The words that we associate with the Advent candles are hope, peace, joy and love. But all of those words point to what we are waiting for at Christmas – God breaking into our world with the birth of Jesus.
Ellen and I bought each other a Christmas present last week. It’s not a surprise. And we got a good deal. It’s the new Fitbit that goes around a wrist measures steps and heart rates and sleep patterns…and even tells time!
We have them at home, in the box, waiting for Christmas morning. Now it would be easy enough for us to open the boxes and start using them now. Except for one thing – then they would not be Christmas presents any more.
So we wait.
Yes, I know the words that we associate with the Advent candles are hope, peace, joy and love. But all of those words point to what we are waiting for at Christmas – God breaking into our world with the birth of Jesus.
And those words are what we often seem to be waiting for in life, not just on Dec. 25. In the midst of uncertainty, we seek hope. In the midst of violence, we wait for peace. In times of grief, we wait for joy to return. In lonely moments, we wait for love.
Carly Simon sang a love song a few decades ago about waiting:
We can never know about the days to come
But we think about them anyway
And I wonder if I’m really with you now
Or just chasing after some finer day.
Is making me late
Is keeping me waiting
There’s something that seems rewarding in the anticipation that Carly Simon is singing about. She is waiting…but there is hope in her waiting, much like the way we wait for Christmas, for the family to gather, the presents to be opened, the songs to be sung.
But waiting does not always come with anticipation in the foreground. Maybe what we expect is that this Christmas, we may be alone. That’s not something we anticipate with hope.
Maybe what we are waiting for is the results of a biopsy. We wait with anxiety, not with anticipation.
Maybe we are waiting for that job offer or for the final exam or for, oh, I don’t know…fill in the blank for yourself.
We can cherish the time of waiting because we anticipate something good on the horizon. Or we can dread the time of waiting, not just because we are impatient, but because there is no certainty that at the end of all this, things will go well.
When the Prophet Malachi was channeling God’s voice in our first reading today, he was writing to the Jewish people who had returned to Jerusalem from exile in Babylon. The leadership – the priests – were cutting corners.
A little ways before the section we heard today, Malachi talks about how the priests offered blind animals in sacrifice to God, animals that were lame and sick. “Try presenting that to your ruler,” Malachi writes. “Will he be pleased with you or show you favor?”
So the words Malachi uses come from a God who is displeased with the shoddiness of the religious leaders and promise to be like a refiner’s fire or a cleaner’s soap to set things right. “The messenger of the covenant is coming,” says Malachi.
Do the people who heard what Malachi had to say view this with anticipation? Is this the kind of waiting they desire?
For the priests, not so much. But for the ordinary people, perhaps this messenger of the covenant will restore the good relationship with God that they desired.
And then there are the words from Luke. John the Baptist’s father, Zechariah, sees his newborn son as a “prophet of the Most High,” that messenger of the covenant, preparing the way for that long-awaited Messiah.
The people of Israel knew what it was like to live in the midst of violence and oppression and poverty. They were waiting for God’s love to break through and turn the world they knew about upside down. For them, Advent was not simply four weeks before Christmas. It was a lifetime of waiting.
And when Christmas came, the violence and the oppression and the poverty did not end. But in his lifetime, Jesus by his message and his actions began to show people ways to find hope and to respond in new ways to the hard parts of their lives. He did not end waiting. He gave it new meaning.
Holly Whitcomb is a UCC minister, spiritual director and author. She wrote a book 10 years ago called Seven Spiritual Gift of Waiting. She tells this story at the beginning of the book.
Holly was 29, nine months pregnant and preaching on the First Sunday of Advent at Redeemer UCC in Sussex, Wis., northwest of Milwaukee, northwest of Brookfield.
“Looking like a Mack truck that Sunday, I preached about Advent while I waited to give birth,” she wrote.
“Being pregnant during Advent is a rich and marvelous experience. Pregnancy, perhaps more than anything else, teaches the gifts of waiting. That year, I was waiting not only for a baby to be born, but for other things as well.
“I was waiting to be employed and was looking for a church. I was waiting to make friends. I was waiting for a time to stop grieving the small university community we had just left. I was waiting for money to buy a new furnace. I was waiting for Milwaukee to feel like home.”
I think we could each come up with the things in our lives that we are waiting for right now. An end to mass killings. An end to world hunger. An end to racism. A son or daughter to come home from college. A diagnosis after a test last week. Recovery for a parent who has just been through surgery. That package to arrive that we just ordered on Friday.
Big things. Little things. There is no shortage of things to wait for in our lives.
Holly suggests that we look at waiting as a time filled with gifts, even in the midst of impatience or anxiety. These gifts don’t come nicely wrapped with a bow on top. They are gifts that we have to be attentive to in the midst of our waiting, they are gifts we need to think about as we anticipate what we think might be coming our way.
Some of them are clear, like patience and putting our trust in God
and living in the present moment rather than getting too far ahead of ourselves.
Some take a bit of practice, like embracing gratitude, extending compassion or learning humility.
But one of the seven struck me as…interesting…hard to understand as a gift.
It is what Holly called the gift of the loss of control.
I don’t know about you, but I feel much less anxious about things when I think I am in control of them. And, of course, we all know that we are never in as much control as we might think or desire.
Holly wrote, “For those of us for whom staying in control is the ultimate achievement, loss of control seems like a perverse and rotten gift indeed.”
I can surely agree with that. But then there’s the next sentence.
“The release of control, though, can be an empowering spiritual step.”
It’s a reminder of that wonderful phrase from Psalm 46: Be still and know that I am God. It’s a reminder that I am not God, I am not ultimately in control. It’s a reminder that God is God. And knowing that is a spiritual gift.
Holly’s point was that loss of control can teach us to depend on one another, to surrender to grief in the midst of a tragedy, to find resilience when things seem to have come apart. She has her own stories of how this has played out in her life, but let me tell you one from mine.
Many years ago when our kids were small – I think Julia might have been two or three at the time – we were flying back from Seattle through O’Hare in Chicago. When we arrived in Chicago around 8 or so, we learned that our connecting flight had been canceled, so with lots of other Madison-bound passengers, we lined up to try to make it on the last flight to Madison out of O’Hare that night.
By the time we got to the agent, there were three seats left on the plane. There were four of us. I suppose we could have give the agent 2-year old Julia and wished him good luck as the rest of us boarded, but in fact, Ellen, Michael and Julia got on the plane and I stayed at O’Hare, feeling more than a little out of control.
But I was not alone. Soon there were a group of five of us Madison-bound passengers working together to try to find a late bus, a rental car, some way of getting here. Nothing worked. We all wound up spending the night in the airport.
In the process, though, I had made some new temporary friends. We shared our anxieties, a bit of our life stories, we worked together to try to find a solution. In that time with little control, we learned to depend on each other as we waited. And waited. And waited.
We are in a season of waiting. We wait for the violence that has so pervaded our nation and our world in the past month to end. We wait for goodness to win out over evil. We wait for life to win out over death. We wait for love to overcome hate.
We wait for Christmas, that moment when in the midst of darkness, we can see a glimmer of light that just might offer us enough hope to enter a new year, even though we know the waiting for God’s realm will go on.
We do not wait alone. We wait here as a community of Christ’s followers. We wait giving encouragement to one another. We wait doing what we can to bring everything we can a bit closer to God’s vision for our lives and for our world.
We wait in anticipation, never knowing about the days to come, but thinking about them anyway.
As we wait for Christmas, we hear many names for this baby about to be born. Jesus, for sure. Messiah. King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Prince of Peace.
There’s a song that composer Brian Wren wrote a few years ago called “Bring Many Names.” And invitation to think about the gift of God in our lives, the gift of God in many faces and many names. So let’s sing all six verses of #11, “Bring Many Names.”