 miles from north to south, and 35 miles from east to west. The Jews hated the Samaritans; the Samaritans hated the Jews. The Samaritans were colonists established by the Assyrians in the territory of Israel. The Samaritans claimed that they, too, were among God’s chosen people. But the Samaritans did not go up to Jerusalem to worship; they went up to Mount Gerizim in Samaria. There was “bad blood,” sometimes vitriol racism, between these two groups. Samaritans stayed amongst themselves. Jews taking a shortcut through Samaria were easy targets for hatred, sometimes for vindictive robbery.
Sing to the Lord a new song. The Psalmist exhorts us to sing a song we’ve never sung before. Certainly, it may come to us in fragments—a gesture here, a motif there—and sometimes (if we’re feeling particularly confident) we may even begin to think we know how this strange new air goes. Yet this isn’t a song we or the world are used to hearing, and we may often feel ill-trained to sing it; but that’s probably because we are.
As the ear of our prayer adjusts in the fullness of time, we begin to realize that this new song, from our vantage, requires a kind of virtuosity for which we alone lack the dexterity of heart; and we realize we will not learn this song on our own. And still, there comes also a sense, somewhere deep within noisy mystery of ourselves, that we have known this strange song we’ve never sung before.
Sing to the Lord a new song.
In the scriptures, we are consistently called “children of God,” not “adults of God,” but “children of God.” The psalm appointed for today, Psalm 40, is spoken to you, a child of God:
I waited patiently upon the Lord;
he stooped to me and heard my cry.
He lifted me out of the desolate pit, out of the mire and clay;
he set my feet upon a high cliff and made my footing sure. (Psalm 40:1-2)
The psalmist begins, “I waited patiently upon the Lord.” You will know something about this, when you are having to wait in life. This kind of waiting is not an eager waiting, where you are pirouetting around with great expectation about something wonderful you just can’t wait to happen. It’s not a waiting where you are jumping up and down, because you can hardly wait. This kind of waiting implies suffering, when you are dreading something, or when you are stuck in a seemingly-intractable situation which is imprisoning. You are waiting patiently because you are powerless in-and-of yourself to rise above your insufferable circumstances. The English word “patience” comes from Latin patientia which means, literally, a “quality of suffering.” And suffering you are as you wait patiently, hopefully, desperately.
The sun is setting. The night has begun. The season of Advent marks the start of the new Church year, and, like the Jewish day that begins once the sun has descended, our year begins with the night season.
Advent is a season of looking ahead. We anticipate the coming of the Lord both in our looking forward to the commemoration of his birth, as well as our hopeful belief in his coming again. It is, therefore, a season of the affirmation of our Christian faith and joy.
But the night is dark. The night is cold, and lonely, and we have not been given leave to rest until the warm embrace of the new dawn. Indeed, it is exactly the opposite. Christ gives us the order: “Keep awake.”1 Our Lord gives us this command, to keep watch at the door for his return. He does not even give us the time of his coming back, assuring us only that “about that day or hour no one knows.”1 There is no known end to the tunnel, no hour at which we can punch out and leave our shift at the night watch. We simply must watch, and wait. And lest we think we might have the sweet comfort or stimulating diversion of impermanent things, Christ tells us that “heaven and earth shall pass away.”1 All things will crumble; all things will fade.
One of the debates I see played out amongst my friends each year on social media is what I call the Christmas tree debate. Just when is it acceptable to drag out your Christmas CDs, decorations, and set up your tree in front of the living room picture window? We smile somewhat at this familiar conundrum but it seems each year the debate gets even more heated, perhaps one tier below our concerns about whether Russia interfered with our election process. I read comments from friends who dread hearing ‘Sleigh Ride’ played ad nauseum in supermarkets and shopping malls beginning Thanksgiving Day. And I don’t blame them. When I was home to see my parents a few weeks ago, I shook my head in frustration when a local radio station advertised its seasonal format shift to Christmas music exactly one week prior to Thanksgiving! Many of my friends had pictures of their trees on social media on Thanksgiving, one with the defiant comment: “We put our tree up today! Sorry, not sorry!” And who can blame them? In a world that appears to be immersed in utter chaos, in a climate of hostility to those who think, believe, and act differently, who wouldn’t be parched and thirsting for some Christmas joy?
Ascension Day follows the high drama of Holy Week: the palm-waving crowds, the last supper among friends, the betrayals, the scourging, the crucifixion and resurrection. All of those days are full of interpretation and meaning. But Ascension Day is rather vacuous of meaning. Jesus says to his followers,“Stay here. Wait. Wait until you have been clothed with power.”Why the wait? I think God is waiting for us, for you and for me, to say Yes with our own lives: our readiness or at least our willingness to co-operate with God for what God has in mind for our own lives.Dag Hammarskjöld, the great Secretary General of the United Nations, wrote in his diary just before Pentecost in 1961: “…at some moment I did answer Yes to Someone – or Something – and from that hour I was certain that existence is meaningful and that, therefore, my life, in self-surrender, had a goal.”1 Say Yes to your own life. God is waiting for us to say Yes to our own lives, which will open up this channel of God’s power at work within us and through us.
“All good things come to those who wait!” My mother used to say that to my brothers and sister and me when we were growing up – and I hated it! “No, can’t I have it NOW?” – we’d plead. “Please, can you buy me a Chelsea football shirt?” “No, you’ll have to wait till the end of the month.” “O no, why can’t I have it now?”
In our Western society, we hate having to wait. At the supermarket, deciding which lane will be the shortest. You make a choice, and it’s the wrong one. All the other lanes are moving much faster. Shall I swap? If only I’d chosen the other lane: now I’ve got to wait. Or you are driving, stopped at a red light, that’s been red for ages – and then it goes to green, and the car in front doesn’t seem to have noticed – O come on! Or at the airport: you look at the board for your flight, and see the dreaded word ‘DELAYED.” O no, I’ve got to wait another hour.
Advent is a time of expectant waiting. We wait for the coming of the Savior, the birth of Jesus. We expect that when the Savior comes – and He will come – He will lead us in the way we should go. The prophet Isaiah reminds us, “Thus says the Lord, Your Redeemer: I am the Lord your God, who teaches you for your own good, who leads you in the way you should go.” (i) Yes, we who follow Jesus can expect Him to lead us; but first, Advent reminds us, we have to wait. We have to wait for the Savior. We have to wait before He can lead us in the way we should go.
The name for this season in the Church year, “Advent,” derives from the Latin, adventus, which means arrival: the arrival of the long-awaited Messiah, the Christ, whom we as Christians know as Jesus. Meanwhile, as we anticipate this arrival, 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 is waiting. Joseph is waiting. Zechariah and Elizabeth are waiting. Symeon and Anna are waiting. Most everyone, it seems, is waiting. They’re waiting for an arrival. There are also shepherds who are waiting. There are some sages from the east – wisemen – who are waiting. The threatened government of Herod the Tetrarch is waiting, rather anxiously. 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 is nigh unto impossible to wait if you are full up, because waiting takes space; to be able to wait requires an emptiness. And that’s a problem. I think it’s problematic for many of us who live in North America.