Advent is a season of anticipation and hope

Churches following the lectionary (a group of Scripture lessons determined by the Christian calendar) may take note of the odd fact that the scriptures in Advent focus not on the birth narratives of Jesus but on his second coming, what Jeremiah calls the coming “day of the Lord” (Jeremiah 33:14).

This Sunday’s epistle lesson (the second Sunday in Advent), for instance, includes 2 Peter 3:10, which reminds readers that “the day of the Lord will come like a thief.”  The Old Testament lesson from Isaiah 40 challenges heralds of good news to proclaim the coming of God and of God’s glory.

While our society is consumed by holiday shopping, busy family schedules, and dinner planning, these lessons remind us that Jesus will come again and reclaim us as his own.  If we forget to prepare for that day or fail to meditate on the Lord, we may be caught off-guard, knocked off balance by that very thief in the night.

There are few phrases in the Bible that excite the imagination, ignite hope, and challenge the heart as, “The day is coming, thus saith the Lord.”

It excites the imagination because when God is the focus of what we know about the future, we realize that an era will dawn in which earth and heaven will dissolve like melting snow and all things will be made right (2 Peter 3:10).

It ignites hope because it launches us on a movement towards fulfillment as it overwhelms despair, promises justice and righteousness, and ushers in the life of God’s redeeming love.

It challenges the heart as we are called to anticipate the return of King David’s descendant, King Jesus, who will come to judge all people.

Advent encourages anticipation and hope.  It poses the idea that the past, present, and future collapse in on itself in that climactic moment when God came to earth in the flesh and promised to come back again to make a new heaven and a new earth where all tears will be wiped away and death itself will come to an end.

Advent is a protest that the current situations in which we struggle and wrestle do not have the final say.

Last week, when all the protests and media punditry surrounding the death of Michael Brown created a tornado of anxiety, I couldn’t help but grieve the deep injustice that continues to create fear in so many hearts.

Then I heard about the story of Maria Fernandes, a 32-year old who had to work three jobs in order to make ends meet and pay for healthcare benefits because no one job paid a living wage.  She took a nap in her car between shifts, letting the car run for the sake of getting some heat.  She died from exhaust.

These stories of uncertainty, grief, injustice–times in which violence has reached its height and minimum wage jobs perpetuate a working-class poverty level–remind us just how meaningful Advent is in our current milieu.

Advent assumes that when Jesus returns he will find us disciples doing the Lord’s work as being agents of grace and healing in this season of turmoil, economic oppression, and grief.  He will find us not fueling the flames of war and conflict, but meeting the needs of victims of violence with a resolve that rests on the fact that God’s future will call all creation to account.

We are to bring light in these dark days because the day of God’s coming draws us ever closer to His kingdom.

In the words of scholar, Jennifer Ryan Ayers, Advent, “points to the importance of waiting, anticipating, and trusting in a promised future that seems very removed from our current circumstances.”*  It is a time to “lean into God’s future” and share the good news that God’s reign of making all things right begins now.

This Advent season, don’t be caught off guard by the “day of the Lord.”  Embrace it, and let it drive your message of hope to others who face despair, disease, and dysfunction.

*Source: Jennifer Ryan Ayers, Feasting on the Word: Advent Companion eds. Barleett, Taylor, and Long (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), pp. 7-8.

The spiritual discipline of “waiting upon the Lord”

clock-midnight-webSermon preached for lectionary, 2013 September 1.

Texts: Genesis 15:1-6, Luke 12:32-40.

I.

I had a preaching professor who once told us to rarely, if ever, use our family for sermon illustrations…But, I must tell you about my son’s first day of school this past month!

You know what its like on the first day of school.  Excitement is high.  There is joy, but also a little anxiety.  My daughter, ready to start her day, practically ran ahead of my son and me to get to her class.  By the time we joined her, she was already sitting, and I had to bend down pretty low to give her a kiss.

My son, on the other hand, wasn’t so sure about his new adventure.  He seemed to get closer and closer to me as we neared his classroom.  By the time we reached his room, I was practically tripping over him.

As any father would do, I tried to put on my best game face.  I unpacked his book bag and commented on how exciting everything looked.  I pointed out all the toys spread throughout the room, and “Wow-wee, this is going to be a great day!”

But his eyes were puffy, and I saw tears well up in his eyes.

Before entering the building I told my children that I would visit them once more before leaving to work.  Now that I dropped off my son, I had to go back to check on my daughter one last time.  I told my son that I had to visit her, that I would be back to see him too before I left.  He was a bit clingy, but he let me go.

Well, I checked on my daughter and all was well with her; but, when I turned the corner to go back to my son’s room, I could see him and his teacher standing at the threshold of his classroom door.  I heard his teacher say, “See, I told you your dad would come right back.”

II.

That whole day, I couldn’t get my son out of my mind—that look that he had on his face while I walked down the hall on my way to visit him again, how he stood at the threshold with anticipating, anxious eyes—eyes that trusted in the single promise that I would return.   Trusting, waiting, anxious eyes full of anticipation.

Psalm 27:14 tells us to “Wait upon the Lord, be strong and let your heart take courage.”  Like my son waiting for me in the threshold of the classroom, we have found ourselves waiting eagerly for the Lord so many times in our own life.

We’ve waited on the Lord in so many situations: For employment, for retirement, for that doctor’s appointment we’ve been anticipating, or for that diagnosis or prognosis.  I’ve known so many of you who have waited for results on biopsies or MRIs; and through it all, your waiting has turned into a slow prayerful waiting, a waiting upon the Lord.

Waiting is hard work.  And, too often, we end up moving on and doing our own thing because we get so impatient or anxious, and we take matters into our own hands.  I can only imagine what would’ve happened if I didn’t return to my son’s class that day.  How would he have felt and what would his teacher have said to comfort him?  How would his trust in me and my promises been compromised or stifled?

So many of us in the church have heard a sermon or two about “waiting upon the Lord,” and some of us have waited so long—have toiled while the Lord has tarried—that our own trust and faith is waning and on the brink of decay.

When it comes to waiting on the Lord, I can’t help but think of the story of Abraham and Sarah and God’s promise to let them bear a child.  God’s promise came to Abraham in the middle of his life.  I’m sure, because of his age, Abraham expected that promise to come to fruition quickly; Sarah had been barren, and she certainly wasn’t a spring chicken, after all.

By the time we get to Genesis 15, we find a very anxious and very uncertain Abraham trying to sleep.  He tossed and turned, tried to get his pillow just right and his back in a comfortable position, tried to escade the weight of having to wait so long for those words he expected to hear, “I’m pregnant.”  It was in his darkest and most worrisome hour, however, that Abraham received a vision of the Lord.

In the vision, Abraham pleads with the Lord to let him know when God’s promise of offspring will come to pass.  His anxiety is thick and his fear great, but God still encourages him to wait: “Do not be afraid,” God told Abraham, “I am your shield, and your reward will be great…You shall have an heir and your offspring shall number as many as there are stars in the sky.”

I could picture Abraham standing at his threshold door even after that night like my son, waiting for the return of the Lord and the promise that some time, some day, God would follow through with allowing Sarah to bear a child.

Lynn Clark Callister, a professor of nursing at Brigham Young University, can relate with Abraham’s and Sarah’s anxiety.  In an article she wrote for the school’s online journal, she recalls her experiences with parents or soon-to-be parents who have to wait upon the Lord.

She encourages her most anxious patients to take heart in Isaiah 40:31, “But those who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not grow weary, they shall walk and not faint.”

Now, not many of us in this room are waiting for a child or for a pregnancy, but there are things that we’ve prayed about in which the only word from the Lord we received was to “wait.”   We have to wait because God’s timing is different than ours, and his demand for our trust and obedience is more rigorous than we are sometimes led to believe.

III.

In Luke 12:32-40, Jesus told his disciples that waiting upon the Lord is an important part of our faith.   In the entire chapter, he gives certain commands that point to living a patient, prayerful life that anticipates God’s actions rather than demanding that we take matters into our own hands.

He tells them in Luke 12:22, for instance, to not worry about tomorrow.  How many of us worry about tomorrow rather than bringing things in prayer before the Lord and letting Him work in our lives in his timing?

He also tells them in Luke 12:27 to “consider the lilies,” to slow down and be sure to hear what the Lord needs to tell them today rather than look elsewhere for some sign or symbol as to what the Lord will do.

Then, in Luke 12:31, he says that we should turn all that anxiety we have about our future into seeking the kingdom and allowing God’s sustenance be enough to fill us for today.

In our scripture lesson for this morning, Luke 12:32-40, we get words from Jesus that are similar to God’s words to Abraham in Genesis 15.  Like God’s words to Abraham, Jesus told his disciples to not fear, that those who trust in the Lord will find blessing.

Like God who promised Abraham an heir, Jesus promised that God’s advent, God’s salvation, of all humankind would be realized.

And, like Abraham, the disciples were to be ready and expect that God would fulfill what God promised.  They were to be, according to Jesus, “Dressed for action,” and be vigilant in seeking God’s will.  They were to stay awake and not give up hope.  They were, like Abraham, called to wait even if God took years to act.

It’s the years that get to us.  Some of us have prayed about things for a long time—the salvation of our children or grandchildren, the strength to make it through a certain illness—and we continue to have to wait upon the Lord.   It’s difficult having to wait, and our faith is often tested in the interim.

IV.

Instead of seeing our wait upon the Lord as a journey with our Lord and Savior, we think of having to wait as being in a spiritual traffic jam in which our lives move at a snail’s pace.   We get frustrated and tired, we are tempted to take the next exit and turn around to head back home.  We loss sight of the destination and fail to see that God’s timing doesn’t cause a traffic jam so much as it forces us to see what beauty the journey holds for all of us who place our trust in Christ.

Waiting is not passive, and it’s more than simply hoping that something might happen.  Waiting, at least in the biblical sense, is pregnant with purposeful anticipation.  The Hebrew and Greek words for waiting have as their root words a sense of promise and an expectation that God will show up no matter what.

When God’s Word encourages us to “wait upon the Lord,” it is an active waiting that makes us aware of where God is at work.  It fine-tunes our spiritual ears to hear what the Spirit might be telling us.   It’s filled with a hope to expect the unexpected at the least expected hour, and to place our trust in Christ every step of the way.

I think it will always be frustrating to us that we can’t set our watches by the Lord’s comings and goings.   The Spirit blows where it will, and God’s timing is very different than our own.  So, although you may have to throw away the watch altogether, you can rest assured that when God makes a promise and is active in your life, he will show up.  God will follow through and work miracles in ways that will transcend all our hopes and dreams.

In the meantime, I picture the Holy Spirit, with hands upon our shoulders, whispering in our ears, “See, I told you your Father would come right back.”