Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient.
Over the last weeks I’ve been talking about some of the virtues we practice in this Advent time of year: love and welcome — not that the practice of these virtues should be limited to Advent, mind; but the church does call us to think on these things in a more intentional way in this time of preparation. So today I want to reflect upon a third virtue, the virtue of patience, which is a big part of what Advent is all about, this season of watchful waiting, not only for the coming of our Lord at the end of time, but for the more down-to-earth waiting for our own celebration of Christmas in a couple of weeks.
Waiting for Christmas is something children are well used to, though I dare say they have yet to master the virtue of patience in that regard. And sometimes adults aren’t much better! Now that the Christmas displays go up in the stores even before Hallowe’en, it seems like we have more pre-Christmas time to wait through than ever! And not all people handle the waiting equally well. If you’ve ever stood back and watched the shoppers at work at the sale counter, you might come to think that this was the season of impatience! It is sometimes just plain hard to wait, especially when you know what you are waiting for.
In a scene in last year’s comic film “Love Actually” a woman catches her husband at the jewelry counter of a high-class department store. He quickly conceals the purchase — because, as the audience knows, he’s buying a necklace for his secretary. When the couple return home, the wife can’t resist the temptation, and she takes a peek in the pocket of her husband’s coat as it hangs in the hallway. Sure enough, in a lovely small box is a very classy gold necklace. It’s years since he’s bought her anything so nice. She quickly returns the box to her husband’s coat pocket. Weeks later, on Christmas day, the family is gathered and the packages are being opened. The wife finds the box under the tree, and the husband says, “Oh I was hoping to save that for last. It’s rather special.” The wife, with a knowing smile, opens the package to discover, not the necklace, but a Joni Mitchell CD. Emma Thompson, the brilliant English actress who plays the wife, very capably expresses the mixture of disappointment, anger, bewilderment, and — remembering these are Brits — gratitude and a perfectly polite and gracious, “Oh it’s just what I wanted” — though of course she has to excuse herself for a moment to have a good cry as she realizes all the implications of what wasn’t in the box.
As we approach Christmas we too are waiting for Christmas presents of one sort and another, no doubt planning to buy things for our loved ones that we hope will express our love. But we also know that sometimes what we give will disappoint those to whom we give, just as, if we are completely honest, we will admit there have been times when we have been disappointed. Ultimately it isn’t so much about the gift itself, as about how well or poorly the gift matches our expectation. It all depends on what you are waiting for.
So what are we waiting for? And I don’t mean in terms of Christmas presents, but in the larger terms in which the church poses this question to us every Advent season, when we are called to remembrance of our “in the mean time, in-between time” situation, as we await the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. What are we waiting for as we wait for the Lord to come? What do you think is in that gift-wrapped box with our name on it?
Jesus himself asked much the same question of the messengers from John the Baptist, and of those who came out to see him and John the Baptist in the Judean wilderness. When John’s ambassadors asked Jesus if he was the one they were waiting for, he basically answered, “What you see is what you get! Let my actions speak for themselves. I am healing people of their inability to see or to walk or to hear; I am even raising the dead, and above all preaching the good news. Doesn’t this say who I am and what I am here for? If I am not the one you have been waiting for, then what are you waiting for?”
To those who had sought out John, Jesus posed the question, “What did you come out here to see? A reed shaken by the wind? Hardly worth the trip! Did you come to see somebody dressed like a prince — you’re looking in the wrong place! Did you come for a prophet — well you got the greatest prophet of them all — and yet remember he is just the advance man, the forerunner who prepares the way for the real main act.”
So what are we waiting for? What do we expect of God or from God? The answer to that question will tell us a great deal about how we understand God. “What are you waiting for?” — in this case — is another way of asking, “What do you think God is like?” For ultimately what we are waiting for is not something from God, but for God himself. So what are we waiting for? What is God like, and what do we expect from him?
Many people — not just today but throughout history — have been waiting for God to come as the judge of the world, with the expectation that the vengeful judgment will fall primarily on other people! A few of us, perhaps more aware of our own limitations and failures, are looking for a judge who will be more lenient, or even for an advocate who will speak in our defense! It was exactly of this that Job spoke when he said, “I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he shall stand, and I shall see him on my side.” It is a great comfort to know that we are not only waiting for a judge, but for a defender and advocate.
Another thing we hope for in the coming of the Lord is liberation from mortality and all that it entails. We are waiting for God who, as the prophet Malachi said, comes “with healing in his wings.” We are waiting for freedom from weakness of body and impairment of mind, liberation from death itself. Both of these hopes are testified to in the wonderful passage from Isaiah, where God comes not only with vengeance but with salvation and healing. Clearly Jesus had this passage in mind when he spoke to the messengers from John: you are seeing the eyes of the blind and the ears of the deaf opened, the lame walking and the mute singing for joy! The kingdom of God is among you, and blessed are those who can see it and hear it and walk in it, and who take no offense that it has come, not in the royal palace, but out here in the wilderness.
What are we waiting for? Whatever we expect God to be like when he comes again in glory, we already know what he was like when he came among us long ago: he came as a child born to a humble family, a child whom some proclaimed and worshiped, but whom others sought to kill. He came to us as one who brought liberation from bondage to disease and limitation, who brought freedom to the captives and capability to the incapacitated.
What are we waiting for? I’ll tell you what we aren’t waiting for: we are not waiting for a gift that will turn out to have been given to someone else. We are waiting for our Lord and our God, our Creator and Redeemer. “So be patient therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord.” Be patient like the farmer who waits for the early and the later rains to nourish the crop. Let us wait with that patience nourished by hope, with hope fortified by faith, and all bound up in and wrapped in and sanctified by love, the love of God for us his beloved, to whom he gave himself in ages past, and who is our hope for years to come, even Jesus Christ our Lord. +