by Melody Kroeger
Well, are you ready? Not for the bell ringing, or the frenzy at the mall, not for decking the halls, or bowl games or the annual visit to Santa. Are you ready for Advent? Advent, that season that kicks off every liturgical church year by setting a tone of preparation and attentive waiting.
The common thread linking today’s readings is waiting for God’s return. All 3 readings speak of people in the midst of suffering – waiting to be brought from darkness into light. They raise questions about God’s seeming absence from God’s people. Where are you Lord? How long must we wait? When are you coming? Come now, we need you! I am not very adept at waiting and I’m not alone. We live in a 24 hour non-stop world of internet surfing, gotta have it now, multitasking mania. The demand for immediate gratification is seeping into every corner of our lives. Retailers like Amazon and Walmart are jumping into same-day delivery services. There is a catchy commercial on TV advertising “When you’re ready, come and get it” promoting the instant availability of whatever your heart desires…on eBay.
Young adults, like my daughter, rely on smart phone apps to eliminate the wait for a parking spot, a friend, or a table at a hot restaurant. Morgan snap chats with friends half a world away with the click of an icon. Life happens on YouTube. My husband and I use Netflix to stream movies and TV shows in seconds. But experts caution that instant results come at a price: it’s making us less patient…less willing to wait. The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project sums up a recent study about people under the age of 35 and the dangers of their hyper-connected lives with what sounds like a prescription drug warning: “Negative effects include a need for instant gratification and loss of patience.” http://www.pewinternet.org/2012/02/29/main-findings-teens-technology-and-human-potential-in-2020/
Indeed, Advent seems less about waiting and more about having…rich food and drink…parties… events…experiences. We appear to navigate the volatile intersections between commerce and Christmas – where wants turn into needs – and we find ourselves inextricably pulled forward by the tremendous gravity of Black Friday sales, shop Local Saturday and Cyber Mondays. “When you’re ready, come and get it.”
Waiting must be an awfully good thing because God put a lot of it in life. Our reading from the prophet Isaiah illustrates that impatience with waiting is not unique to our culture or our time.
Isaiah, standing between the tragic event of exile to Babylon and the hope and promise of Israel’s survival and return to Jerusalem reminds God that the people’s need is urgent and God’s obligation to God’s people is acute. The poem begins:
O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence…to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!
The future for the faithful remnant of Israel is full of hope and joy but anxiety lies just beneath the surface. We hear Israel’s lament in a hymn from the 15th century:
Oh, come, oh, come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.
Isaiah reminds God that “You God are the potter and we are the clay, the work of your hands. We are your people. Do not forget that we wait for you.”
Paul, writing to the community in Corinth waiting for the Lord, addresses a quarrel between various factions of this fledgling Jesus Movement. Some in Corinth regarded baptism as a kind of mystery rite by which the person who presided over the baptism gifted those being baptized with particular spiritual gifts. And, once baptized they felt themselves to truly possess a special wisdom or knowledge in a way other people did not.
But Paul reminds his community that God chose them:
“For in every way”, Paul writes, “You have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind. You are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
The Gospel of Mark was also written in a period of turmoil and intense speculation about the return of the Lord Jesus. Mark’s community was facing 2 immediate threats; 1) the war between Rome and Israel and 2) fears about persecution of the members of the Jesus Movement. Its members were faced with the necessity of not only of coming to terms with the delay of the expected return of Christ but also with finding a way of living out their faith in a world that continued to exist despite all their hopes, expectations and prayers to the contrary. We sense that underlying tension in Mark’s words by noting that today’s reading is a word picture, drawn from a much larger canvas.
The scene begins as Jesus was leaving the temple in Jerusalem. “What a magnificent building, the disciples exclaim. “Not one stone here will be left on another”, warned Jesus, “everyone will be thrown down.” “When”, ask Peter, James, John and Andrew, “When will these things take place? What are the signs? How will we know?” Jesus replies with words that describe a terrible period of desolation and destruction. But, Jesus also spoke hope into this setting – the promise of the coming of the King, the promise that in the fullness of his return, new life and new hope would spring forth.
This Jesus warned and said what we are to do: “You do not know when that time will come so be on guard, stay awake and watch with hope!”
But staying awake and being always hopeful isn’t that easy.
Both the disciples and the early church of Mark’s time were taught with a simple agricultural example that events would unfold just as described. The lesson of the fig tree is that events were already unfolding in the world.
What does this mean for us today?
Traditionally, Advent is a time to pause, a time marked by urgent anticipation, by a longing for the fulfillment of what has been promised. But, I think we miss the central lesson of Advent when we talk only about waiting and longing in anticipation. I believe we are still in the growth stage of the church. I offer that the fig tree is still springing forth its leaves toward flowering. Waiting for the return of Christ is not passive – nor is it strict obedience to clear instructions. Waiting is an active responsibility that takes initiative and risks. When we see the branch becoming tender and it puts forth its leaves, we know God is near.
God broke through time and space and came to live with us – in all our messiness, our sin… God prefers to live with us in spite of our anger, our violence, our impatience and our lack of love for one another. We find God here on earth.
This is the flowering…God with us and We are still putting forth tender branches and leaves.
God sights are all around us if we but look. We see our Lord in the faces of our neighbors. We sense a divine spark even in those we dislike and avoid…for all are made in God’s image. Last week, we heard that Jesus is seen in the weak, powerless, poor, imprisoned, hungry and thirsty. Sisters and brothers, there are plenty of folks around our community who fit these descriptions, so we can see Jesus, if we only look through the eyes of faith. We we are not lacking in any spiritual gifts.
And, the recognition that God’s presence is now changes the meaning of our present reality.
Are we a people that tolerate the hypocrisy of a system where homeless families live in the mean streets? Or are we a people that support Compass Housing…Center of Hope because we celebrate a baby born in a barn to parents young and poor?
Are we a people that load our tables with so much food that we wind up throwing much of it out, or are we a people that donate food and cash to the Emergency Food Feeding Program?
Are we a people that resist change or do we boldly live into the future and engage the world as Renton Lutheran did by gifting Luther’s Table to the community despite the risks of such an endeavor?
Because for all the shopping, baking, decorating and tree trimming, Advent is about something bigger. It’s about being alert and watchful, aware of God with us; present in our own times and fully attentive of everything and everyone around us.
Waiting with a purpose and being fully alive in the present.
So yes, we are called to wait, as the remnant of Israel waited, as the prophets and people in exile waited, as Mary and Joseph waited, as all those who are poor, imprisoned, oppressed and in darkness waited, for light to dawn and God to save. But like those who came before us…let our waiting bear fruit.
Oh, come, our Dayspring from on high,
And cheer us by your drawing nigh,
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to you, O Israel!