"Oh that you would tear open the heavens and come down!" The cry goes up from the prophet and the people of Israel in Isaiah 64, the Hebrew Bible lection for this first Sunday in Advent. This lament has been echoed by individuals and entire peoples throughout the ages: "We need you, God! Where are you, God? Come down and intervene NOW, God! Enough is enough!"
The cry goes up from the borders of Texas, from Somali refugee camps in Kenya, from medical facilities in Liberia. The suffering cry out for mercy; the needy for relief; the threatened for safety. A homicide detective in one of my husband's churches said that many times when entering scenes of unimaginable horror and carnage, he could only choke out this prayer, "Lord Jesus, now would be a good time to come back."
Advent is our time to reflect upon God's coming. Several years ago I was with my family at one of Disney's Christmas parties at Walt Disney World. The highlight of the evening was a trademark Disney fireworks spectacular and, to our amazement, one of the fireworks depicted the manger with the baby Jesus. My young daughter and nieces were very impressed but my immediate reaction was, "I don't want fireworks of the baby Jesus (no offense, Ricky Bobby); I want to see fireworks of Jesus coming back large and in charge! I long for those fireworks!"
Mark 13, our gospel text for the day, tells us that there will be indeed be fireworks when Jesus the Christ comes back large and in charge: " The sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light and the stars will be falling from heaven and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory."
So the God who first came in the flesh as a baby in Bethlehem will return one day with great power and glory to usher in the full reign of God, with a new heaven and a new earth, and gather his people from "the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven."(Mark 13:27). But what do we do with this in-between time, this lag time? How do we handle the waiting, especially when things seem to be falling apart all around us?
I think it helps to ponder how familiar God's people are with lag time. Seldom does God go directly from Point A to Point B. No matter how much we crave the immediate and demand instant gratification or even salvation, God seems to act in a less direct, more roundabout manner. God promises Abram and Sarai descendants as numerous as the stars, but they have to wander and deal with many trials before Isaac is finally born. Jacob struggles with wives and birthright before he is renamed Israel after wrestling with an angel. Joseph is sold into slavery and imprisoned before he comes to power and reconciles with his family. The Israelites are slaves between 250 and 400 years until God "hears the cries of God's people" and delivers them from Egypt. They then must wander the wilderness for forty years before God gives them the Promised Land. The anointed David must run for his life from King Saul for years before he becomes king. The nation of Israel is cast into exile and suffers for seventy years before Babylon is overthrown and the temple rebuilt in Jerusalem.
See the pattern? More lag time than immediate action. More often waiting than God tearing open the heavens. More often stories of endurance like Simeon and Anna who patiently wait and pray, worshipping in the temple week in and week out, hoping God will act. No wonder Simeon joyfully prays the "Nunc Dimmitis" when he greets the Christ child in the temple: "Now let your servant depart in peace, according to your word, for with my own eyes I have seen your salvation, which you prepared for all the world to see." (Luke 2:29-31)
We learn much from this biblical pattern of delay and waiting. First and foremost, make no mistake, God will act. Delay does not mean God is not at work, uncaring or asleep. God will act, but in God's own time in God's own way. Jesus means it in Mark 13 when he tells his followers that only the Father knows when he will return. So rest assured, no matter how desperate circumstances seem, God will act and God will prevail. We must align ourselves with Anna and Simeon and trust. We cultivate trust by immersing ourselves in the biblical narratives of hardship, trust, and deliverance, and by surrounding ourselves with other people of faith who wait with us. We wait confidently, knowing God will act.
We also wait actively, as Jesus demands in Mark 13:34. Like the man who has left home and put his slaves in charge, "each with his work and commands," Jesus has left us with jobs to do, commandments to follow, a commission to fulfill. Lag time is not idle time. The vision of Christ's return compels us to live as God's agents now. We dream of the world as God would have it and commit our lives to, at least in small ways, making it a present reality. Until Christ returns, it seems that God's kingdom will come incrementally, when a hungry person is fed, one who thirsts is given a cup, the stranger is welcomed, the naked one is clothed, the sick person is cared for, the prisoner is visited. Nothing cataclysmic here, but a lifetime of work. Our waiting is active.
I love the old joke where the doorkeeper calls the Pope to tell him Christ has returned. The Pope replies, "For God's sake, tell everyone to look busy!" The Church needs to shake off its complacency and reclaim this sense of urgency. The ninety pastors in the district I oversee cite lack of motivation as one of the biggest problems in their churches. All too often their folks see themselves as polite members of a nice club, paying dues instead of tithing, and giving God what's left of their time after work, recreation, and sporting events..
The churches that are thriving have reminded their folks that they are part of God's bigger story. They have a role in ushering in the kingdom of heaven. They are part of a people committed to gathering in those who do not know, or have forgotten, that the God who created them and loves them desperately wants them back in the fold, safe, connected, and whole. Their role as an agent or ambassador of God is at the heart of their very identity, and they take this role very seriously. As one co-worker of mine once said, "I am at work for Jesus Christ in the world, cleverly disguised as a legal secretary."
Years ago my four-year-old niece Sarah and I planned to go to the beach together one weekend. I called her the Monday before our trip and asked, "Are you ready to go to the beach?" A half hour later my sister called and wanted to know what I had said to Sarah. "Why?" I asked. "She's sitting at the end of our driveway with a packed suitcase waiting for you!" That's the kind of urgent, expectant waiting Jesus demands. He wants us to live as if there's a pop quiz everyday rather than only one end-of-life final exam!
To those who wait well Jesus' words in Mark 13 sound more encouraging than ominous, full of promise and hope: "Therefore, keep awake--for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake."
We must keep awake in this lag time, waiting confidently, actively, expectantly. I find it interesting that lag time also describes the time between when a fuse is lit and the imminent explosion. Jesus' first coming ushered in the kingdom of God and lit the fuse. We have no idea how long that fuse is; but as Jesus promises us, the explosion of the new order, the full reign of God, is coming any minute. So we also wait with joy in this lag time.
One of the realities of ministering in Florida is that many folks only spend part of the year in our churches. Every spring brings tearful goodbyes, as folks return north and we are left to suffer the sweltering Florida summers on our own. Often, due to health, financial, or family issues, we never see these loved ones again. One dedicated saint, who sang a memorable tenor solo at our Holy Thursday services, suffered a massive stroke a few weeks after returning north, and we never saw him again. Not having closure is extremely difficult.
After several of these losses, my northern visitors and I began to embrace as they departed and simply say, "Next year in Jerusalem." These four words close the Passover Seder and convey a depth of spiritual meaning that we claim as our own: we know God is in charge and God's story is unfolding. We know there will be a new heaven and a new earth, a New Jerusalem, and that Christ will gather us there and we will joyfully reunite. We also know that we will face suffering and hardship before that time, and we may never see each other on this side again. But we face our trials hopefully, even joyfully, with that vision guiding and sustaining us. We also know that Christ may return at any time, and we even have the audacity to hope that he will be here within the year.
I pray that your Advent time is rich and that your Advent reflection makes your waiting confident, active, and expectant. God's lag time often results in growth and new vision. We join the saints in proclaiming the mystery of faith: "Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again." And I'll sign off with this phrase, uttered as a prayer, "Next year in Jerusalem." Amen.