December 3, 2017

Isaiah 64:1-9
Psalm 80
1 Corinthians 1:3-9
Mark 13:24-37

“While We Wait”

December can be such a busy month, can’t it? Between concerts and Christmas parties, shopping and preparing for family gatherings, many of us are run off our feet during this season.

I appreciate the fact that church meetings tend to slow down in December, but with planning for special services and high expectations at this time of year, pastors too can miss the call to slow down, wait, and reflect on the birth of Christ into our world. This morning’s Scripture readings, however, call all of us to a time of waiting and watching.

For what must we wait and watch? Well, the texts remind us of the time when God’s people were waiting for a Messiah – for a Saviour to come and bring them freedom and peace.

The prophet Isaiah expressed the deep longing – almost desperation – of his people when he cried out to God: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!”

And the psalmist likewise prayed for God’s salvation, asking God to hear the people’s prayers, and let his face shine on them, and restore them to fullness of life and safety.

Of course, when we move into the New Testament, we know that those hopes and prayers have been fulfilled in the coming of Christ, in the birth of Jesus our Lord and Saviour.

And yet, our readings today from the Gospel of Mark and Paul’s letter to the early church at Corinth both still express a similar hope and prayer for Christ to come – to come again and make everything right in the world.

You see, those earliest Christians lived in an in-between time (and we live in it too). It’s the in-between time that is often called “the already, but not yet.”

Already Jesus has established the means through which we are drawn into relationship with God, but not yet do we live in complete communion with God. Already Christ has come among us, born as a child in a manger. And when we grew up, he preached the good news that in his life and ministry God’s kingdom had come near.

Already in his healing, and welcoming, and forgiving, and serving, and guiding, we caught a glimpse of what that realm will be like. But we still live in a world that is marred by violence and hatred. And even in our own hearts and lives, his rule is not yet complete. We are not yet fully and completely devoted to God’s purposes.

And so, as we begin this season of Advent, we are invited to remember Christ’s coming and to wait with expectation for his coming again. And to consider what we could or should be doing while we wait.

I know that you all have plenty to do during December. In fact, I’m a little bit amazed by the fact that when I put out a bunch of Advent devotionals and studies and what-not, that so many of you picked them up! I don’t know how you’ll find the time to make use of them, unless you’re really being intentional about what you want to do while you wait for Christmas.

That would be a good thing to decide today – at the start of the season – to decide what you really want to do while you wait.

But our waiting for Christmas is somewhat artificial. After all, we know exactly when it is going to arrive. We count down the weeks with our Advent candles and we mark of the days with our Advent calendars (with or without chocolates).

By contrast, of course, those who lived before the birth of Jesus did not know the day or the hour of his arrival, so they needed to live in a continual state of watchfulness. The birth of the Messiah could only be celebrated as a surprise party that could take place on any day, at any moment.

That’s why “waiting for Christmas” isn’t quite the same as “waiting for Christ to come again.”

We may count down the days until the special Christmas Eve service here at church, or until the big family dinner on December 25th, but the true waiting of Advent is our anticipation of the return of the Son of Man.

We wait in the same way those who lived before Jesus was born waited, not knowing the day or the hour when the Messiah would appear. We also join them in hearing – and needing – the same exhortation to be watchful and to keep awake.

In a reflection on Advent waiting, Martin Copenhaver explains:
“Some waiting is passive. But there is also active waiting. A girl who stands on a street corner waiting for the bus to arrive will experience a kind of waiting, a passive waiting.

“That same girl on the same corner hearing the sound of a parade that is just out of sight will also wait, but it will be a different kind of waiting, full of expectation, a waiting on tiptoe, an active waiting.

“A fisherman finds it burdensome to wait for spring to arrive because it is a passive waiting. Once he is fishing, however, he does not find it a burden to wait for the trout to rise to his fly because it is an active kind of waiting, full of expectation.

“At the pool of his favourite trout stream his waiting is filled with accomplishing the many things he must do, all injected with an active sense of anticipation because he never knows when the trout may appear.

“That is the kind of active waiting Jesus had in mind when he enjoined his followers, ‘Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.’

So, what should we do while we wait? Certainly, taking up some Advent devotional practices is good. Or making a special commitment at this time of year to offer your time or gifts for service to others is a lovely idea.

Some of us are “Walking to Bethlehem” this Advent, reflecting on Scripture texts and walking about 4 km each day, remembering the journey that Mary and Joseph made from Nazareth to Bethlehem before the birth of the Christ child.

But these practices are not intended to keep us busy or distracted as the days count down. They should lead us into an active kind of waiting – a waiting that keeps us alert and attentive to how Christ might actually show up in our lives on any day, at any moment.

When I was walking around Wascana Lake the other day, I had my head down. Although the path was well-cleared, I was still watching for icy patches to avoid slipping and falling.

Suddenly, a raccoon scurried across the path a couple of metres ahead of me. The quick movement caught my attention, and my eyes followed him as he went down the hill towards the water. There, he joined what looked like a family of five raccoons, and they all disappeared together into a nearby culvert.

After that, I kept my eyes up more as I walked. And soon I saw a rabbit hop by, I watched a large gathering of geese out on the lake, and I enjoyed the beauty of the sky as the sun began to set.

My walking changed from being about just covering the distance or counting the steps to an anticipatory walking, as I opened myself to see the wonders that might appear before me at any moment.

I don’t know when Jesus will return to make the Reign of God complete and set the world right. But I long for that day when there will be endless peace and joy throughout the world, and all people will live together in love.

The call of Advent is to live day-by-day in anticipation of Christ’s coming again. Active waiting… not just filling time or counting days, but looking up expectantly because we believe that Christ will come again.

Perhaps all we will get for now is a few glimpses of Christ’s presence among us – in a prayer, in a hymn, in bread and wine, in love shared, forgiveness granted, or kindness offered. During this season of Advent, while we wait, may we keep awake and alert for Christ’s coming among us.