The Almost and the Not Yet
Waiting has never been my gift. Never. I disclose this to you in full candor, as we enter this season of waiting. Waiting has never been high on my list of priorities. I am not a patient person. I’m not good at waiting for things to gestate, waiting for things to unfold, waiting for the truth to emerge. I tend to have a bit of a lead foot, because I like to get places faster and I’m not patient enough to just enjoy the ride, only to find that I’m early and have to, guess what…WAIT! I bring things to occupy myself when I have to wait in doctor’s offices, or appointments to have my oil changed, or while I wait for Brynn to get finished with ballet. I am the queen of cross-stitching or dish towel knitting, or crossword puzzles tucked into bags at conferences, or family reunions so I can always do two things at once. I even have a book loaded on my I-phone, so I can stop and read at railroad crossings without having to feel as if I wasted time waiting. When I run I have to listen to NPR, so I’m doing two things at once. And I confess that D.H. Lawrence is my least favorite writer because the major theme of all his books is the anticipation and the waiting. I don’t even like ketchup that isn’t in squeeze bottles, because the waiting for it to flow out of glass containers seems to take an eternity. I am a hopeless case.
And so, the Christmas season has always been sort of a whirlwind for me. Between wrapping presents, and decorating the house, and mailing Christmas cards, and purchasing gifts, and baking the occasional cookie, I find myself immersed in the briskness of the season, and to be honest, there are times when I like when the action keeps me moving. And I have a feeling that I am not alone in this. I have a feeling that there may be a few of you in this sanctuary who understand this inability to just be, to just wait, and are already impatiently wondering if I’ll ever get to the point (that is if you haven’t already started making your grocery list on the back of an offering envelope, or started playing tic tac toe with your seat mate). Sitting and waiting, being attentive, is not a strong suit for many of us in a world that tweets, and Facebooks, and instant messages, and texts. It is difficult to sink into the contemplative side of ourselves, and so (and for those of you who have been waiting for the point, here it is) the simple message that is relayed in Mark, the message to watch and wait, can feel like an impossible task.
This morning we dive head first into the first Sunday of Advent, a time when we examine some of the paradoxes of the Advent season. And the first crucial paradox is this one of time. We live in an almost and not yet world. We are almost ready to welcome the child of light, and we are perpetually not ready for him to come. We desperately desire the presence of peace, and we don’t know how we will operate when it arrives. We remain hyper-vigilant and watchful, and yet aware that we are in luminal time for the Messiah has not yet arrived. And so we hurry up…only to wait. We live between expectation and realization.
The scripture this morning from Mark, the words of Jesus about watching and waiting are not words of the faint of heart. There is an apocalyptic edge to them as we talk about the son of God coming, but I don’t think this edgy end of the world stuff was quite what Jesus wanted us to pay attention to, or quite what those who chose the texts for the lectionary this morning had in mind. You see, the gospel of Mark was written on or about the year 70 A.D. and the audience for whom Mark wrote had been waiting around for Jesus to return for quite a while, most of them their whole lifetimes. There were questions for these small bands of faithful about whether or not Jesus had been the real deal, for he hadn’t come back yet. He hadn’t come to redeem the people and create the new world yet. And so the words that Mark records, these words of Jesus, were addressed to a people trapped in their own liminal, in their own questions about what it meant to hurry up to be ready for the coming kingdom and then being forced to wait for it to arise.
There are churches that read these words of Jesus and have used them at times as baseball bats to pommel the faithful into submission, threatening those who step out of line by holding a threat of Jesus coming back bigger and better, but most Biblical scholars have come to agree that these words were actually not so much about the apocalypse, and more about saying to his followers, “Look, something marvelous is going to happen. You have to be alert. You have to be aware. You can’t live your lives passively. Even as you wait, you must watch.” It is about staying on our toes and not becoming too lackadaisical about our mission in this world.
And so, perhaps there is no better lesson for the first Sunday of Advent. For this first Sunday as things loom on the horizon, when we hold our breath in delightful anticipation, when we put down those things which are distracting us from the important task of embracing the quiet present. On this first Sunday of Advent, the lesson of the paradox is this, “Wait, but watch. Be passive, but actively. Embrace this simple lesson, for it can be so difficult.” Ah, the paradoxes of Advent.
There is a rich tradition which we learn from the desert fathers and mothers, mystics and wise folks who lived in the 4th and 5th centuries on the margins of society. We have nuggets of wisdom they have left behind, words which can challenge and free us. They are sort of the Zen Buddhists of our faith. And one of them was a monk by the name of John Cassian. Cassian spent years trying to figure out what it was that kept him from truly connecting with God. A lifetime spent in the search for a meaningful relationship with the divine. And finally, what he discovered, and then shared with all of us even all these centuries later was that good monks, indeed many good Christians, grappled with the sin of acedia. Anyone heard of it? Anyone want to confess to it now? Acedia has been one of the least understood, and perhaps most insidious of the seven deadly sins. Essentially acedia has usually, and misleadingly, been translated as “sloth”, but it actually means “apathy” or “indifference.” John Cassian realized that it was apathy for his ministry, for the ills of the world, which kept him distant from God. Acedia can be that state of the soul where we have simply given up, or simply lost hope, or simply tuned out, or simply decide to coast on auto-pilot. And perhaps this can be the biggest distraction from a connection with God, and our ability to work as Christians in the world.
And so this call that Jesus offers on this first Sunday of Advent, the call to keep awake seems to be the cure-all for any of us who occasionally lull into despondency, or apathy, or acedia. This call to keep awake, prods us from our spiritual exhaustion, or spiritual futility, our spiritual listlessness, or spiritual ennui, and reminds us that we are on the verge of a new creation, one that God does not want us to sleep through. And so this first step in our Advent journey, our wake up call, is to be mindful of the ways in which we allow ourselves to be distracted, to be side-tracked.
And after that realization, after the naming of this insidious missing of the mark, we can awaken anew to the sacredness that the next four weeks can offer. Knowing that the path to God invites us to attentiveness, it is our duty to step into that place of holy expectation and see where God calls us, what God wants us to do, and who God wants us to become.
The poet Mary Oliver wrote these words in her poem The Summer Day, “I don’t know what prayer is, I do know how to pay attention.” And this paying attention to what is beautiful, to what is real and alive and authentic, to what is wild and precious, is itself a kind of prayer. Perhaps we do this through listening more carefully to the words of our children. Perhaps we do this through watching more astutely as the trees are silhouetted against the pink of a sunset. Perhaps we do this through heeding the words of Jesus to love our neighbors, and then feel called to volunteer to deliver food to someone in need, or buy gifts for families who have so very little. Perhaps we do this by expanding the boundaries of our comfort zones and learning more about the needs of the world and asking how we can make a difference. However it happens, we can be called into places of attentiveness, and these places of attentiveness can beckon us on the Advent path.
Peter von Breemen in his book, The God Who Won’t Let Go, shares the holy task, the holy balance of the almost and the not yet in this way. He writes, “The essence of prayer is our waiting, our letting go, our bearing with our own inadequacy…waiting does not come easily. God will come, there is no doubt about that, but in God’s own time. And this waiting is not dead empty time.”
As we prepare to welcome the Christ child, as we take our first steps on the way to the manger, may we recognize that our waiting can be holy time. Our waiting can transform us. Our waiting can beckon us into a deeper relationship with God. May we remain awake and alert, in this time pregnant with hope.