First Sunday of Advent
There’s a book I’ve been reading lately, and I’ve decided that it’s basically an Advent book—a book about Advent, because it’s all about waiting. That’s actually the title: Waiting. It’s about some toys—these little creatures here on the windowsill—who do a lot of waiting.
[Several excerpts from the book] “They saw many wonderful, interesting things…” “And, of course, there was always the moon and the rain and the wind and the snow to keep them happy.” Last page: “And they were happy together, waiting to see what would happen next.”
Advent is all about waiting, and I think this Advent waiting is the heart of our faith. These four weeks, leading up to Christmas—this time when we remember all the waiting, the anticipation, the expectation before the advent of Christ, the birth of Jesus. And this is why I think Advent is the heart of our faith, because our faith is all about waiting, waiting for God, waiting on the Holy Spirit to overshadow us—just as the Spirit did to Mary—to come close and move in us, to move in our world.
There’s so much waiting. To be human is to learn how to wait; to read the Bible is to learn how to wait. The Bible story, from the first page to the last, reads like a book about waiting—waiting for the promised land, waiting for the end of exile, waiting for the Messiah, and, on the very last pages, in the book of Revelation, waiting for the day of judgment and Christ’s return.
“Come Lord Jesus,” it says in the last verses of the Bible. The end is about waiting, about calling out to Jesus to come back, to save us from what we’ve done to the world.
Our Psalm for today knows about this waiting, Psalmist 25:5: “You are the God of my salvation,” the Psalmist says, “for you I wait all day long.”
In these verses, in this Psalm, you can hear the ache of waiting, the Psalmist calling out for God to remember her love, for God to remember his mercy. “Be mindful of your mercy,” the Psalmist says, “remember your steadfast love” (v. 6). The Psalmist aches for God. “For you I wait all day long.”
This week, when I read this Psalm, (this is a little embarrassing), I couldn’t help but think of that new Justin Bieber song, the one I hear on the radio every time I get in my car. It’s so catchy. It’s always playing in my head, in the background, when I’m thinking or writing—like when I was preparing this sermon. So it’s no accident that I think Bieber sounds a lot like the Psalmist—the way the Psalmist waits all day long. Bieber’s song is all about waiting; his song is the sound of longing. “Where are you now that I need you,” he sings, “I was on my knees when nobody else was praying, oh Lord.”
When you read Psalm 25, replay Justin Bieber’s song in your head—at least that’s what I hear in my head. “For you I wait all day long.”
In our reading from Luke’s Gospel, Jesus talks about waiting for the return of the Son of Man, the advent of the redemption of all things. “When these things begin to take place,” he says, “stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (Lk 21:28). It’s coming, it’s close. Be alert, be ready. Wait for it.
There’s trembling in the kind of waiting in these verses—not the ache of the Psalmist who waits for something good, but this time the waiting is filled with dread, that something is looming on the horizon, something that may turn out to be devastating. “Be alert at all times,” Jesus says, “praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man” (v. 36).
This kind of waiting is all about making preparations for an escape. I think of the people fleeing the violence in Syria—refugees trying to escape the world as it collapses on them, people who are waiting in bus stations, sleeping in fields, waiting to be welcomed into other countries, waiting to be welcomed into homes, waiting for hospitality.
Even though the Psalmist and Jesus are talking about very different kinds of waiting, for both of them waiting has everything to do with living in a world we can’t control. We are powerless to get what we want, so we wait—we learn how to wait because that’s the only thing we can do. We learn how to wait, how to sit with our longings, to be patient with ourselves—patience means we pray our way into our waiting. We say, with the Psalmist, “To you, O Lord, I lift my soul” (Ps 25:1).
Patience is all about figuring out what to do while we wait—to know that we can’t get the world we want, so we live with the one we have, and live in such a way that we are always awaiting the advent of God’s grace, always open to the surprise of God, ready to receive joy, the joy of the gospel, the joy of God with us.
This joy, from God—that’s what we hear in our passage from 1 Thessalonians: the advent of joy, of God’s joy in our world, in our life, even in the midst of our waiting. Joy happens to us, to me, it says, when you arrive. “How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you?” (1 Thessalonians 3:9). Joy because of you. I love it when Paul gushes like this about people. Most of the time he sounds like he’s locked in a theological battle, combative theology—all very important, but definitely a different tone from what we hear him say today, in our passage.
In First Thessalonians Paul sounds like Justin Bieber and the Psalmist, waiting and longing. But instead of directing all that ache to God above, to God in the heavens—“To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul,” the Psalmist says, with his head tilted toward the sky—when Paul says “you” he doesn’t turn his head to the heavens, he doesn’t’ life his sould to the sky, instead he turns his face to you, to his friends, to the church, to people he is separated from. “Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you face to face” (v. 10).
“For you I wait all day long,” the Psalmist says—and when the Psalmist says “you,” he means God. But when Paul says “you” he means “you.” “Night and day we pray,” Paul says, “Night and day we pray to see you face to face.” Face to face.
That’s what Paul wants—to see a face. “We abound in love for you,” he says (v. 12). Paul is waiting to be reunited with the people he loves, to see their faces, to be with them, because that’s where he has found the presence of God’s joy, that’s where he has felt God’s love.
“How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you?” (v. 9). How can we thank God enough for you, to thank God for the joy we feel because of you? The advent of joy happens when you arrive.
And this gets us to the most important part of what we learn about waiting during Advent. We discover that the waiting is bearable, the longing is tolerable, the ache sufferable, because God waits with us. That’s the promise of the Advent story. That God submits to Mary, that God trusts Mary, that God waits inside a human body for time to come to pass, for time to do its work—that God waits for the fullness of time.
And if God waits with Mary, then we can trust that God now waits with us, inside of us—Emmanuel, God with us. And if God is with us, then we hold the promise of the gospel inside of us, the promise of joy—How can we thank God enough for you, Paul says, to thank God for the joy we feel because of you?
This is the heart of our faith—that, the Holy Spirit overshadows us, Christ dwells within us, and now our lives overflow with God, and this God offers us joy, the joy of life together, the surprise of God’s love for us.
Advent is the heart of our faith, because our faith is all about waiting for God, our longing for a different world, a better world, and discovering this whole time that as we’ve been waiting, as we’ve been aching, God has been waiting with us, and God will surprise us with joy, with love, with God’s love.
It’s all there in Paul’s words, so I’ll let them be the last: “And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you.”