Our upbringing and culture has quite a lot to do with it. I remember many years ago being part of a group of young people from the Methodist Church in Britain ‑ visiting the Methodist Church of Southern Africa. At one stage on our journey we found ourselves at the airport in Maseru, the capital of Lesotho, waiting for a plane that would take us to a mission hospital up in the mountains. The airport was unlike any other I’ve seen. Whole families seemed to be camping out, surrounded by their belongings and preparing meals over little cooking stoves. We soon discovered why when we made enquiries about our flight; nobody knew when it was going to turn up, or even if it was going to turn up. On a previous occasion it had arrived four days late. After a day waiting around we decided to abandon the trip. We left the waiting to the local Basotho people, who were obviously far more practiced at waiting than we were.
Are you good at waiting? I reckon I’m better than many others I know. As long as I’ve got a magazine or book (or my phone) to keep me occupied, I’ll wait for ages. My wife Mary Ann is quite different. If we’re in a queue, I’ll accept the fact that we’re going to have to wait. She starts fidgeting about and grumbling about the time and the length of the queue and is this really necessary.
Again I suppose it’s a cultural thing. English people are good at queuing ‑ we invented that use of the word. In the Philippines, where my wife is from, people don’t queue. They wait around for something to happen and then make a sudden dash.
Which reminds me of another occasion – waiting for a coach to turn up in a bus depot in Manila. Everyone was waiting – again, with the sense that the bus might turn up in 5 minutes or 55. Eventually it pulled into depot. I waited patiently for the passengers to get off only to be almost rushed in the melee as the queue disintegrated and people pushed through the doors of the bus and even climbed through the open windows.
Though now I think about it, perhaps it’s not much different from catching the 29 bus outside Camden Town Sainsburys…
Some people are good at waiting, others are not. Which are you?
Some of us have enough trouble waiting even in ordinary times. It’s even worse when we have a real sense of expectation and excitement. Those of you who are parents will know what I’m talking about. We’ve not even got to the beginning of December and already children are getting excited about Christmas. As presents start to arrive, the temptation is almost too great. Let’s be honest ‑ is there anyone here who has ever been tempted to take just a little peek under the Christmas wrapping paper? As for Advent calendars ‑ in our house all the doors are usually open by the end of the first week.
Perhaps we can take this as a parable of our modern age. We are losing the ability to wait. A number of years ago a credit card company came up with the slogan ‘take the waiting out of wanting’. Now there’s a message for today. Why take months or years planning and saving and anticipating when you can have something straight away on easy credit? Those of us with longer memories will know that this is something that has changed in just a couple of generations. I guess that many of us were brought up with a belief that one should always live within one’s means. ‘Never a borrower or a lender be’: that old adage was been blown away with the arrival of the credit card which became an acceptable way to borrow money. Note that they weren’t called debt cards, but credit cards. No longer any need to wait. Have what you want now and worry about the consequences afterwards. But as we have been discovered in the past couple of years, when the credit comes to an abrupt crunch, the consequences are global in their impact.
Having said this, it is therefore hardly surprising that we find it difficult to grasp the meaning of Advent.
Advent is a time for waiting and watching, for making preparations and getting our lives in order. In practice Advent is squeezed out as Christmas gets earlier and earlier. Even in the church – every year I seem to have a discussion about whether the Christmas tree should go up for Advent Sunday. Let’s have at least one week of Advent, I suggest. We need Advent, for we need times of preparation and anticipation. Advent reminds us that some things are worth waiting for; they cannot be hurried or rushed.
“Human life is full of waiting: People wait for trains, buses and plains; they stand in queues at shops; they sit nervously in dentists’ waiting rooms; they wait in anguish for news of a lost loved one. They wait for the slow process of healing to take its time; they wait for the birth of a child. Waiting can be very different in these different situations, according to our attitude. In an age of instant products any delay can be viewed as purely negative, for ‘time is money’. Yet some things cannot be skimped or hurried; we have to let them take the time they need. You can’t make the grass grow by pulling it, as the proverb wisely warns.”
This is also true for the life of faith. We can all identify particular moments when we felt the hand of God at work; a prayer answered; a miracle witnessed; the Holy Spirit lifting us up; a sudden sense of the presence of God. But for most of us such moments are the exception rather than the rule. Sister Maria continues:
“In between those obviously creative moments, faith can demand long, patient waiting, when nothing seems to be happening, and this is just as necessary to growth. We sometimes have to go on doing the small, ordinary things while we wait for God, as Mary did while she waited for the birth of Jesus; we have to wait for his moment, and wait for his work to ripen in ourselves.”
I’m not sure whether Sister Maria had our Old Testament reading from Isaiah 64 in mind as she wrote these words, but they seem very relevant. Isaiah 64 expresses the words of a man who is tired of waiting:
“Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down,
that the mountains would tremble before you! …For when you did awesome things that we did not expect, you came down, and the mountains trembled before you.”
“you have hidden your face from us and made us waste away because of our sins.”
But in the final analysis the prophet’s faith will not allow him to believe this could be so. He simply cannot equate this feeling of abandonment with his understanding of God.
“Yet, O LORD, you are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand.”
We may think of waiting time as wasted time, but as Maria Boulding points out, it can be a time of creativity and growth. To use the prophet’s analogy, time for the potter to work with the clay, although this can be a slow and painful experience.
For the people of Israel there would be another five hundred years of waiting until the birth of a baby in a stable. Why God chose this particular place and time may not clear to us, although Paul assures us that it happened ‘when the time was right’. ‘To everything’ said Ecclesiastes, ‘there is a season’. And Jesus himself said:
“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near.”
I can picture exactly what Jesus is talking about because in our last house our next door neighbour had a fig tree whose branches overhung our garden. In December the branches are bare and its large leathery leaves litter the flowerbeds. But come springtime and the buds will surely burst forth once again, as predictable as day follows night.
Likewise, says Jesus, God is at work and the kingdom is coming, although not without struggle and suffering and even false hopes and dead ends. But it will come, as sure as my late neighbour’s fig tree will burst forth with new life in the spring, as sure as summer follows winter. That is our Advent hope, and we pray that God’s kingdom will come, and will come quickly.
But in the meantime, we wait, as Christians have been waiting for two thousand years. Next time you’re standing at a bus stop and the bus is fifteen minutes overdue console yourself with the thought that in the larger scheme of things this is hardly any wait at all!
There were many in the early church who believed that the return of Christ and the consummation of the kingdom would be imminent, even within the course of a single generation. When that did not come to pass they were confused and dismayed. The author of 2nd Peter writes to address this misunderstanding:
“the Lord is not slow to do what he has promised, as some think. Instead, he is patient with you, because he does not want anyone to be destroyed, but wants all to turn away from their sins.”
This is good advice to those of every generation who are impatient for the Lord to act; he will do so when the time is right. In the meantime there is the waiting time; the growing time; the preparing time.
And what is our response to be?
Firstly, Jesus makes it quite clear what waiting means: Be alert! Keep watch!
But what does Jesus mean when he tells us to watch? One commentator suggests:
“Many, I fear, hear this passage as a call for waiting and hanging around looking at the sky. I try to remember that, if we are walking around looking up all the time to the clouds for the return of Jesus, we will probably trip over that homeless guy sleeping in our doorway.’
So this is to be an active watching and waiting.
That is a point that has been made time and time again in our gospel texts over the past few weeks. It’s like bridesmaids waiting for a bridegroom to arrive at a wedding feast and being prepared with enough oil to fuel their lamps; it’s like servants entrusted with huge sums of money putting it into use before their master returns; it’s like those who extend compassion to their neighbours in need and discover they have thereby received a blessing; and today, Jesus tells us in the little parable of the absent householder, it is like a household, each servant carrying out their appointed task until the owner returns.
God “acts on behalf of those who wait for him” writes the prophet… “those who gladly do right, who remember your ways.”
The story is told that when Martin Luther was asked what he would do if he knew that the world was going to end tomorrow, he replied without hesitation, “I would plant an apple tree this afternoon.” Luther didn’t speculate about the end of the world. He focused on the present. He would plant that apple tree today because he believed that what may happen in the future does not excuse us from what God requires of us now, today, in our ordinary living.
There are many Christians so intent on looking up in the sky for “other worldly” experiences or spectacular miracles that they miss the everyday miracles happening in our own neighbourhood, in our own community. There are some so hung up on the big stuff written about in Mark chapter 13 that they forget that God the potter is still quietly at work in the ordinary things, creating and forming and moulding lives.
Secondly, not only are we to wait and watch, but we are to wait and watch together, as the community of faith.
Lord Shackleton was a famous British scientist and explorer in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He tried but failed in his initial attempt to reach the South Pole. In fact, he was forced to leave some of his men behind on a remote island in the dangerous Antarctic region. Shackleton promised to return for them. Day after day he tried to reach those marooned men, but always he failed because the dangerous ice would close the channel way between him and his abandoned crew. At last Lord Shackleton determined to make one great attempt at rescuing his men. The channel suddenly opened between the sea where Shackleton was and the island where his crew was stranded. At the risk of his own life, Shackleton rushed in with his ship, got his men aboard, and quickly rushed out, barely making it before the ice crashed together again. The whole rescue operation took less than 30 minutes.
Afterwards, Shackleton turned to one of the crew members whom he had rescued and asked, “How was it that you were all able to get aboard ship so quickly?” Replied the crewman, “Sir, Mr. Wild, the officer you left in command never let a chance sip. You had promised to come and we were waiting for you. Whenever there was the slightest chance of your coming, Mr. Wild would say, ‘Men, roll up your sleeping bags, the boss may be here today.` “Sir,” continued the crewman, “our sleeping bags were all rolled up, we were always ready. We were always prepared.” [From Proclaim (Parish Publications, 1993) quoted here.]
Like the household in the parable we, the household of faith, must work together, ready for the coming of the king. Encouraging one another, sharing in the responsibilities of ministry and mission. Helping each other to stay alert, to keep watch. This is the purpose of the church’s celebration of Advent, a time both solemn and tinged with a note of joyful expectation.
Advent is the time of waiting, of watching, of living faithfully in the hope and expectation that God will reveal himself in a new way; that the kingdom of God, so long awaited, will come and that we, with our own eyes, will see Jesus in all his glory.
And so we pray in the words of the ancient prayer: Come, Lord Jesus!