Updated: Aug 5
There was a rector who was having a tough year at his parish. His parishioners thought his sermons were lame, he took too much time to get things done, and, worst of all, because of a really bad stewardship campaign they were hurting for money. So the rector prayed to God for some help. “God,” he said, “they think I’m too slow!” “My son,” God said, “to me ten million years is like a single second.” “But God, we don’t have enough money to do your work.” “My child,” God said, “to me ten million dollars is like a penny.” Frustrated, the rector thought about this for a bit and then said, “God can I have a penny”? And God said, “Sure, just give me a sec.”
Waiting can be very hard. Anyone who has ever sat in an emergency room lobby, or anticipated an important phone call, or listened for the sound of an ambulance coming along the road knows this. And no one knew it better than the post-exilic Jews who were the audience for Isaiah’s prophecy about the coming of the Lord. Of course, today’s Hebrew scripture says it’s from Isaiah, but it’s really from second Isaiah. The biblical book we call Isaiah is really more appropriately divided into two parts (maybe even three), with the second half having been written about two hundred years after the first part. The first section of the prophecy attributed to the figure of Isaiah is the story of how the people of Israel sinned against God and were sent into exile. It’s filled with bad news. The second part, however, is the story of their return to their homeland, and it has a lot of good news, but they don’t always recognize it as such.
That’s because these people had witnessed- and done- terrible things, and, as we know and the people of southern California are currently discovering, “disasters make people numb, afraid, and hopeless.” When awful things happen, we don’t want to hear long explanations about why the occurred, we just want them to stop. Jean Kerr used to talk about hearing noises from the upstairs of her house and knowing that her kids were up to no good. “Other mothers,” she said, “might yell, ‘What’s going on up there’? but not me – I just shout, ‘Cut that out’ – because I don’t really care what’s going on up there, I just want it to stop.” No wonder people get frustrated with religion, which often has a great deal to say about why bad things happen, but not how to stop them.
So I’m happy to tell you that we have almost gotten to that part of our theology in our weekly readings, but before we get to talk about the coming of our savior, we have to look at why his arrival didn’t – and still hasn’t- fixed everything. That’s because expecting God to repair our broken world without recognizing who broke it and how it got broken is be like jumping to the last page of a book to find out how it ends. It doesn’t make sense without the stuff in the middle. “Theologically, we must not separate God’s grace and forgiveness from God’s judgment on human sin. To do so renders God’s grace and forgiveness cheap.” In other words, jumping straight to our redemption is cheating.
A few weeks ago I talked about “proof texting,” the practice of justifying one’s beliefs by finding specific Bible verses seem to confirm them. At that time I said that the Bible is filled with contradictory and confusing ideas and that pulling any one of them out of context can misrepresent its meaning. This practice is more common in among some believers than others, but no Christian community is immune to it. We can see an example of it today in our own Revised Common Lectionary. The “RCL” is a schedule of scripture readings which is currently followed by many Christian denominations. The RCL is designed to provide a broad, linear progression of scripture readings, but, like any other religious endeavor, the RCL sometimes cherry picks or modifies its readings in order to make them fit with a certain theme. Thus, we find not one but five verses missing in our reading from Psalms today. What’s in those five verses, you ask? It is the part of the story where the people are mad at God, where they lament their lives and beg God to send them some good news. It’s the sad part.
The good news is the part we got to hear today – the part about how Jesus is coming with mercy and truth, righteousness and peace. It is also the section where we find out how we will know when this is happening, – but it might not be the way we think. “The psalmist’s signs of salvation – peace, justice, faithfulness, and steadfast love – stand in stark contrast to the violent vision of Armageddon so popular in our time. The psalmist’s proclamation means that we will know God’s salvation is near, not when there are war and conflict in the Middle East (or anywhere else), but when God’s peace – [God’s] love, faithfulness and right relationships – prevail….For Christians, [we find] salvation [not just by] believing in Jesus Christ, but [by] embodying what he embodied in this world. When steadfast love and faithfulness meet in our lives, when righteousness and peace embrace in our business practices, our family relations, or our nations’ policies, God’s salvation is near at hand. When we work for justice we make way for God in our world.”
This is something the people addressed in the second letter of Peter had to learn. Scholars tell us that this text was written not by the disciple Peter, but in his name at least a century after Jesus’s death. By that time, many people had lost faith that Jesus was going to return from the dead to save God’s people- and the early Christians were being taunted because their predictions of salvation had failed to come true. Just as in our time, people couldn’t understand why Jesus’s followers continued to believe in something that clearly couldn’t be proven – unless it was proven wrong. The author of this letter addresses those concerns, tackling the tough subjects of, “what are we waiting for,” “how long do we have to wait,” and “what should we do in the meantime.” What we are waiting for, says the writer, is nothing less than for the Lord to bring about his promise of a new world, a saving world. He also notes, however, that God will not bring it until we are ready to receive it.
Peter’s author, like the gospel writer, is very clear; what we see as a time of waiting is really a chance to get ready. What looks to us like delay looks to God like patience. And God has all the time in the world.” That’s why the church has decreed Advent to be a season of preparation – one which includes both penitence and hope. That’s why the church has, in recent years, suggested that the color of Advent should not be purple, which is the color of repentance, but blue, to symbolize a different sort of preparation. (That’s why we are allowed to keep our “Alleluias” during the season of Advent but not in Lent). During Lent, we prepare ourselves to participate in the death and resurrection of Christ, to be present with our savior in the sacrifice he makes for us. Like preparing for a human death, in Lent we spend as much time as possible with our loved one, making amends as needed, and contemplating what our life will be like without our beloved. In Advent, however, we are readying ourselves for our savior’s birth -and as with any expected birth, we clean our houses and make room for a new beloved. We think about what our life will be like with someone different in it. “We wait in penitence,” yes, but more so “in hope.” We are asked to look at the state of our lives –and to measure not our material prosperity or human power, but our “relationship with God, as well as the way that relationship influences…our association with fellow human beings.” We are asked to attempt to “live in this unrighteous realm as if we were already citizens of that righteous one.” We are asked to prepare the way of the Lord, understanding that God is waiting – and God will give us all the time we need. AMEN.
Kathleen M. O’Conner, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 27.
George W. Stroop, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 28.