Advent: People to Meet & Places to Go
Sunday, December 1, 2013
One of the items that we display in our home at Christmastime is a little wooden Santa holding an equally small chalkboard in his hands. Centered across the top of the chalkboard are the words “Days left until Christmas.” We generally put Santa somewhere fairly visible and then take turns adjusting the number on his chalkboard with each passing day. Depending on which member of our family you are and depending on the day you look, Santa’s official countdown can lead to either joy or down right panic.
Generally speaking, our miniature Santa reminds me of our modern impatience and of the fact that most of us simply hate having to wait. This isn’t only true at Christmas but it is true in much of life — we dislike waiting for the phone to ring with long anticipated news; we dread sitting in the waiting room as we anticipate the doctor’s assessment from the surgical room; we loathe the idea of being the sixth or seventh person in line for the cashier at Wal-Mart on December 24th with a buggy full of items to purchase; and none of us, no matter how spiritual we might be like the thought of having to wait on God and God’s timing. In the instantaneous society that we all live in where life seems to happen at ever increasing speeds, the idea of waiting is an oft dreaded concept of our modern world. Yet, there is no getting around the fact that no matter how much we dislike it and no matter how much our modern world suggests otherwise, waiting remains a regular part of life.
When you think about the broader story that results in Jesus’ birth, the idea of waiting permeates almost every aspect of the account. From a broad standpoint, the Israelite people held onto the great hope of a promised and coming Messiah, but, their hope had turned into centuries of waiting.
At the same time, this reality was also true in terms of some of the more particular parts of the story such as our text for today regarding the equally miraculous birth of Jesus’ relative and contemporary John the Baptist. Like Jesus, John’s birth was an amazing event yet at the same time it was unique in its own right.
While Jesus would be born to parents who were very young, John was the child of parents who were getting old. While Jesus was born to parents who were not even expecting a child at the time, John’s parents had long hoped for a child in vain and had in all probability reached a point where they sensed that parenthood was going to pass them by. As devout Jews, they had long prayed and hoped for a child and certainly it seemed that God would never answer their prayers.
And, then, one day, as Zechariah, who was a priest, was on duty in the temple, God began to speak and to share the unexpected. After such a long period of time, Elizabeth was pregnant. She was going to have a child after all those long years of waiting. Their hopes, longings and prayers were finally coming to fruition. It was overwhelming.
Through this story, Zechariah and Elizabeth serve as strong reminders for us of what it is like to live with long held and expressed hopes and dreams while at the same time having to wait for God to respond to our prayers and longings. On the one hand, their experience reminds us of some of the basic truths about waiting and at the same time on the other hand, their experience also teaching us about what we should do and about what God does while we wait for our hopes and our dreams to become reality. In turn, as we begin the process today, on this very first day of December, to live through another yearly period of waiting for Christmas, let me remind all of us of some of the truths worth gleaning from Zechariah and Elizabeth’s story about life’s hope and how to live while we wait.
For one, Zechariah and Elizabeth remind us there really is nothing unique about having to wait. I say this because while Zechariah and Elizabeth’s story is somewhat unique, their experience is not. Lots and lots of Biblical Characters had to wait at times — Noah and his family waited for 40 days in the ark for the waters to subside, the Israelites waited for 40 years in the wilderness, God’s people waited for in both Egypt and Babylon in captivity, the disciples and Jesus early followers waited for 3 days while Jesus was in the tomb and Paul waited for two years under house arrest in Rome while waiting for his trail to begin.
Similarly, there is nothing unusual about our having to wait either. I say this because sometimes, we convince ourselves that when we wait or when our hopes and dreams go unfulfilled that we are living through some experience that no one else has had. Likewise, as people of faith, we are also prone to convince ourselves that when we have to wait on God that this somehow is a result of our own spiritual deficiencies or God’s divine punishment.
In reality, and much closer to the point is likely the simple truth that waiting is merely a part of life. Life doesn’t always unfold as quickly as we would like. Others and our world are not always beholden to our own personal calendars and timetable. And, without question, God’s ways are not our ways and God’s time is not our time. This doesn’t mean that we are unique, that we are failures or that God doesn’t care — it is simply the way that this is the way things are.
Think about it for a moment. All of us have the same number of days from now until Christmas — whether that means they are going to fly by or trudge by at a snail’s pace. All of us, you and me have the same period of time to wait. Sure we can convince ourselves that we are living on a different plane or with different circumstances but that does not make it true. And the same is true in life in general — waiting is simply a part of life for all of us.
Second, Zechariah and Elizabeth remind us that when our hopes and the call to wait meet, we need to evaluate our own faithfulness. One of the things I love about the Zechariah and Elizabeth story is that though I am sure they were frustrated with God’s delay, they did not give up on God or stop living out their lives in service and in faith. Even though Zechariah was an Israelite priest, it really is no small feet to recognize that he was on duty in the temple when he learned that Elizabeth was pregnant. Sure, he was at first doubtful of the word he heard, but, he was there, in the temple, doing his duty. Simply stated, God had not acted as either Zechariah or Elizabeth had wanted. God had not granted their life’s expectations and hopes on their timetable. But, they had not given up on God. They had remained active in their work as God’s followers.
The question is how do we respond when God delays or fails to meet our hopes? Do we give up on God because we sense God has given up on us? Or do we continue to trust, to serve and to be engaged even while we wait?
Finally, and at the same time, Zechariah and Elizabeth also remind us that when our hope and the call to wait meet, we can rest assured that God remains active and engaged in our lives. Without question, one of the great truths of this story is that Zechariah and Elizabeth were wrong. Despite what they likely thought, God had not given up on them and God had not forgotten about their pleas, prayers and hopes. God was faithful to them just as God would be faithful to the Israelites and their prayer for a Messiah in the coming of Jesus. It was a beautiful reminder to them and to us that we can rest assured that even when we have to wait for our hopes and dreams to come true, we can be sure that this does not mean that God is not active and at work in our lives.
Historian Robert McKenzie tells a great story about an experience from his life when he was teaching at the University of Washington. He and his wife lived near a public bus stop, which provided easy, direct access to campus and so McKenzie almost always simply rode the bus to school. One day, he was running a little bit late and so on a dead sprint arrived at the bus station and jumped on board almost without breaking stride. As the bus motored down the road toward campus, McKenzie noticed a number of things odd.
First, he noticed that many of his fellow normal passengers were not on board. Second, he noticed that as they made their regular stops along the way that those getting on the bus were again not the normal riders. Third, he was also surprised that the bus itself was taking a new route to campus.
Ironically, what McKenzie admits in the story is that while he continued to wonder about everyone else — from his fellow passengers to the bus driver — it literally never dawned on him to conclude that he was in fact the one who had made a mistake. Only after the bus drove several miles past his normal destination did he conclude and realize that he had actually caught the wrong bus. (In The First Thanksgiving, Robert McKenzie, 2013)
I share this story because I believe that we often make a similar mistake when it comes to our hopes, dreams and God’s time table. We become so focused on where God has gone wrong and how God has failed to live up to our hopes that we fail to think about our own side of the equation while we wait. Maybe, maybe God has remained steadfast in caring for and being attentive to us albeit on a different timetable from us. And, maybe, just maybe it is you and I who have failed in the midst of unanswered hopes ongoing expectations to remain equally faithful to God. Zechariah’s hope continued in an active way even in the midst of prolonged waiting which is simply sometimes a part of life. He remained faithful and trusted God’s faithfulness. Do we? Amen.