For better or worse… here it is… still needs some tweaking.
What are you waiting for?
For thousands of years, the people of Israel were waiting for the Messiah, the King – who would re-establish their nation. They were constantly watching for their Savior. Where was he? When would he come? When, Lord, when?
They were waiting. Impatient. Hungry for God’s promises. And perhaps, feeling a little unloved and uncared for. But were they really being ignored by God? Was God unaware of their cries for help?
Let’s trace their history a little.
If we go back as far as Noah, we remember that humanity’s deliberate disobedience had such a stench to God, that all but one faithful family were obliterated by a flood. Then later the line of Abraham was established – only to be filled with tricksters and rascals. Remember Jacob, stealing his twin’s birthright? And Joseph’s jealous brothers?
A few generations later, the Israelites were slaves in Egypt. God rescued them from Pharaoh under Moses’ leadership. They wandered in the wilderness for a generation because of their thick-headed disobedience. Then, when finally it was time to take their land, they hedged their bets and intermarried rather than following God’s mandate to claim and cleanse the land of pagan deities.
Let’s remember how the twelve tribes bickered as they divided the land. Hmmm. Just like siblings. Then they asked for and were given judges to help them follow God’s commandments. They begged for and were given a king like all the other nations. King David, who committed adultery and killed his paramour’s husband. Solomon who showed great wisdom, yet great weakness. God’s people were first divided as a country, then occupied, then sent into exile. Their temple was destroyed.
As we trace the history of God’s people, we will see this theme of stubbornness, of a tenacity to do what THEY want, rather than what God commands. And despite their less than perfect record, God responded. Every single time. They were God’s covenant people. Though they might lie, cheat, steal, or be unfaithful, God intervened. Rescued them. Redeemed them. Restored them.
When we read the verses in Isaiah this morning, we can hear the words of hope and expectation. God heard their longing for liberation, for release from captivity in Babylon. God promises to favor them, to vindicate them, and to rescue them. Isaiah says that God himself will comfort all who mourn. They anticipate that God will answer.
They believed they would experience restoration, renewal, and rebuilding. They returned to their land. And from the fulfillment of these promises, there is a deep joy. Even in the waiting, there is joy. Isaiah proclaims good news for them, and for us.
Perhaps some of you have read “The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe” by CS Lewis. In this tale, the people of Narnia are living where it is “winter, and never Christmas.” Yet Lewis spins a tale which tells of a dynamic, joyful, loving God who wants his creatures to experience deep joy and delight. Aslan, the lion of God, returns to a land held captive by darkness and cruelty under the White Witch. The rumors being to fly: “Aslan is on the move!” And when he returned, the long, cold winter began to melt, and human hearts which had long been cold, were changed, bit by bit, into a warmer, living heart for God.
Edmund, one of Lewis’ characters, was at first captivated by the hollow promises of the White Witch. He struggles with experiencing the loving presence of Aslan. As the winter begins to thaw, Edmund starts to experience a strange emotion…
All around them, though out of sight, there were streams chattering, bubbling, splashing and even (in the distance) roaring. And his heart gave a great leap (though he hardly knew why) when he realized that the frost was over.
We feel the power of this metaphor: the cold of winter is blown away; evil no longer has a death grip on Narnia’s citizens. Springtime comes; like Edmund, we look forward to the promised coming of spring. Like the Israelites, we long for personal transformation and the redemption of the whole human race.
In Lewis’ tale, the liberation does not come easily. Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy have to fight for their freedom. They experience loss. They slip up and fall back into old habits. They learn how to forgive each other, to cling to the good. Their actions are echoes of Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians –
Rejoice always. Pray continually. Give thanks in every situation. Yield to God’s Spirit. Hang on to what is good. Avoid evil. Count on God being faithful.
This theme of joyous anticipation and preparation is also found in our Gospel story this morning. The voice crying in the wilderness, John the Baptist, spoke of the Light, the promised one who had come to redeem and rescue God’s people. So yes. Thousands of years later, Jesus, the Messiah, the Light of the world, was among them.
John is basically saying, “What are you waiting for? The One you waited for is here! Straighten up! Fly right! Get your acts together!” OK. That’s a bit of a paraphrase! But can you feel his excitement! Can you experience with John the great joy of the final thawing, the coming of the promised One?
John knew that the One was coming. He saw the signs. The slow thaw was coming. A country and a people who longed for their God, who missed God’s presence among them was about to have their prayers answered. He had that sense of anticipation, of knowing God was acting.
The priests and Levites were sent to cross-examine the witness. “Who are you?” John answered, “Well, I’m not Elijah. And I’m not a prophet. And I’m not the one you’re waiting for. But he’s coming! Don’t miss it!”
We know from the Christmas story that many people DID miss it. They were looking for someone to overthrow Caesar. They were looking for someone to knock some sense into the lackadaisical, unreligious people around them. Maybe they even thought that they hadn’t suffered enough. That God was going to pour some more dread on them. Maybe they thought they hadn’t waited long enough!
If you think about it, the outward picture had not really changed in Israel. The people were still desperately poor. The Romans were still in charge. The religious elite were running the temple like a trading post. Yet… John calls God’s people to prepare. “He is coming!”
The same is true for us today – it’s time! Get ready! Get your JOY on! When God makes good on his promises, there’s a celebration. Despite the prayers which are not answered. In spite of arguments, quarrels, foreclosures and bankruptcies. Even though there is illness, and pain, and sadness, and death, and suffering.
The Light has come. The promises are true! God will rebuild the things which are ruined. God will restore the places which are deserted, ignored, forgotten. And God will bring renewal.
Perhaps from where you sit, this message of joy, one of anticipation and preparation is hard to receive. It is difficult to experience joy when illness and even death looms. Families and friends may sense it as well – one’s mortality is darker, larger and more real than we want to admit. So is joy incompatible with the health struggles one faces? Where can we find God in this?
Thomas Merton suggests that our understanding sometimes will not be found in logical arguments or visible circumstances. In his book Seasons for Celebrations he writes that “we must sometimes expect our hope to come in conflict with darkness, desperation and ignorance.”
“The Advent mystery focuses the light of faith upon the very meaning of life, of history, …of the world and of our own being. In Advent we celebrate the coming and indeed the presence of Christ in our world. We witness to His presence even in the midst of all its …problems and tragedies. Our Advent faith is not an escape from the world to a misty realm of slogans and comforts which declare our problems to be unreal, our tragedies inexistent.”
It is a mystery – this coming of the promised Messiah, and the anticipation we have for Christ’s return. We are not just optimistic – we are resting our hopes and fears on the truth of Christ’s Presence among us. Merton reminds us that “Christian optimism lies in a hope of victory that transcends all tragedy: a victory in which we pass beyond tragedy to glory with Christ crucified and risen.” The reality of our faith brings a new meaning to the celebration of the Communion Feast.
My prayer for you, on this third Sunday of Advent, is that you will feel that deep joy. That the promised “thawing” which shall come will be stirring within you. And as you wait, and long, and hear again the Ancient Story of the Baby in the manger, that you will know that God is here – Emmanuel. God With Us. The Child is the one we all wait for…
Thanks be to God.