SCRIPTURE – Luke 21:25-36 – “There will be signs in the sun, moon and stars. On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea. People will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken. At that time they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
He told them this parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees. When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near. Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. 33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away. Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you suddenly like a trap. For it will come on all those who live on the face of the whole earth. Be always on the watch, and pray that you may be able to escape all that is about to happen, and that you may be able to stand before the Son of Man.”
Dec. 2, 2012
When we moved into our house in Illinois, in the kitchen I found this strange contraption I had never used before: a gas stove. It scared me. I had a bad experience with a gas grill once that ended with singed eyebrows and a red face (literally and metaphorically). That experience had pretty much taken care of my desire to use anything that required natural gas.
So I was a bit hesitant the first time I used our stove. I thought it worked like an electric stove, so I turned the knob to about 6 to let it start heating up. After about 5 minutes I checked the burner and it was still cold, but I did notice there was a real funny smell in the kitchen. I realized what was going on, turned the burner off, opened up all the windows, and we went out to eat that night.
I finally learned how to work a gas stove like a pro, but whenever I was lighting it there was always that moment of doubt. You know the moment. The moment in between the turning of the knob and the sight of the flame, the time when all you hear is the hiss of gas and the “click click click” of the lighter before the “woosh” of the flame. Would the burn ignite? Would I see the flame? Or would I be knocked unconscious by the gas first? Those anxious moments of waiting – “click click click …woosh!”
The discipline of waiting are enough to drive a person crazy. Whether it’s a few seconds or a few weeks or a few years, waiting can wear you down and make you insane with thoughts of “what if.” Poet Lewis Smedes wrote, “Waiting is our destiny as creatures who cannot by themselves bring about what they hope for. We wait in the darkness for a flame we cannot light (sounds like me and the gas grill!). We wait in fear for a happy ending we cannot write. We wait for a not yet that feels like a not ever. Waiting is the hardest work of hope.”
Waiting is hard work, which is what Jesus is reminding people in today’s reading. This may seem like a strange passage for Advent. If Advent is focused on the coming of the Christ child, the first coming if you will, then why aren’t we reading about angels and shepherds and no room at the inn? Why are we hearing about tossing seas and fig trees and standing before the Son of Man?
The Advent season calls us to reflect on the first coming of Christ by being awakened with a reminder of the second coming of Christ. In Jesus’ time and the decades immediately following, the idea of Jesus coming again was at the forefront of believers’ minds. Two thousand years later, the concept may have lost some of its urgency for us. And yet, Jesus words about waiting are still relevant. This passage is an instruction manual on how to wait, something we have forgotten about in our culture. We are not patient people. Instead, author John Ortberg says we are Internet-using, Fed-Ex mailing, fast-food eating, express-lane shopping people. We are the people who shout for the microwave to hurry up. We don’t like to wait, and somehow we’ve distorted life in such a way that we think we shouldn’t have to wait.
Robert Levine, in his book The Geography of Time, proposes the creation of a new unit of time, which he defines as “the time between when a light changes and the person behind you honks the horn.” It’s called the honko-second, and Levine says is the smallest measurement of time known to science.
We don’t like to waste honko-seconds, and we don’t expect others to waste them, either. If you’re in line at the grocery and the person in front of you is having a nice chat with the cashier, what’s your first instinct? Do you think to yourself, “Aw, it so wonderful to see two people building community with each other?” Do you stop to admire the beauty of shared communication and relationship-building? Of course not! You sigh loudly, look at your watch, move all your groceries forward a few inches and bump the person with your cart. “Excuse me, I’m in a hurry and you’re wasting precious honko-seconds!” We don’t like to wait.
And that’s where we get in to trouble with God. I get frustrated because God doesn’t work on my timetable. I don’t like to wait, and I especially don’t like to wait on God. As I heard one person put it, I’m a double espresso follower of a decaf Deity. I want the “woosh!” of God without sitting through the “click click click.” But Jesus says in this passage that the act of waiting is a holy discipline, especially in a culture that devalues patience, and that there is blessing to be found in the “click click click” of waiting.
That’s what Advent is all about: four weeks of waiting for the birth of the Christ child. When I was a kid, these were the L-O-N-G-est weeks of the year. I just wanted them to hurry up! But I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older that it’s not wise to wish time away, because you can never get it back. Now, I settle into this time of waiting, reveling in the “not yet” of Advent that points forward to who’s coming, savoring these times of anticipation of the new thing God is doing in our midst.
We miss that if we skip Advent and go right to Christmas, like our consumer culture is doing more and more each year. Not only are we skipping Advent, we’re starting to skip Thanksgiving, as well! How long before we find Fourth of July fireworks and Christmas tree lights in the same aisle? One more way we’re told we shouldn’t have to wait. What we lose with this rush to get to Christmas is the gift of Advent, the gift of waiting, the gift of the unexpected that God has for us. If we think we already know what’s coming, we might miss what is right in front of us as we wait.
Pastor Barbara Brown Taylor tells how scientists have developed an experiment to show us how hard it is to notice something when we’re looking for something else. They sit you down at a table in front of a deck of cards and they flash six of them at you, asking you to identify them as fast as you can – ten of diamonds, queen of hearts, three of clubs. The first time is so fast that you miss a few, so they do it again more slowly. But there’s one you keep getting wrong. So they do it again, even more slowly, but there’s still one you simply cannot identify. You think you know what it is, but you are not sure, until they lay all the cards face up on the table. And you see that this mystery card is six of clubs, but the clubs are red, not black. The deck has been fixed. You could not see the red club because clubs are supposed to be black.
“Be on guard,” Jesus tells us in Luke. For what? We know Christmas. We’ve done this before. “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” light the purple candles, blah blah blah. “Be on guard!” Why? So you’ll not miss it when God plays a red club, when God deals an unexpected blessing. If we think we know what we’re looking for, if the signs all around us tell us to go straight to Christmas, we might miss what God is doing right here, right now, in this Advent time. The people in Jesus’ time thought they knew what kind of Messiah was coming – big guy, white horse, conquering leader. Maybe they heard it so much that it was old hat. Sing a song, light the candle… But then someone fixed the deck and dealt them a wild card when they least expected it.
That’s the value of waiting expectantly, of waiting with our eyes open, of being on guard for the movement of God around us and within us. Our hope is not found in the story the world is telling us about Christmas. Our hope is found in God’s story that’s being told again in a new way during Advent. But it’s going to take more than a few honko-seconds for it to play out. God has work to do here, and we’ve got four weeks to see what happens. So we wait, recognizing that waiting is hard work.
My favorite spiritual writer, Henri Nouwen, spent some time talking with a group of trapeze artists, and he wrote about the special relationship between the catcher and the flyer. As the flyer swings high above the crowd, the moment comes when she lets go and arcs out into the air. Can you imagine how long that feels to the flyer? It’s probably only a honko-second, but it feels like an eternity. She’s floating in nothingness. It’s too late to reach back for the trapeze. It’s too soon to grab for the catcher. Her job is simply to be as motionless as possible and put her entire trust in the catcher, to wait expectantly. Click click click….
What are you waiting for this Advent? What are you hoping God does during this time? Peace? Better health? Stability? A closer relationship with God? Does God know what you’re hoping for? Paul wrote, “Hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.” We hope, and then we wait. It’s hard work, for sure. But if we don’t do the hard work of hope, we’ll miss the “woosh” God is doing right in front of us.
If we think we’ll see a black club, then that’s what we’ll see, even if the club is red. If we think this will just be another ho-hum Christmas, then it will be, even if there’s more there for us. Every day is a gift and every moment is an opportunity to treasure that gift. During the season of Advent, despite all of the chaos and busyness and anxiety, if we cannot take to time to enjoy the gifts we already have, we run the risk of missing the true meaning of the greatest gift of all. There is something here for us as we wait. Waiting is the hardest work of hope. But the hope that is coming into the world is worth waiting for. Can you wait? Will you do that, with eyes open and hearts expectant? I sure hope so. But God has something planned for us, for this church, for this world. Click click click…