Our lives are inevitably shaped by those for whom we wait. You'd better not shout, you'd better not cry, you'd better not pout, I'm telling you why. Santa Claus is coming to town.
Our lives are inevitably shaped by those for whom we wait. We know from the Old Testament lesson Isaiah has a vision of one who was to come to redeem the world and to usher in God's kingdom on earth. It was the single vision which fashioned Isaiah's life, shaped by the one for whom he waited.
My wife's grandfather (Presbyterian preacher of the old school), when he became quite elderly and blind, used to bore the family mercilessly with his incessant talk of looking forward to heaven-during family prayers pleading with the Lord to take him home, in conversation at the dinner table, talking of how he couldn't wait to meet Jesus face-to-face. Now some of us would not want to put it quite that way; nonetheless, there is an essentially future-oriented quality in our Christian faith. We may not be certain of every detail or all even agree, but we do live in anticipation of a future that is not to be feared, when God's purposes will be fulfilled. Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, nor has it entered the human heart, all that God has prepared for those who trust in God." While in the meantime, we wait. Only even as we wait, the quality and the character of our lives are shaped by the one for whom we wait.
Theologian Paul Tillich put it beautifully when he wrote, "Although waiting is not having, it is also having. The fact that we wait for something shows that in some way we already possess it. Waiting," says Tillich, "anticipates that which is not yet real." That is, if we wait in hope and patience, the power of that for which we wait is already effective within us. "Those who wait," Tillich says, "in an ultimate sense are not that far from that for which they wait."
Theologians like to talk of an interim ethic, by which they mean a way of behaving in the interim, between the time when Christ was here and the time when Christ returns, a time for us, like now, where you and I live in the interim. In fact, most of the New Testament is written from that perspective-in the interim waiting for the fulfillment of God's promises. St. Paul speaks of the Christian life as living on tiptoe as we wait in anticipation. After all, what is the Christian life if not a modeling on the life and promises of the one for whom we wait.
Listen once again to the prophet's vision of that day which is to come. It is Isaiah's vision of that day when no more there will be heard in the land the sound of weeping and the cry of distress. Children will grow up. The elderly will be cared for. People shall have houses to live in and gardens from which to gather food. There will be work to do and time for singing. The wolf and the lamb will feed together, and none shall hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain.
Well, I do not need to tell you that day has not come. All one has to do is pick up the morning paper to know God's rule of peace and love is not the operating principle of our world or, for that matter, within our own selves. We live in the interim, which as the poet Ogden reminds us "is always the most difficult time of all; with bills to be paid, machines to keep in repair, irregular verbs to learn, the time being to redeem from insignificance." Powerful phrase: "the time being to redeem from insignificance."
The poet is right, of course. It really is the time being that gives us the most trouble, isn't it? That period which stands between anticipation and fulfillment. The time we spend in waiting...for the phone to ring...the plane to land...the letter to arrive...the check to come...waiting for the grades to come out...for the lab report...the wedding day. Waiting to see...to hear...to know...while the meantime is the most trying time of all.
Well, of course, waiting is hard. Not knowing the hour or the day is always difficult. But it is not as if we have nothing to go on. The entire evidence of biblical history from the Garden of Eden of Genesis to the heavenly city of Revelation, one vision after another of that day to come when human life will be lived according to God's purposes and in harmony with one another. Never has there been a truer word spoken than by the writer of Proverbs: Without a vision the people perish.
We witness that everyday, do we not? People perishing-some swiftly through violence, some slowly though indolence-because of a lack of purposeful vision.
The Bible is many faceted, but always with a tilt toward the future-a vision, a dream if you will-a glimpse into the way human life was meant to be, always an expectant eye on that day to come, when as one as put it, "All the rules will be fair, and there will be wonderful surprises."
And so it is now with us, this first Sunday in December as the world at large awaits all the anticipated delights of the Christmas season, and we in church, of course, share in those delights, but we in church traditionally begin what people of faith have always regarded as an Advent vigil-that special time of the year to contemplate the character of this kingdom for which we wait, because we know our lives are inevitably shaped by that for which we wait.
What is it we expect, you and I? What is it we really expect out of Christmas? Someone observed people tend to make out of life pretty much what they make out of Christmas; and so if Christmas means little more than the annual mid-winter solstice, a break from the winter doldrums, bonus time, carnival time, a boost for the economy, entertainment for the children, and an increasing endorsement of American consumerism, if that is all we can expect from Christmas, then once life returns to normal, to the meantime, then life will probably amount to little more.
If, however, Christmas is perceived as the radical entrance of one who literally wants to change the way the world thinks, operates, perceives reality, then life in the ensuing meantime is more likely to follow that pattern. Life for us will mean precisely what Christmas means. No, the roll of the old prophet Isaiah on this first Sunday of Advent-indeed the function of the incarnation itself-all of scripture is to help us clarify our expectations, because our lives are inevitably shaped by that for which we wait.
My wife's grandfather again, the same grandfather who irritated the family so with his incessant chatter of joining Jesus in heaven had another especially irritating characteristic. He acted on his expectations, as if the kingdom were already here. He was utterly unconcerned for the things of this world. The family gave him a gold watch for his birthday. He promptly gave it away to a beggar on the streets-said nobody needed a watch in heaven. They sent him money every month to supplement his pitiful little church pension. He sent it to the missionaries. They bought him a new felt hat for Christmas. First Sunday he wore it to church he sat on it all the way home in the car. When reminded of how much the hat cost and chastised for his carelessness, Granddaddy simply shrugged and allowed as how nobody would know the difference in a hundred years-and, besides, who needs a hat in heaven-which really did not help much at the moment, though I think the family understands better now.
Our behavior is inevitably shaped by the one for whom we wait, for there is a sense in which even as we live out our days in the interim, we already possess and are possessed by the one for whom we wait.
Karen, a student at Union Theological Seminary, was living and studying in New York City while her newly lawyered husband had gone to work for a law firm in Harrisburg. They saw each other only on weekends. In homiletics class, Karen described what her Fridays were like when John came into Pennsylvania Station on the train in time for supper. "I usually get up early on Friday to clean the apartment before coming up here to school," she said. "Then, after classes, I make a kind of safari down Broadway. I stop for groceries, pick up a bottle of wine, stop at a favorite flower stall for fresh flowers, and when I get home, I have just enough time to get myself and supper ready. Then John comes." Only Karen went on to add, "The funny thing about it is that from morning until he arrives, I have this strange feeling that he is already with me...not really...but really.
In Advent the one for whom we wait is already here shaping and giving substance and hope to our lives. Not really..but really.
Let us pray.
We confess, O God, we are not very good at waiting. Yet your eternal message to us is to wait and to watch and to hope with anticipation. Teach us anew this Advent the wisdom of waiting, of trusting that those who wait already possess in part that for which we wait. And so, O God, even as we wait for your appearance among us, open our awareness to your already presence among us in the person of other people, in the poetry and the music of these days, and the Christmas stories, in your quiet unseen spirit that dwells constantly in our midst, seeking to break through our panic with your peace, trying to convince us that the true joy of the season is found ultimately in our faith and in the lives of those with whom we share it. So inspire us, we pray, by your spirit this season to sense anew in the signs and the sounds of this Christmas celebration your special word of hope and anticipation for our world. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.