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The Season of “Not Yet”: Waiting and Wondering in Advent

A sermon on Isaiah 64:1 and Mark 13:24-37 by Carolyn Francis

Patience may be a virtue – but it’s never been mine!

I was one of those kids who desperately wanted to be older than I was. Like most children I thought I was exceptionally mature for my age. Perhaps you have a child like that? Perhaps you were a child like that! I had a lot of friends in the grades above me at school, and I missed them when they finished school years ahead of me. At one stage I concocted a theory about my mum as an unwed teenage mother who was now lying about my date of birth to cover up her shame. But no, it turned out I really was born in 1975. I was impatient to grow up. I wanted to make my own way in the world. Patience may be a virtue – but it’s never been mine.

Today we enter the season of advent – the season leading up to Christmas – the season when we wait for the coming of God into the world – the season of hope, but of ‘not yet’. We are leading up to the time when we celebrate the birth of Christ – but like all birthdays Christmas does not just arrive out of the blue full of parties and presents. We wait for it – for a whole year. As we wait for the celebration of Christ’s birth, we wait with the people of the biblical story: the people of Israel waiting for their Messiah to come, and with Mary whose 9 long months of pregnancy were nearing an end. This is the season when we join with Isaiah in crying out, “If only, LORD; if only you would rip the sky open and come on down!”

“Now” culture

A recently published marketing textbook listed the most successful new advertising slogans from the 1990s. The top of the list was the now well known, “take home now, pay later.” We really don’t like to wait. But hey, we all know this. To refer to ourselves as the ‘now’ generation is, by now, a pretty boring and well-worn cliché. I, and probably many of you, have heard numerous sermons on the woes of the instant gratification society.

And, they have a point. Think about it: We’re entertained in convenient ½ hour portions available at the click of a remote control. We’ve been fattened by fast food and by the promise of getting there faster if we drive instead of walk. We’ve been cultured by 3 minute radio tracks and indoctrinated by an economic system based on the false promise of buy now, pay later. We’re up to our eyeballs in debt. Recently, I saw a TV add for house and land packages (which involved a 30 year mortgage) where the clincher was a free cappuccino machine with every home purchased. And I wondered – did someone really take up a 30 year mortgage to get a good coffee?

We’re programmed to expect instant gratification. We quicken our pep up in the morning with a cup of caffeine and quicken our relaxation at night with a glass (or three) or red. We’re interested in a spirituality marked by freedom, rather than a religion of discipline… At our very worst we’re like Goldie Hawn’s character in the film Butterflies are Free. When questioned about her college background she said, “Oh I started to go to UCLA but I couldn’t find a park.” The questions “why wait?” is now only offered rhetorically and we are faced with the temptation of responding with the great cliché of our time: why wait? Just do it!

That world is my world

But here’s the catch. That world is my world (albeit more complex that the caricature I’ve just given) – and I, most of the time, live in it quite comfortably. So that struggle is my struggle too, and when I stand here to talk about the season of waiting, of ‘not yet’ – I am not standing here as an authority, or as one well-practised in the art and discipline of patience. I don’t own a slow cooker, I don’t grow my own vegetables, I sometimes drive when I could walk.

But it also goes deeper than that. Many of us are struggling in a wait for things which are far more important than the superficial ones I’ve described. People who are lonely and desperately hoping to find someone to share their lives with are forced to live in a time of waiting. People who hope to have a child but are unable to conceive or have not found a partner to share this with wait – often painfully. Those who are sick wait to feel better, to move out of their depression, to be able to move without pain. Those who have had relationships break down or whose relationships are marked by awful tension or violence or lack of communication are waiting for something to change; waiting for reconciliation; or waiting for the courage to leave; or simply the wisdom to know what to do. Some are plagued by the feeling they are meant for something different than the job or role they have today. Some feel they have potential they cannot find a way to fulfil. Many of us have a vision for the world – a vision of no more poverty, injustice and war and some have prayed for these things for years. And yet – here we are. Have we even made any progress? Where is God and what is God doing? When will we see the things we hope for?

In today’s reading from Isaiah we hear the prophet join with us in our hopeful yet painful wait: “If only, LORD; if only you would rip the sky open and come on down!” Together we wait.

Waiting in life and in scripture

And as much as I as an individual, and us collectively, seem to struggle with waiting for anything, deeper inside our spirits and memories I believe we know more than we realise about the goodness and necessity of the wait. As I have experienced recently, it still takes 9 months to grow a baby, and the wait is not always pleasant. We know that old wine is far finer than new wine. Those of us who have made terrible, stupid mistakes in life know that wisdom is not gained quickly or easily but is discovered over time through the sometimes messy episodes of a life lived.

Like us, the people of the New Testament churches lived in the tension of the wait. Jesus had been and lived among them. He had authored their faith and promised to return. He had come yet there was still more to wait for. He had been with them, yet they were still waiting for him. In today’s gospel reading we find a people impatient – as we are – for God to once again “rip the sky open and come on down!” The people of Mark’s community struggle in their wait for their Saviour to come back. When will he come? What will it be like?

The biblical answer gives us our cue to advent waiting: people of faith are marked not by quick answers to prayer or special knowledge about future events; people of faith are marked by the way in which we wait. The message from today’s gospel passage is to not wait passively but to use this time to get ready, to live rightly, to be active in bringing about God’s vision of what the world could be like, rather than waiting for God to do it alone.

The way we wait

In thinking about this aspect of the season of Advent, we often remember that modern theological classic, Groundhog Day. It’s a film in which Bill Murray plays a rude, self-centered weatherman, who finds himself in a bizarre time warp, re-living the same day over and over again. He wakes up each day and hears exactly the same idle talk on the radio, has the same meaningless interactions and the same arguments with his colleagues. For those of us watching, the sense that he is getting nowhere at all is excruciating. And while Phil is literally living the same day over and over, it’s not too great a stretch to see his predicament as a metaphor for the sense we often have of lack of progress and repetition and waiting for change. For us, there are times in life, in faith, in the history of the world where it feels much like Groundhog Day. We make the same mistakes over and over. We live the same routine over and over. We long to have greater faith or a more experience of God. We go to church – over and over. We wait.

At the beginning of the film, Phil responds to his predicament with contempt and anger, then frivolity and then despair – responses to which we are tempted also. But over time he starts to consider that possibility that he might change, even if the days are all the same. In true Hollywood style, the ending for Phil is that he becomes the kind of man that the object of his affections could fall in love with. Hollywood ending aside, it offers a message which could be seen as this: what can seem like the meaningless marching on of time, what can seem like the same thing over and over, can be part of God’s work of redemption. Sometimes, the prolonging of history – the time we are given which can be seen as too much time – too much waiting – can be a gift that allows us to become aware of God’s purposes. Sometimes our advent task – our task in the season of ‘not yet’ is to become more of who we were created to be and to join with Mark’s New Testament friends and “get ready”.

For me, today’s passage from Mark is not actually offered to us as to inspire a debate about how many hurricanes constitute the end times or how many wars indicate the apocalypse is near. (Sorry to disappoint – there’s plenty of this material on the internet if you want to google this passage later.) Its message is actually the antithesis of this kind of ranting. Its message is that living as people of faith is as much about how we live in between huge events and great moments as it is about the great events or celebrations of faith. Christian faith is seen as much in advent as in Christmas because it is here that we can demonstrate to a world which struggles with the “not yet” of life that people of faith wait differently. Advent waiting is different from hopeless, passive waiting. We cry out with Isaiah, “If only, LORD; if only you would rip the sky open and come on down!” but we do so knowing that God has and will “come on down”. We wait with hope and with purpose.

Advent: the season of “not yet”

In advent, which is a lesson for all times, we refuse to jump straight to Christmas and to take for granted the presence of God. We wait to discern more carefully the One for whom we wait, and the One who waits for us.

Waiting here and now is not so different from waiting in Bethlehem except that we have already received a part of the great gift of God-with-us. We already know something of the story of Jesus – the unique one who came to tell us that it is reasonable and worthwhile to hope and to expect God’s vision of the world to come to be. Jesus has come but we are also still waiting for his coming. We have seen God – but God is still hidden from us so much of the time.

We wait for Christmas – because we have a sense – even if it is only a small sense – of what it might mean for God to be here among us in the fullest, closest way. And because the Messiah who came to Bethlehem did not look anything like the world was expecting, we learn during Advent and Christmas to wait for all those things we long for with the humbling understanding that the perfect gifts of God – the things we are really longing for, sometimes without even knowing it, may not look anything like those things we think we are hoping for. And so during the season of ‘not yet’ we join with Isaiah, and the New Testament church in crying out, “O Lord, rip the sky open and come on down!” In slightly different words we pray what is known throughout the church as the advent prayer: “Come Lord Jesus.”

To finish, let me read to you the words of an advent hymn by a wonderful writer, Maggi Dawn, who is currently the chaplain of Robinson College, Cambridge.

Into the darkness of this world,
into the shadows of the night,
into this loveless place you came,
lightened our burden, eased our pain,
and made these hearts your home.
Into the darkness once again,
O come, Lord Jesus, come.
Come with your love to make us whole
Come with your light to lead us on
Driving the darkness far from our souls,
O come, Lord Jesus, Come

Into the longing of our souls,
Into these heavy hearts of stone.
Shine on us now your piercing light
Order our lives and souls aright
by Grace and love unknown
Until in you our hearts unite
O come, Lord Jesus, come.
Come with your love to make us whole
Come with your light to lead us on
Driving the darkness far from our souls,
O come, Lord Jesus, Come

O Holy Child, Emmanuel,
Hope of the ages, God-with-us,
Visit again this broken place,
Till all the earth declares your praise
and your great mercies own
Now let your love be born in us,
O come, Lord Jesus, come.
Come in your glory, take your place,
Jesus the name above all names
We long to see you face to face,
O come Lord Jesus, come.
© Maggi Dawn

** Some of the inspiration for this message comes from an article by the wonderful American preacher P. C. Enniss entitled “Getting Ansty at Advent”.


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