Waiting is the Hardest Part
Jesus said, “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea 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. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (Luke 21:25-28).
This is Advent, the season during which we wait for Christmas, when we finally get to open our presents…I mean celebrate the birth of our Savior, Jesus Christ. Advent, though, for me, is usually just the four weeks before Christmas. I sort of treat it like the rumble strips on the side of the freeway. You know, when you doze off behind the wheel and start to drift toward the guardrail? But then, just as you start to go out of the lane, you go over the rumble strips, and BBZZZZZ! They wake you up. It’s just a warning! That’s how I usually think of Advent. Advent ITSELF isn’t really anything at all…it’s just a big neon sign that says, “Hey! Christmas is coming! Make sure you start thinking about your shopping list, making travel plans, and for God’s sake start planning the Christmas Eve services.”
But see, I think that this gives Advent the short shrift. I think Advent, the time of WAITING, does have value in itself, and the reason we usually don’t THINK about its value is that WE DON’T LIKE TO WAIT! The evidence of this is all over the place. Car dealerships start selling the 2013s in early 2012, Christmas decorations start going up before Thanksgiving, and stores are selling spring clothes right now. We can’t wait for anything!
So I want to say a few words about waiting. Basically, I want to say three things. First, “that” we’re waiting. Second, what the waiting is like. And third, what we might be able to learn from waiting.
A couple of chapters before the verses I quoted above, Jesus’ disciples were admiring the Temple. Imagine that they just walked into the Sistine Chapel, looked up at the ceiling and went, “Whoa!” And Jesus makes a statement that ultimately gets him into trouble with the authorities: “As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down.” This shocks the disciples, and they understandably ask Jesus, “When will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are about to take place?” And just like that, the disciples are WAITING.
Jesus basically says, “Something’s coming. Something so profound that this amazing edifice will be completely obliterated, with not one stone left on another.” The disciples say, “Uh, Jesus? When’s that gonna be?” And that’s when Jesus launches into a lengthy description of “those days” and how to tell when the time at hand. Our reading this morning comes at the end of his description: “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea 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.”
We’re like the disciples. Jesus says, “It’s coming!” and the disciples scream, “When?” We don’t want to hear about the waiting period, we want to hear about when the waiting ends. We don’t want to linger in Advent; we want Christmas. But before Jesus talks about the end, he talks a little bit about the waiting itself:
“When you hear of wars and revolutions, do not be frightened. These things must happen first, but the end will not come right away. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be great earthquakes, famines and pestilences in various places, and fearful events and great signs from heaven. But before all this, they will lay hands on you and persecute you. They will deliver you to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors, and all on account of my name. You will be betrayed even by parents, brothers, relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death. All men will hate you because of me.”
THAT, ladies and gentlemen, is what the waiting is like. Now, I want to be clear about something. Jesus is not MAKING the waiting painful like this. He is simply calling it what it is. It is the terrible parts of the Bible, things like this, that make me a Christian. When the Ghostbusters are called into the mayor’s office, they’re asked to describe what might happen if Gozer is unleashed on the world. They try to describe it: “A disaster of Biblical proportions: Fire and brimstone coming down from the skies! Rivers and seas boiling! Forty years of darkness! Earthquakes, volcanoes… The dead rising from the grave! Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together… mass hysteria!” Billy Bob Thornton does about the same thing in Armageddon, when he’s asked what will happen were an asteroid the size of Texas to hit the earth. “Half of the Earth’s population will be incinerated by the heat blast, the rest will freeze to death in a nuclear winter. Basically the worst parts of the Bible.” Doesn’t it seem like the WORST parts of the Bible are the ones that we’re having to live through now, and that the best parts are about some hopeful future? But like I said, that’s why I’m a Christian. Jesus is AWARE of what life is like. He is the ultimate “tell-it-like-it-is” guy. No sugar-coating from Jesus. No power-of-positive thinking. He knows this life is hard…that’s why he came. The worst parts of the Bible are the ones that describe a world WAITING for a savior. As Tom Petty says, “The waiting is the hardest part.”
So you can understand our usual desire to skip over the waiting and get to the good stuff. In the spring, we’ll try to skip over Good Friday and celebrate Easter. Now, we’ll try to skip over Advent and get to Christmas. But what might we learn from waiting? When the disciples pressed Jesus on when that time was coming, he told them about the kinds of things that would be happening, but he didn’t get specific. The end of 2012 is just around the corner, but Jesus didn’t paint himself into a corner like the Mayans did. Ultimately, he says that no one but the Father knows the day or the hour. HE’S MAKING THE PEOPLE WAIT. He wants them to get used to the idea of waiting. Why? Well, he’s asking the people to do something that they’re not good at. He’s asking them to be passive.
Passivity is the hardest thing for people to be. We are active by our very nature…we want to be involved, we want to have a part to play. Often, the hardest thing we can be asked to do it wait. I’ve been involved in a number of surprise parties, and one of the funniest things to me is people’s inability to be quiet. We’ll all be hiding behind couches and we’ll be quiet for 30 seconds, and then whispering will start, and then mumbling, and finally full-on conversations. We can’t just be. It’s almost as if our very humanity is called into question if we’re not DOING something. That’s why Advent is such a profound season, and probably why it only lasts four weeks! Advent is a time of passivity, a time when we wait. This, really, is the most valuable lesson that we can learn during Advent. We can learn to be a little more passive. Advent is the time when we wait for the coming of a Savior…a savior we can’t be for ourselves. We HAVE to wait. But in the end, the waiting, though it’s the hardest part, opens the door to the best part. We have a God who comes to us! We see the lack of anything to do as as impossible as being quiet before a surprise party. It’s like nails on a chalkboard…we can’t STAND the idea of not being able to do anything. But God comes to us, and doesn’t ask us to go to him. Advent says, “Wait! He’s coming to you.” For these four weeks, we try to grow accustomed to this idea. We celebrate Advent, a season of waiting, which is hard. But it’s the best kind of waiting, because at the end a Savior comes, and comes to us. He’s a savior who knows what the waiting has been like, who knows that the waiting is the hardest part. All we have to do, and all we can do, is wait. He’ll do the work.