Imaginative Waiting

[A sermon preached at Ginter Park Presbyterian for the Third Sunday of Advent based on Isaiah 61: 1-4, 8-11.]

Sometimes it strikes me as odd that we need a season of waiting in our liturgical year. After all, waiting is something that we practice every day, whether we want to or not. We wait for stoplights to turn green. We wait on hold during phone calls. We wait for the bell signaling the end of class. We wait for people to reply to our emails. We even have these things called waiting rooms. Waiting, it seems, is just part of being human. I wonder, though, if Advent might be an invitation to see our experience of waiting in a new light.

Though waiting is a part of our everyday life, I wouldn’t say that we’re very good at it. Most of us try to fill up our waiting. Like children playing “I Spy,” we come up with countless ways of distracting ourselves from the anxiety and boredom of waiting. We scan magazine covers while waiting in line at the grocery store. We turn up the radio as we sit through rush hour traffic jams in the rain. We grab a snack from the kitchen during our television show’s commercial break.  We play Sudoku or 2048 on our cell phones while waiting at the DMV.

It’s pretty safe to say that we’re not overly enthusiastic about waiting, and I’m not sure that we tolerate it much better in Advent either. We fill our worship spaces with candles and greenery, staving off the darkness and deadness of winter. We count down to Christmas, but only with the help of daily chocolates from our Advent calendars. We stay busy by decorating and baking, attending holiday parties and shopping for that perfect gift. We self-soothe with lilting hymns and serene worship services, and we wonder if this season of preparation and anticipation will really make any difference.

Most of our waiting is only mildly inconvenient. We know that the line will move, that everyone will get their turn, and that, eventually, we will get on with our day. Even at Advent, we know that our waiting is only for a time. In a few short weeks, the Christ candle will be lit, we will celebrate the miraculous birth of our Savior, and then we will take down the tree, put away the gifts, and get on with our lives, just like every other year. But this year, I’m reminded that not all waiting is so easy.

I think about Samaria Rice waiting for her son, Tamir Rice, who will never come home from the playground. I think about the person caring for an aging parent with Alzheimer’s, waiting for the day when their mommy or daddy no longer knows their name. I think about military families waiting for loved ones who may never come back from tours of duty. I think about the woman in the obstetrician’s office, waiting to hear her baby’s heartbeat for the first time, waiting . . . and waiting . . . and her heartbreaking realization that there is no sound to be heard. I think of the prevalence of sexual assault on college campuses and all the people waiting for justice that will never come. I think of us gathering here today on the two year anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings. Though we swore never again, we have seen 74 school shootings since this tragedy, and we’re still waiting for legislation that better addresses gun violence.

This kind of waiting is excruciating. These are the moments when we look everywhere for an “Alleluia! Glory to God!” but all we can find is a “God, how could you?” These are the moments when we’d so much rather pull these blankets over our heads and disappear under their softness than open them wide in preparation for a Savior that is still far off. These moments of waiting feel hopeless and unbearable, but they are also exactly the place where the prophet meets us this morning.

As we read this text from Isaiah, we remember that the prophet is speaking to a people who know exactly how excruciating waiting can be. In the beginning of the sixth century, Babylon invaded Judah, destroying much of Jerusalem, interrupting the economy, and deporting citizens to Babylon. For fifty long years, the people of Israel waited as exiles in a foreign land, longing for home and praying to a God who didn’t seem to hear them. Battered by conquerors and abandoned by their God, hope wasn’t in their vocabulary anymore. And when the day of their liberation and restoration did come, they returned to a homeland in ruins. Jerusalem was no longer a proud, though embattled, city. She was a heap of rubble with few ragged and poor survivors, no king, no commercial or political significance, and no active Temple service or annual pilgrims. Israel’s waiting was over, but what they had longed for turned out to be a place filled with disappointment and disillusion.

And yet, the prophet calls these restored but demoralized people to envision a miraculous transformation. He invites them to imagine the return of shalom, which is the wholeness and peace that comes when we stand with those who are suffering. Just as Israel waits for the day when God will finally liberate the captives, release the prisoners, comfort the grieving, and mend generations of hearts broken by the weight of oppression, we too long for the day when people will work together to bring justice to the marginalized.

On that day, we will trade in our weapons of war for signs of peace.

On that day, all pantries will overflow with food, and no one will know hunger anymore.

On that day, we will dance in celebration of diversity, and no one will be shamed or bullied for being who they are.

On that day, power will be shared among all people, and violence and exploitation will cease.

On that day, we will see difference not as a reason for fear, but as an opportunity to learn from one another.

On that day, communities will be safe havens, parents will not fear for the safety of their children, and the only reason people will have to lift our hands is to offer a benediction.

The prophet knows that his vision of Israel’s future, the breaking-in of God’s heavenly kingdom, is not an empty promise or wishful thinking; this is a covenant God has made with God’s people, a commitment to systemic change and transformation that will be realized, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

I wonder if a people as jaded and disheartened as the Israelites could really receive this message. I wonder if we can really catch a glimpse of this vision. The divine alchemy that transforms ashes to garlands, mourning to the oil of gladness, a faint spirit to a mantle of praise might sound a little too Rumpelstiltskin for some of us. However, Advent invites us into just this sort of mystery.

If we fast-forward a bit to the Nativity scene, we remember that Jesus is welcomed into the world not with blankets, but merely bands of cloth. They’re nothing remarkable, just simple scraps for our Savior, but somehow they are enough. The promise we’re invited to claim this morning is that God will turn our scraps into blankets, our mourning into praise, and our tears into shouts of joy, but Isaiah reminds us that this process of transformation has to begin in community with one another. When waiting is excruciating and unbearable, when we stare down the devastation of generations and feel hopeless and lost, when we feel inconsolable in our grief, if we can each just bring a scrap, maybe together we can weave them into a blanket capable of swaddling us, comforting us, and enfolding us in grace. I like to think that we do that together here, in this place.

Friends, we know that not all waiting bathed in candlelight or filled with holiday cheer. Sometimes waiting is fingernails bitten to the quick. Sometimes it’s tension, held breath, or jittery nervousness. Sometimes it’s choking out the words to a prayer. Sometimes it’s pacing the halls with insomnia. But even on these darkest, longest nights, in the hush that only stars can hold, we wait together. We wait, laboring with anticipation of what midnight will bring. We wait, listening to the cadence of minutes beating in rhythm with the birth of hope. With the angelic host, we hold our collective breaths and clutch our restless alleluias because God is on the way: the mother is laboring, the father is pacing, the stable is readying, the world is waiting, and most importantly, the promise is breaking through.