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Thursday, November 29, 2012
Lectionary Scriptures: Jeremiah 33:14-16, Psalm 25:1-10, I Thessalonians 3:9-13, Luke 21:25-36

We Americans are not good at waiting—except perhaps standing outside a store awaiting Black Friday creep. As we begin a new church year, we enter Advent, a time of waiting. Even the church has at times jumped the gun on Christmas. We know the story. We know that Christmas is coming, that, in fact, it already came some 2000 years ago. So, along with the Christmas carols which crept up on us in some public places even before Thanksgiving, some want to begin singing them in worship.

The strength of the liturgical calendar is that it helps us relive the moods of the original flow of the events in biblical history. In the Bible, Christmas is the culmination of a long period of longing, or perhaps just the beginning of the culmination. I’m not suggesting, as is the habit of some, that all texts in the Bible anticipate and/or interpret Jesus, but many of them do express a deep longing. People are waiting, living in anticipation. Maybe we too need to do some of that waiting and anticipating. Advent is a time for that to happen, a time to slow down and consider the moods of waiting and what it is we are waiting for.

Like the stereotypical children in a car we may be tempted to cry out, “Are we there yet? Are we there yet?” It’s a cry that has been taken as an image of impatience, yet there’s a sense in which it was also the cry of those biblical ancestors who longed for something new to break forth. Waiting is not simply a passive activity. Some speak of “eagerly awaiting” something. Waiting is an attitude of anticipation. Something is coming. During Advent, let’s meditate on what it is we await and the feelings we experience while waiting.

Perhaps the lectionary readings for the first Sunday in Advent can give us some guidance.

At the core of much of the longing in the Hebrew scriptures is hope for a day of peace and justice and righteousness. In the reading from Jeremiah, there is the promise of a king who “shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.” (Jeremiah 33:15) Sometimes the king was seen as a Messiah, one anointed by God to fulfill this hope, whether viewed as a king from the line of David (as mentioned in the first part of vs. 15) or “the Son of Man coming in a cloud” (Luke 21:27). Even after the birth and life and death of Jesus, there was (and is) still anticipation of better times, a fulfillment, to come—a “second coming.” We are still awaiting the full reign of peace and justice and righteousness. Perhaps Advent can be a time to refocus our commitment to that vision.

Psalm 25 can be understood in a similar context, but it has a different twist. It assumes enemies who are going to put the nation to shame. (Psalm 25:2) Like so many of us, it expresses a longing for a new start. “Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions.” (vs. 7) They are “waiting.” “Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame.” (vs. 3) They need guidance as they look ahead. “Lead me in your truth . . . for you I wait all day long.” (vs. 5) God “leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way.” (vs. 9) Perhaps Advent can be a time to ponder new starts and find a sense of direction.

I was particularly struck by the reading from I Thessalonians. Paul writes in anticipation of a time of reunion with those who are dear to him. “Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you face to face . . . may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you.” (I Thessalonians 3:10-11)

Christmas for many is a time when family gathers. Margie’s and my children are scattered all over the world—Germany, Hawaii, West Virginia, Chicago, Maine. For a variety of reasons we are rarely able to share holidays, but most families can relate to waiting in the airport eagerly awaiting the arrival of friends or family so we can throw our arms around them in loving welcome. If we’re traveling to see them, we may be so eager to arrive that we cry out, “Are we there yet?”

In Paul’s case he is concerned about the spiritual and relational well-being of the Thessalonians to whom he is writing. He speaks of “whatever is lacking in your faith.” (vs. 10) He prays that the Lord may “make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you.” (vs. 12) He wants them to have strong hearts. (vs. 13) It is an amazingly intimate glimpse of the tenderness and concern in Paul’s heart. However we express it, like Paul, our love for family and friends means that we long for the best for them, for meaning and purpose in their lives. We parents are sometimes prone to think we know what is best for them. That’s not always true and we couldn’t impose it on them no matter how hard we tried. Advent, however, can be a time when we consider all the people who stir the intimate inner workings of our hearts.

One of the Hebrew words frequently translated “wait,” including in Psalm 25:3 &5, carries the connotation of coming together—“to bind together.” It also is seen as something we do “together.” It is a word of togetherness.

The Gospel lesson begins with one of those dramatic pictures of apocalyptic expectation. “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and one the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the seas and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.” (Luke 21:25-26) We all know how such words are used, and I would say abused, by some. Maybe a tsunami or a storm ripping up the New Jersey coast and New York City shoreline are signs of judgment or of the end. Surely God is using them to get our attention.

I don’t think the biblical writers necessarily intended us to give such interpretations. Jesus himself seemed to see these as things that would happen in his generation (vs. 32), but he follows these images up with words in which I believe he is calling us to “pay attention.” At the heart of waiting is paying attention to what’s going on around us. Jesus speaks of the leaves on trees that signal the changing of the seasons. (vss. 29-31) What do the things that are happening around us mean?—not just the natural disasters but the neglect of the poor and the moments when our lives are touched with goodness. What meaning do we see in every moment of every day?

My outlook on life has been deeply influenced by Existentialism. As I’ve gotten older, it has become more apparent that the place where meaning is found is in this day and this moment. “Seize the day.” Margie and I have been going through what has seemed like a terribly long wait for surgery which will address her back pain. Again and again through that time we have been rediscovering that we simply have to live one day at a time and receive the gifts that are in that day.

In Luke, Jesus’ focus is less on the signs than upon our attitude while “waiting.” “Be on your guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life . . . Be alert at all times . . .” (vss. 34-35) There’s much to be considered, maybe even debated, in those verses, especially before I have edited them down. In the light of my focus on the question, “Are we there yet?”, maybe they should remind us that in our eagerness to get wherever we are going, we may miss the possibilities that are in this moment, in this place, as we travel along in the pilgrimage that is our life. All of us experience the things that are fleeting in life (see vss. 32, 33, & 35), but Jesus reminds us that all that is true, all that has meaning, “will not pass away.” (vs. 33) As we travel through Advent, waiting, sometimes crying out “Are we there yet,” rushing to get to the joyous Christmas carols, let’s not forget to pay attention to every moment along the way, looking for signs and meanings and a divine presence walking with us.

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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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