Year A, Advent 3
December 15, 2019
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord.”
Look at the picture on the cover of your bulletin. Mike’s art is always great, but this one in particular just gets it: the farmer, waiting. I’ve worked on the land. I’ve waited like that, well to be honest, I tend to pace while waiting, but I’ve waited as a farmer has to wait; for the rains to come, and sometimes to end, the frost to lift and at the end of a long season to set in, the blight to creep from farm to farm. At our first little farm out in Amherst, MA on market days I would wait at the edge of the field for the sun to rise high enough to see the sunflowers I was cutting.
We all know about waiting. For your son to come home on a Friday night, the grant to come in, the lab results to arrive, this developmental phase to be finished, the baked potato to be done. Waiting is part of life, and as our spiritual life is a reflection and intimation of the entirety of life, waiting is part of the Christian faith. From the very first days of the church, right back to the Garden of Gethsemane, right back to John the Baptist, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”, we have been waiting. Advent, this season of Hope, Faith, Joy and Love is all about waiting. What are we waiting for?
Jesus! We don’t get many easy answers like that, especially when it comes to questions of faith, but this one is. We recite it most seasons. “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.” Or from Prayer B which we used for Ordinary Time this year, “We remember His death, we proclaim His resurrection, we await His coming in glory…” Jesus is who we have been, are, will be waiting for, not only His glorious return, but His presence in our lives, His love in our hearts, His strength in our souls and backs. We’re waiting for the Kingdom, the Commonwealth of God to be made real in time and space, the ever and forever more to be made manifest.
What are we waiting for? We’re waiting to be saved.
We all know that, right? That Jesus is coming back, that we’re going to be saved. A most pervasive meme in our culture about Christianity is rapture, the seventh seal being broken and the day of judgement arriving, a day of celebration for the righteous, the start of a season of gnashing teeth and utter torment for those of us left behind. I’m not so sure about that.
But I am sure (through hope AND faith) that Jesus is coming and that the Kingdom is near, and I am waiting, actively, yearningly, hopefully, faithfully, even joyfully and lovingly waiting, like that farmer in that drawing, waiting. But what are we waiting for? Specifically, what?
It is the season of lists. The big guy is making his list and checking it twice. We have our own gift lists, on Amazon and L.L.Bean, and even on old-fashioned paper. We have grocery lists for that Christmas feast. Lists of checks to write before the tax year ends (you might add the church to that list – it is tight this year and we’ve been awfully good). With all we have going on, getting ready to move and all, all we seem to have is lists, lists, lists.
What are we waiting for? Here is the list: the eyes of the blind to be opened, the ears of the death unstopped, the lame leaping, the speechless singing. Waters breaking forth in the wilderness, streams in the desert, springs of water arising in the most unlikely of places. The road will be safe, even for the fools among the faithful. Oh, and the ransomed of the Lord shall return. (Put a star next to that one). And that’s the old list, Isaiah old, like 8th or 7th century BCE old.
The Blessed Virgin Mary, the God-Bearer, she has a list of what we are waiting for, too. (And no, Mary didn’t plagiarize Hannah, they both just knew what was what). What we are waiting for, according to Mary is mercy for the faithful; God’s strength to be shown, the proud to be scattered; the mighty cast down, the lowly lifted up; the hungry will have their fill and the rich sent away empty.
We are waiting for everything to be alright! That is the promise, that in the fullness of time, everything’s alright. That song from Jesus Christ Superstar has been in bouncing around my head for a while. “Everything’s alright, yes, everything’s fine./And we want you to sleep well tonight… Everything’s alright, yes, everything’s fine./And it’s cool, and the ointment’s sweet/For the fire in your head and feet./Close your eyes, close your eyes/And relax, think of nothing tonight.” We’re waiting for everything to be alright. That is what we are waiting for.
In the way this world has evolved, what all of those things happening means is a reversal of fortune. If you have nothing now, you will. If you suffer now, you won’t. If your land is parched, it won’t be. If you are beset with jackals, stalked by lions, preyed upon by those who think themselves higher on the food chain than you, that is just for an instant, that is just how it is now, just wait. It’ll change. That is all on the list, that is the promise. (Those of us who are fat and happy right now, that promise goes for us too, just in the other direction. Gulp).
We are waiting for everything to be alright. So do we just wait around for it? No. Here is where we get into some of the mind and soul twisting great mystery of faith…
Because this is about hope and it this is about faith. This means that we cannot despair; despairing is the gravest of sins. We can’t just languish in this state, this sinful state of war and corruption, meanness of spirit, avarice and gluttony and all the rest. We must not just wait in the belief that nothing can or will ever change. That is forbidden territory for the faithful Christian. Likewise, we can’t just throw our hands up and say “It’s God’s will! I’ll get my reward in the sweet hereafter.” That sort of attitude prompted Marx’s opiate of the masses critique. As Christians we are not to despair, and neither are we to just sit back and passively wait, hoping for the best in this life or in the life to come.
However, neither can we simply rely on ourselves, believing in our self-sufficiency, that we’ll work our way out of this mess. That technology will make it so everyone can be as greedy as they want and it won’t murder the earth. That we can solve the problems of the world on our own. No we can’t. We certainly haven’t thus far, and have you read the paper? It isn’t getting better. We have absolutely no reason to think we are all going to turn it around on our own and change the course of human history or maybe even the next news cycle. Hubris like that has brought us to the brink of ecological, political and cultural disaster. The myth of self-reliance will bury us.
So, what are we waiting for? We have our list, that is what, but how… Look to the farmer. We are waiting for God, for God’s will to be made manifest in this world, but not passively, hands-a-wringing, nor impatiently, convinced if we just got the show on the road everything would be all right lickedly-split. No, we need to wait like the farmer does. The farmer isn’t waiting for a sign from heaven, waiting for the seeds to plant themselves, the weeds to uproot on their own, the cucumber and flea beetles to find someone else’s kale to nibble. Nor does the farmer think that she can make the rain fall, or can fill the river to irrigate the fields when the rains don’t. The farmer knows he can’t hold the frosts off, however he can put up a hoop house. She can’t pray the weeds away, but she can sheet mulch. But what the farmer’s faith is, how they wait through the too dry and too wet times is the absolute reliability of God’s promise.
Putting a seed into the ground is as concrete an act of faith as we humans are capable of. (Well that and having a child). It means you expect to be there next year. (Crops are not portable). It means that you expect it to rain enough. That you expect to be able to take care of it enough. That someone will be there to eat or to buy what you have grown. Bringing life into this world is an act of faith, because we can’t control much. The wind, the rain, the locusts, the friends they make, the boys they bring home, how fast they drive, and yet… most of us make it, for a while at least. Most seeds germinate, enough, usually, bear fruit. Because in the cycles and seasons of this life, this life in and of and by and through God in Christ with the Holy Spirit, most of the time, things are OK. At least around here they are. And many of the rough patches are surmountable. They usually require the assistance of friends and family and communities, kindly strangers and a few trained professionals, at least the major problems do. All of us are recipients of such support, and all of us are part of the structure of support for others. Just being in this room right now, you are helping to spin the wheel of prayer around this altar, and that helps, you are helping, someone by just being here. As you are when you help Skip and Greg and the crew flip pancakes at First Christian, or come to the Hospitality Village Christmas party, or bring a gift for the ARC kids, or write a check to the church.
Because that is how God works. The little bits of light we are surrounded by, the little acts of kindness and generosity and human decency are absolutely reliable, are as absolutely reliable as the promise of God because this is the promise of God happening. Like an unexpected rain in late June. Like the neighbor who stopped by and knew exactly what that bug is and what to do about it cheaply and safely. Like the sun that always rises and always sets, like the seasons that always change, be it fall to winter to spring or teenager to young adult to sane and rational human being.
I think this is true: Martin Luther was asked what he would do if he knew Jesus was coming back tomorrow. “Plant a tree, “ is what he said. Jesus is coming. We know that. And we have cut down a lot of trees that won’t replant themselves. We must have faith in the absolute reliability of God’s promise just as we must do what needs doing, right now. What are we waiting for? AMEN