“Wait For It”
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
November 27, 2016: Advent 1
That is the message at the heart of Advent: “Wait for it.” The Church has been observing a time of waiting and preparation before Christmas for about 1500 years, and the purpose is simple: Christmas is about a baby coming in the world, and when a baby is on its way, you must be ready. Since this is no ordinary baby, it is even more important that we are ready. Advent, these four weeks leading to Christmas, gives us time to do that. It gives us time to clean and tidy our homes, get rid of things that have just been sitting around collecting dust, and prepare the place where the baby will be born, with plenty of towels and soft sheets to swaddle him. At the same time, Advent is also waiting and preparation for Christ’s return to the earth. Jesus told his followers that he would be back, and his second coming would see the dawn of a new era, a new age, a total restoration of God’s love and peace. We can’t, we shouldn’t, rush the arrival of a baby into the world, and we can’t, we should’t, rush the second coming of Jesus into the world; so for now we wait. We wait, we pray, we sing, we prepare.
As I sat down to Thanksgiving dinner in the late afternoon on Thursday, I glanced at my watch and noticed that in about two hours Black Friday would begin. I remember when Black Friday was, well, on Friday. But just within the past few years we’ve seen a slow but steady creep of Black Friday into Thanksgiving Thursday. Even before the turkey has cooled enough to pick the bones for soup, the great machine of Christmas consumption had roared to life. I have mixed emotions about Black Friday creeping in on Thanksgiving. On one hand, I respect a retailer’s right to make decisions that are best for their business, and hey, if you want to shop when you could be resting and feasting, go for it. On the other hand, I lament that yet another sacred time of year has turned into a shopping holiday, and that so many people, most of which are barely making ends meet, have to work on a day when most of us are resting and feasting. It is a sad and strange reality, but it is one that I fear has come to stay.
I’m not here today to preach against the workings of Capitalism, but simply to point out that this is an indication of how good we are at waiting. Bad. We’re bad at waiting, and our desire to buy and consume speaks to that. I don’t know about you, but I didn’t see a single thing in the fliers or on TV or in my email that would have compelled me to leave the Thanksgiving table or get up at the crack of dawn the next morning to buy. But that isn’t because the retailers didn’t try. According to them, to the not-so-subtle messages of advertising, all of us needed every thing that was being sold. And without that thing, this gadget, the newest and best of every electronic and toy, we would somehow be less than human, less than cool, less than whatever. That is the lie we've been sold, and we've bought into it—we are what we buy and consume and amass, or we are not. This has only fed into how bad we are at waiting— for the stores to open, in the drive-thru line, for the doctor to call back, for Christ to come.
The earliest Christians were bad at waiting, too. The Gospel of Matthew was written down about fifty years after Jesus ascended into heaven, and it was written to a congregation that had been expecting Jesus to return for quite some time. David Lose, of the Lutheran Seminary in Gettysburg, points out that some scholars believe the gospels were written for just this purpose—to encourage Christians who were confused and discouraged by Jesus’s delayed return. For this reason, following the example of Mark and Luke, Matthew devotes a section of his gospel to encouraging his congregation to stay awake, be prepared, and wait for Jesus’s return. If they aren’t watching and waiting and prepared, Matthew suggests that they very well may miss God’s arrival among them. Hopefully Matthew’s words were an encouragement and comfort to his bewildered people.
The trouble is, of course, that nearly two thousand years later we’re still waiting. We’re still waiting for Christ to return to the earth, glorious and triumphant, to right all the wrongs, heal all the broken hearts, clear out the ears of the deaf, and open the eyes of the blind. We’re still waiting for Christ to return to the earth, with judgement in one hand and a sword in the other, to put the wicked in their place, to judge those who have acted contrary to God’s word, to put an end to violence and suffering, famine and disease, war and hatred and everything else that stands counter to God’s abundant love. We’re still waiting for Christ to return and assure us that this life, this faith we cling to, the sacraments and study and service, has been for something and has done some measurable good in the world. We’re still waiting for Christ to return to make it abundantly clear that we worship a living God who is real and really interested in who and what we are.
Watching and waiting is difficult for us, and it was difficult for Jesus’s earliest followers, too. But there is good news to accompany us in the difficulty of waiting. Though Advent is a change, a new focus, a different message, much of what we do continues through this season. We continue to worship throughout this season, not because we feel like we have to, but because we want to— because we want to sing and pray and hear the holy words of Scripture; because we want to be with other forgiven believers; because we want to comfort those who are struggling to see God, and hear from those who have recently seen God and can share what they’ve seen. We continue to serve each other and this community because the sign of Christmas Christians is not the beauty of their decorations, the quality paper of their Christmas cards, or the grandeur of their gifts—the sign of Christmas Christians is in how they respond to those who have been told, for whatever reason, that there is no room in the inn. We continue to feed those who are hungry, we continue to give clothes to those who are naked; we continue to educate our children, care for the aged and dying, and we continue to surround each other with love.
By continuing the practices and rituals that make us who we are, the waiting is easier. The waiting is easier because we’re not just sitting around star-gazing, but rather searching honestly for God’s presence in the world. The waiting is easier because in our worship we remember that God hears us when we pray, that our singing unites us with believers throughout time and space, that the timeless and unconditional assurances of Holy Scripture are ours today and forever. The waiting is easier because in serving one another and those in need, we are actually serving Christ. Offering a meal to someone who is hungry is offering a meal to Christ. Placing a coat on the back of someone who is cold is placing a coat on the back of Christ. Welcoming a stranger, defending an outcast, standing up or speaking out for those who have no feet to stand on or no voice—all these things we do for one another, we do for Jesus Christ. Amid all the unexpected, surprising, and sometimes life-altering events of life, this is immensely comforting—to know that in our worship and service, our witness and ministry, we have one another and together can face the unknowns of this life. It is immensely comforting to know that we are waiting together, longing together for Christ's return, and will celebrate together that day when God becomes one of us.
And there is more good news. No one knows when tragedy will strike. No one knows when incredible blessings will occur. No one knows when Christ will return to fulfill our most honest and holy desires. No one knows. But we do know this: God is present. God is present. Sometimes this is hard to see, and we need help. Sometimes this is easy to see, and we need to help others. That’s the way the body of Christ worked all those years ago, and how works today at its very best. It is a rag-tag collection of people that God has called from all the ends of the earth, unified by the one Jesus Christ who died and rose for all. It is just like a family: there are some who will always talk politics at the dinner table, some who can't help but criticize the others, some who feel that they can never be their truest self. Yet, it is a family, and a family is built on love, a love that will never fail. The body of Christ is the place where sorrows are shared, joys are amplified, and the asking of questions and honest search for answers is championed, not denied. The body of Christ witnesses to the world that God came to be one of us, took on our human form and nature, taught us the way of peace and love, then died and rose again to make that peace and love so very real. The body of Christ now waits, with great expectation, for Christ to come again and for God’s kingdom to have no end.
So, wait for it. Wait for it, now; Christ is coming. Do not be afraid. Worship the Lord in gladness. Lock arms with your brothers and sisters in faith. Study the Scriptures and pray that God’s will will be done. Sing, and make music to God. Reach out in compassion to those in need. Offer a hand to help someone up. Search for God in everything you do, and then tell us what you’ve seen. Cling tight to this part of Christ’s body; ask questions, search for answers, strive for unity, and love as God loves you. Wait for it. And we’ll see the light coming fast; we’ll feel the hope come at last; we’ll find our truth on the path; we’ll be free from the chains of our past. Wait for it. Wait for it. Amen.