The Waiting Game

St James Fordham • Advent 3a • Tobias Haller BSG
The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains.+

This Sunday has a nickname, a nickname that has been around for a long time. “Rejoice Sunday” — or, in Latin, “Gaudete.” This Sunday is the Advent opening parenthesis that will find its mate next spring in Lent’s “Laetare” — or “Be happy” — Sunday; the pair of them sending a message not unlike Anglican songster Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” Into the midst of this royal purple season of Advent, a rosy intrusion makes its way, and the day takes on a rose-tinged hue — including the vestments. We are given a verbal and visual command: Lighten up! We set aside for a moment the stern admonitions of John the Baptist, calls to repent and flee the coming wrath of God. And we turn to a gentler vision of a more upbeat world to come, a world foreseen by the prophet Isaiah, a world whose reality began to take shape in the ministry of Jesus, a world in which blind people see, lame folk walk, lepers are cleansed, deaf people hear, dead people are raised, and the poor hear the good news.

This is the lighter side of Advent, the rose-colored glasses view of the life of the world to come: a laid-back, sunny afternoon kind of Advent, fresh with the surprising fragrance and color of a rose blooming on the verge of winter, the thirst-quenching miracle of a spring appearing and welling up in the middle of the desert of our lives.

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But there is another nickname for this Sunday, and it captures the other side of the Advent spirit. This Sunday is also known as “Stir up” Sunday, because of the phrase in the collect of the day: “Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us.” Now, that’s a more familiar kind of Advent, the Advent of breathless expectation, of the imminent nearness of the Lord’s coming. As Saint James says in today’s epistle, “the coming of the Lord is near... the judge is standing at the doors!” and it’s as if the door has opened and a sudden draft of frigid air has invaded the cozy warmth of our living room, setting the candles to flickering, and causing us to draw our scarves up around our shoulders.

The warning of our Lord’s impending arrival is likely to cause that shiver up the neck that is the unmistakable sign of the presence of the Holy. It is the physical intimation that the tremendous and mysterious is just around the corner, or standing just outside, knocking at our door.

However, lest we jump immediately to our feet, Saint James, somewhat paradoxically, also tells us to be patient. “Be patient, beloved, until the coming of the Lord.” So it is that on this Sunday we find ourselves caught in the middle, in the world of “already but not yet.” This is the paradoxical time of the church on earth; the in-the-mean-time, in-between time, the time between our Lord’s first coming and his second.

On this Sunday we are reminded that we are the Church Expectant as much as Militant: the Waiting Church, the Watching Church, who knows it has an appointment with its Master, but doesn’t know the date. And the advice James gives us, to be patient in the midst of anticipation, might seem a bit like the old army slogan: “Hurry up and wait.” Until, that is, we look more closely at the kind of waiting, the kind of patience, that Saint James advises.

The patient waiting that Saint James counsels is not mind-numbing waiting in lines at city hall, the bank, or the crowded shop in which everyone wants to pay with an expired credit card or with a check but no i.d.! It is not the anxious waiting by the telephone or the mailbox for a long-delayed but promised call or letter. No, the waiting patience Saint James counsels is the patience of a farmer waiting for crops to grow. “The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains.” That’s a very different kind of patience, a very special kind of patience, the patience of expectation, the patience of hope. For hopeful expectation is not merely waiting, it is waiting with a purpose and for a promise, a promise not of what we will do, but a promise of what will be done for us.

The purpose of a farmer’s wait, as well as its promise, is the crop. The farmer is purposeful in preparing for the crop, and looks to the promise of the harvest on the basis of his past work — the work of planting, and on the basis of God’s present and future work, the work of growth, nurtured through the sending of the early and late rains to nourish the seed as it lies in hiding underground and mysterious. There, in hidden darkness, it sends out roots long before the green blade spears its way through the clods of soil, and the miraculous sprouts of spring reveal what has been going on beneath the earth; and then on through the growth and ripening of summer to produce a crop a hundred-fold greater than the mere handfuls strewn upon the soil the year before. And this work of waiting, this waiting game, takes patience. It takes hope and confidence and trust — confidence and trust in the knowledge that while nothing may appear on the surface of the field until spring comes, that long before, throughout the patient waiting winter, God’s secret work is being done underground.

Nothing could be unhappier than an impatient farmer, a farmer without purpose or promise, a farmer who just can’t wait! This is a lesson that we human beings learned in the age of our innocence, when impatient Adam and Eve plucked the fruit of wisdom before its time, and learned by the sweat of their brows the hard truths of agriculture. For as human beings moved from being hunter-gatherers to farmers they began to develop for the first time a sense of time itself — and with it, the limits of their mortality.

For agriculture requires foresight and patience, it moves with the seasons, it marks the times of the rising and the setting of the sun and the waxing and waning of the moon; and takes account of the early and the late rains. When human beings took that step in their cultural development, they also took a step into a world in which time took on a different sort of meaning, a meaning with which they were engaged at the level of their own survival.

For a farmer who wants a crop come harvest time must plant at planting time, not the day before the harvest. And the wise farmer must plan to make use of the seasonal rains, working to intersect and mesh with the workings of the cosmos, the seasonal changes of the climate, the very movements of the heavens and the earth.

So the waiting game is part of the farmer’s job, not incidental to the task. Imagine an impatient farmer digging up the seeds to check their roots, or, when the wheat first pokes through the soil, grabbing hold of it to make it grow by tugging on it! All that farmer will do is damage and destroy the crop. The wise farmer is patient and knows that the work of growth takes time, and that there are other things to be busy with while waiting for the crop to sprout, grow, and ripen.

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We too, the Church of God, are in the waiting game as well. We sow the seed of the word of God in the fertile soil of the world, a world hungry for the bread of the good news, hungry for spiritual nourishment, but impatient and demanding in its clamorous hunger. Some religious leaders in our world respond with similar haste and impatience. And it isn’t only terrorists who push God’s hand as they imagine they can hasten God’s judgement, or fanatical cultists who seek to speed the day of the Lord with nerve gas or bacteria.

Some even in our own Anglican tradition have fallen into the impatience of haste, the urge to take upon themselves the mantle of the just judge, to purify the world (or the Anglican Communion, at least) by getting rid of those deemed less than righteous by their standards, who use the word of God not to feed the spiritually hungry, but as a hammer to batter those they judge as sinful. In doing this they have neglected the wisdom of Saint James. He warned the members of the church not to judge each other, not to grumble against each other, but to stand patiently before the tribunal of the Lord, the only truly and completely righteous one, the one and only just judge of the world.

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This is the Advent time in which we live, the secret, growing, waiting time of the Church. We live in the in-between time of purpose and promise, the time between the coming of our Lord as a child to Bethlehem, and his coming as righteous judge of the world and all who dwell in it. Whether we experience this in-between time as frustrating because we don’t see anything happening, or not happening fast enough, or as full of purpose and promise will depend in large part on our relationship with God and with each other.

If we are full of the spirit of vengeance, the zeal for judgement, we will find the waiting difficult. If we are full of the impatience that will not allow the subterranean work of God to accomplish God’s goals in God’s good time, if — obsessed with self-study and self-examination — we insist on digging up and digging up the seed to see how well it is doing, so that it never gets a chance to put down roots and grow; if we become consumed with grumbling about each other, judging each other, or angrily tapping our feet at God’s delay and forbearance, we will find our lives filled with anxiety and grief. But if we adopt the patient hope of the wise farmer’s waiting, placing our trust in God’s ultimate victory over all that is less than perfect even in our selves, indeed most especially in ourselves, if we carefully set our hands to our work of husbandry and watchful care, concentrating on the work God has actually given us to do — to feed the hungry with earthly and heavenly bread — we will find at harvest time a rich reward.

We will find that all the things we thought were wrong have been taken care of — by God. We will find that the people we thought so dense and dull, so blind they couldn’t see what was right in front of them, will see clearly — and we ourselves will see things that we missed while we were busy picking splinters from our brother’s eyes.

We will find that we can walk in places we had once avoided, or that we thought off-limits, and that those who couldn’t walk at all are dancing in the streets to music we didn’t even know was playing.

We will find that all the people thought impure, all the afflicted and all the stigmatized, will be freed from the marks of separation that distinguished the in-crowd from the outcasts, and no one will be able to tell who was who, we will all be so changed, so transformed into a new likeness.

We will find that those who seemed deaf to God’s word will be the most attentive audience of all; and we will find that all of us, dead in our sins, will be more alive than we ever dreamed or imagined possible, as we sing and rejoice together at the harvest of the good news, a harvest as paradoxical as a spring flowing in the desert, as unexpected as the blooming of a rose on the verge of winter, as miraculous as the birth of God in a manger or in our hearts. +