Does anybody here like waiting? Take your time answering. I can be patient.
Waiting is one of my least favorite things to do. I want things to happen now; I want to be doing something now and to know what I’m going to do next. I like the events of a day to line up in an orderly fashion, not too close together so I can breathe, and just unroll. Waiting is the worst: I never know what to do with it. Some people will knit or read or listen to a book on tape. One of my profs in seminary takes his reading with him on his many travels and while he sits in airports or on the plane he’s going through theological treatises or student papers. I can’t wait that productively, particularly when I don’t know when the event is going to happen. The most productive thing I can usually do during waiting is eat something.
This culture doesn’t want to wait for anything. It even gets into candy bar commercials: “Why stay hungry.” Grab a Snickers bar. Do you remember when you had to pay for something in cash when you wanted to buy something, and if you couldn’t afford it you had to wait? I’m not talking big purchases: I had to save for a year in order to afford my first stereo in High School, and that cost about $125 dollars, if I remember rightly. Right now there are probably a lot of folks who can’t wait for Christmas; I know that the people running to stores and running the radio stations have been working at it for a couple of weeks already. One of my favorite songs capsulizes it: “Christmas, Christmas time is near./Time for toys and time for cheer./We’ve been good but we can’t last./Hurry Christmas, Hurry fast!” Anybody remember who sang that? We don’t like to wait for Christmas; we don’t like to wait for anything.
Waiting was something you had to be good at in Jesus’ day. People didn’t go by the clock for anything, and anything that could happen today could happen tomorrow. People who lived in cities and small towns had something particular to watch out for: the Holy Land is a very mountainous region and the people there are like hill people in many places. Hill country is frequently a place that can’t be controlled by the forces of the law, and so after dark you had to protect your valuables. Which meant that you had to have people taking turns to watch out for trouble, and you couldn’t fall asleep. If you fell asleep, bad things could happen. The four time periods mentioned in the Gospel reading were the four watch periods of the Roman army: evening, midnight, cockcrow and dawn. Jesus is driving home a point about the alertness folks have to have.
As we enter this season of Advent, we are called to be a people who are waiting, watching, alert. We’re not waiting for Santa; we’re not waiting for a baby to be born in Bethlehem; we’re not waiting for Christmas. We’re waiting to Jesus to return. This isn’t something that ought to get us frightened or nervous or reading the newspaper to see if the Anti-Christ is taking power in some European country. We’re not waiting for signs in the heavens or plagues or armies to start lining up for the last dance at a place called Armeggedon. I’ve been to Armeggedon: it’s a state park in the middle of nowhere, and there is nothing there for anyone to fight over. The last time they had a battle there was 1918. We are waiting for the fulfillment of our hopes; we are waiting for the fulfillment of a promise. We read the promise of the first coming of Christ remembering that just as the first coming of Christ was better than anyone could hope for, the second coming of Christ will be better than anyone could hope for.
The coming of the Kingdom is already in our midst. We celebrate the light that is already peeking out at us over the horizon. We celebrate the great banquet feast of the Kingdom of God, which has already begun, which is here among us right now. We celebrate waiting as a holy vocation, waiting for the full light to dawn in our world, a dawn that will never know night again.
As we take up this vocation of waiting, we have to be good at it. We can’t spend our time sitting quietly, or asleep; we can’t talk about how things are going to be when Christ returns as if nothing can be done now. As the reading from Isaiah says, we are the clay in hands of the great potter. Our time of waiting is a time that we can be molded, a time that we can be shaped. It is a time where we can look at ourselves and look at our world around us. It is a time when we can make ready for the dawn in many, many ways. It is a time we can be alive to what’s going on around us, ready to respond to the needs around us, listening for the voice that calls us. Advent is a time of holy waiting, calling us to be a people living on the edge. We begin our liturgical year by looking at here and now, by remembering who we are and where we are. We are people of the morning who already live in the fullness of the Light.