What Are You Waiting For?!November 30, 2008, 9:00 am & 11:15 am
First Sunday in Advent
Associate Pastor for Congregational Life
Imagine for a moment that you are shopping in a large department store, or worse yet, a mall during this season of Advent. The store is full of Christmas decorations, and so packed with people that you have to maneuver your cart or yourself with extreme care to ensure that you don’t collide with someone else–sort of like walking in Times Square pre- or post-theatre. You are dreading the length of the line at the check-out and either very cheerful or syrupy sweet, bad Christmas music is coming through the loudspeakers. If you’re lucky, you feel at least a hint of Christmas spirit rather than just impatience and annoyance. Now imagine that all of a sudden the Christmas music stops and instead you begin to hear the words from today’s lesson from Isaiah booming through the loud speakers–in a passionate, prophetic voice: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence–as when fire kindles brushwood and causes water to boil–to make your name known to your adversaries so that the nations might tremble at your presence!” What would that do to your shopping experience? How would you respond? I can imagine everything from nervous laughter, to exclamations of surprise, and probably a bit of fear–what is happening in this store? Has someone dangerous taken over the sound system or the store itself? It would certainly add a sobering note, and perhaps the store or mall would be silenced for a few moments as people took in these jarring words. If we were to follow Isaiah with some of the verses from today’s passage from Mark, the shoppers would be even more unsettled–Mark’s words would probably empty the stores: “But in those days the sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory.” And all Christmas shopping comes to a stop.
The scripture passages on this first Sunday of Advent are always jarring. They feel like a rude interruption to our cultural celebrations of Christmas that are already underway. Why does the church intrude upon this cheery season with passionate and disturbing pleas for God to come in all his power and might, for the kingdom to be fulfilled, and for Christ to come again, once and for all? Our church calendar doesn’t allow us to move right into Christmas after Thanksgiving as the rest of our society does. We are called to spend time in Advent first, to remember that we are not just waiting to celebrate the first time Jesus the Christ came to earth, but that we are waiting for Christ to come again in glory, for God to fulfill the kingdom. It helps to remember that this day we are praying for, that is so often foretold with frightening images, is the day when there will be no more war, suffering, pain, hunger, terrorist attacks, debilitating illness or oppression of any kind. As we move along with our preparations for Christmas, we remember that we are a people waiting for something much more profound than this holiday, and we take time to reflect on what it means to await Christ’s coming, and to look for that day with hope and eager anticipation.
In the section of Isaiah from which today’s passage comes, known as third Isaiah, the prophet is addressing people who have returned from the Babylonian exile, only to find that their return was not as glorious, prosperous or peaceful as what they had been expecting, what they had been promised in earlier prophecies. Things didn’t go so well upon their return. There was crop failure and hunger, corruption, sharp dissonance and infighting between different factions of the community.1 Our text for today is a portion of a larger passage that is really a psalm, a communal lament. It begins in chapter 63:7 and continues through 64:12. The end of this lament, which was not part of today’s reading, talks more specifically about what has happened to Zion. Listen to these last three verses: “Your holy cities have become a wilderness, Zion has become a wilderness, Jerusalem a desolation. Our holy and beautiful house, [the temple], where our ancestors praised you, has been burned by fire, and all our pleasant places have become ruins. After all this, will you restrain yourself, O Lord? Will you keep silent, and punish us so severely?”
We are no strangers to calamity and distress ourselves. We enter Advent with a sobering reminder of the ongoing horror of terrorism, as we have witnessed from afar the attacks in Mumbai over the last few days. We enter Advent in the midst of one of the worst economic crises we have known, one that is affecting all of us in some way, and will continue to affect us for years. We might long for the escape of Christmas celebrations. How nice it would be to be able to forget everything and lose ourselves in beautiful music, the Christmas story as we romantically envision it, the traditions that have developed over centuries, and the fairy tale quality of the season. But as we enjoy decorating, looking at magical shop windows, singing carols, and preparing gifts, we need to keep our ears open to the true voices of Advent–like the prophet Isaiah and the gospel writer of Mark. We need to hear their urgent pleas and admonitions in the midst of our celebrations, and we need to join them in their prayers: “How long, O Lord? O that you would tear open the heavens and come down! What are you waiting for, God?”
What are you waiting for? The people of Israel in post-exilic times seemed justified in asking that question of God, as do we. What is God waiting for? There is so much trouble in the world–every kind of trouble, just about everywhere you look: extreme poverty; never-ending war; racial, ethnic, class, and religious divides that seem so deeply entrenched that we will never be able to bridge them; insatiable greed; lust for power; and fear that causes us to wall ourselves off from the rest of the world. “What are you waiting for, God? Why don’t you do something?” That’s the cry of the prophet and the prophet’s community. And often it is our own cry. But this psalm of lament eventually goes beyond that cry, or deeper, to what is at the root of the crisis. God seems absent, but really, it is the people that have forsaken God and gone astray. The lament turns to confession. “We have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. There is no one who calls upon your name, or attempts to take hold of you.”
Advent, like Lent, is traditionally a penitential season. As we anticipate the coming of the Lord, we examine our hearts to discover the ways in which we have failed God and God’s people, ways in which we have turned away. One aspect of the waiting and watching of this season is repentance–turning again to God. After the prophet and the community move through confession they come to a beautiful reaffirmation of their relationship with God and the role that God plays in their life. We hear that wonderful little word, “yet”, that so often, powerfully turns things around in scripture, especially in psalms. As Walter Brueggemann says, “the great ‘yet’ of faith [is] the ground for all coming possibilities.”2 “Yet, O Lord” says Isaiah, “you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.” In the midst of great trouble the people reaffirm their faith. God is their father, their loving, guiding, protecting parent, the one who shapes and forms them. This psalm of Isaiah’s doesn’t end with the assurance that things will get better for the people. Our passage for today ends with a plea for God to remember that they are indeed God’s people, and the chapter itself ends with another question of God: “After all this, will you restrain yourself, O Lord? Will you keep silent, and punish us so severely?” But in the midst of the questioning, there is the affirmation that they are God’s people and God is still their God, the one who is shaping and forming them. The question “how long?” remains, but it is in the context of reaffirmed faith.
Jesus’ words in our gospel lesson from Mark seem even more out of place in this season of supposed good cheer. This 13th chapter of Mark is often referred to as the “little apocalypse” and has been understood by most scholars over the past couple centuries as foretelling the second, final coming of Jesus. N.T. Wright, who is the Bishop of Durham in the Church of England and one of today’s leading biblical scholars, presents a very thorough and convincing case for a different understanding of this 13th chapter of Mark in his book Jesus and the Victory of God. He says that this chapter is not an “end of time,” “final-coming” prophecy of Jesus, but rather Jesus was predicting the fall of Jerusalem, which was to happen in the next generation, he was foretelling the coming of the Lord and of God’s kingdom with the understanding that all of this was being fulfilled in and through him in the crucifixion and the resurrection. Jesus was predicting the fall of the Temple within a generation, not the end of the world. Jesus himself was the kingdom-bearer; he would now fulfill the function of the Temple so there would no longer be a need for it. According to Wright, its fall would be his vindication. The references to the moon and stars giving out and heaven and earth passing away are Jewish metaphors, says Wright, found in the prophecies of Jeremiah and Isaiah–they denote socio-political catastrophes and upheavals, and are not to be understood literally as foretelling the end of the world. As Wright says, “Already present in Jesus’ ministry, and climactically inaugurated in his death and resurrection, the divine kingdom will be manifest within a generation, when Jesus and his followers are vindicated in and through the destruction of Jerusalem.”3
Wright’s understanding of this text certainly takes away the troubling issue of the timing of the coming of the kingdom. What Jesus had foretold has already taken place. The kingdom is not fulfilled, but it has been inaugurated through his life, death and resurrection, and it is being lived into and lived out by the body of Christ, the church at work in the world. If this is how we understand this passage, then what is its relevance for Advent? Well, we are still waiting for the fulfillment of God’s kingdom. We are still praying, “Lord Jesus, quickly come,” even though we know he is among us and in us. The timing of the fulfillment of the kingdom is still a mystery, known only to God, so the parable at the end of this passage with Jesus’ exhortation to watch, keep alert, keep awake still applies to us. We are still called to watch for the Advent of Christ, to wait for God’s kingdom to fill the earth, to look for the coming of a new heaven and a new earth.
Today’s lectionary passages begin with the prophet’s cry to God, “What are you waiting for!! Come down, do something!” And then we move to Jesus’ exhortation to watch and be wakeful, to wait. This passage from Mark asks us to remember what we are waiting for. Jesus has come to us and abides with us, yet we are still waiting for him to return. In Advent we are called to active waiting, waiting upon God. I love the way one commentator put it, “waiting for God is no passive endeavor; it involves painful longing and bold allegiance, in short a passionate patience.”4
Finally, in Paul’s introduction to this letter to the Corinthians, today’s epistle lesson, he assures them that they are equipped for this active waiting, this passionate patience. “...you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ,” he writes, “He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Christ has equipped us for this wait. We have every spiritual gift we need and the strength of Christ himself. We don’t wait for Christ to come by passively sitting on our heels, looking for signs of the end and doing nothing to further the work of God in this world in the meantime. Our faith demands of us, “What are you waiting for??? Wake up!” Yes, we wait for Christ by passionately praying for the completion of God’s kingdom, but we also wait by fulfilling our role as disciples within that kingdom here and now. We look for where that kingdom is visible and present among us and we find ways to nurture and contribute to its growth. We wait by following Christ, by being faithful disciples, and by carrying out his work here on earth.
In the name of the One who is present with us and is yet to come. Amen.
- Isaiah, pp.185-187.
- Walter Brueggemann, Isaiah 40-66. ( Louisville: Westminster John Know Press, 1998) 238.
- N.T. Wright, Jesus and Victory of God: Christian Origins and the Question of God, Vol.2 (Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 1997) 365. See pages 340 to 365 for the full discussion of Mark 13.
- William P. Brown, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Vol 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008) 5.
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