I want to talk to you about waiting. Hold on and wait just a minute (said turning around as if walking away). This topic of waiting made me think of a skit by Jerry Seinfeld—how many of you have watched his comedy skits? He had a skit on waiting rooms and said:
“Waiting room. I hate when they make you wait in the room. ‘Cause it says ‘Waiting room.’ There’s no chance of not waiting, ’cause they call it the waiting room, they’re going to use it. They’ve got it. It’s all set up for you to wait.
And you sit there, you know, and you’ve got your little magazine. You pretend you’re reading it, but you’re really looking at the other people. You know, you’re thinking about them things like “I wonder what he’s got. As soon as she goes, I’m getting her magazine.” And then, they finally call you and it’s a very exciting moment. They finally call you, and you stand up and you kinda look around at the other people in the room. “Well, I guess I’ve been chosen. I’ll see you all later.”
You know, so you think you’re going to see the doctor, but you’re not, are you? No. You’re going into the next waiting room. The littler waiting room.”
Waiting. Wait at the doctors. Waiting at the grocery store, or better yet waiting in the 15-or-less check out aisle behind someone with at least two-dozen items. You know that feeling. Or you are waiting for that car that’s in the perfect parking spot, and it’s running, they just got in it with their groceries, but for some reason they are just sitting there, probably because you are there waiting and they are nervous if they back out there won’t be enough room. Waiting waiting waiting. They say the average person spends an hour a day waiting in lines, which is about 2-3 years in one’s lifetime. I saw a quote from NewsWatch that said “1.2 years of your life are spent waiting on hold.” By a show of hands, how many people here like waiting. Don’t be shy. Just raise your hands high.
One Advent book that I have enjoyed is Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book “God is in the Manger: Reflections on Advent and Christmas. This book ascribes a theme to each week of Advent and this past week was the theme of waiting. There was a quote in the readings this week that really stood out to me, from a letter he wrote to a student of his named Ebhard Bethge from the Tegel prison in Germany where Bonhoeffer was incarcerated. He writes:
“Life in a prison cell may well be compared to Advent: one waits, hopes, and does this, that, or the other—things that are really of no consequence—the door is shut, and can only be opened from the outside.”
This sentence really strikes me “. . . the door is shut, and can only be opened from the outside . . .” That’s a very alluring metaphor of the Incarnation—God coming into our midst, opening the door of the gates of the Kingdom of God.
I’ve always loved Handel’s Messiah, not just because of the music and how he ties together so many profound Scriptures, but there’s something amazing hearing so many of the Messianic prophecies from the Old Testament. How many of you have ever been to hear Handel’s Messiah or to a sing along?
The Old Testament, as we know, was written hundreds of years before the birth of Christ. In the ancient scriptures of the Old Testament we find prophecies like:
“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.” From Micah 5:2
“Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” From Isaiah 7:14
“He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.”
Handel’s Messiah is a masterpiece composed in three scenes, the first of which focusing on the prophecies. Today’s readings were selected by whoever put together the lectionary because of the Messianic prophecies present. The readings we heard from Isaiah and the Psalm were written well before Christ’s birth. From Isaiah we heard read:
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.
His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
And from the Psalms:
He shall defend the needy among the people;
he shall rescue the poor and crush the oppressor.
He shall live as long as the sun and moon endure,
from one generation to another.
He shall come down like rain upon the mown field,
like showers that water the earth.
This is very fitting with the season of Advent, that time of awaiting the birthday of Christ, we are reminded of the waiting of the people of Israel for the Messiah, the one who would fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah: “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” In a way you could say all of history until the birth of Christ was an Advent of sorts. As we wait, as Mary waited with this child in her womb, so the Israelites had waited, and the peoples of the earth for God to reveal Godself.
We also heard today from Paul’s letter to the Romans and the Book of Matthew. While we heard Paul’s letter first, I want to flip the order since the events in the Gospels happened first and Paul wrote about them later. In the Gospel lesson we heard, there’s only a minute detail I want to draw your attention to. I want to draw attention to John the Baptist. He’s described as wearing camel skin and eating locusts and honey. Interestingly enough, Theodore of Mopsuestia says,
“Camel’s hair is mentioned not merely circumstantially but in a mystery and as a type. The camel is counted neither as strictly one of the unclean beasts nor as strictly one of the clean, but it occupies a middle position and partakes of the characteristics of both. For to chew the cud, that is, to bring up again the food after it has been swallowed and direct it forward to be ground by the teeth, is proper to the clean animals. This pertains to the camel. But not to part the hoof is a feature of the unclean beasts. The camel’s foot is not divided, given that its nails meet together. Therefore, on this account John was clothed with the hairs of this animal, demonstrating the call of the gospel. He showed that the kingdom of God, which John declared was at hand, was going to accept both those who were from Israel, the clean people, and those from the unclean Gentiles. To both of these he preached repentance without any distinction.”
John is a fascinating character, because he is preaching the coming of the Kingdom. He is dwelling and preaching in that periphery between the Old and the New Covenant. The Old Covenant of the Law and the New Covenant established by Christ, which was prophesied of even in the Old Testament. Paul in his Letter to the Romans we heard is reflecting on this New Covenant in Christ, that is not based on the purity laws of the Jews, but the faith established by Christ which bridges the circumcised, namely the Jews, with the Gentiles. And Paul quotes four prophecies that reveal the Messiah came not just to Jews, but also Gentiles. It’s the beginning of the radical inclusivity that All Saints embraces—whereas the law of the Old Testament cast aside the unclean, divided people, and shut out the Gentiles, this New Covenant was one for all peoples, Jews and Gentiles alike.
And so now we wait. Historically, Advent spans that liminal space between the Old and New. That timeless space between the Old Testament religion of exclusion and a New Testament of inclusion. That peripheral time when the eternal gestated and grew into the tiny bundle of a child in the womb of a virgin.
Advent used to be understood as a season of repentant preparation. In church they would remove Alleluias, prayers turned more penitential like the Collect we heard at the beginning of the service today. And purple is the same liturgical color we use in Lent—the season of repentance when we wait for Easter. This color is chosen because in the scriptures a purple garment was placed on Jesus during his passion as he was mocked.
Somewhere in the 20th century, the idea of Advent as a season of repentant preparation was rivaled by an understanding of it as a season of joyful anticipation. In some churches, the penitential purple of the season was replaced with a dusty-blue, the color used in the Sarum Rite from Salisbury Cathedral in England. The emphasis was less on repentant waiting and more on joyful anticipation of the birth of the Christ child. Waiting for a child is an exciting thing, say the proponents of this ‘joyful anticipation’ movement. And John the Baptist and others respond, “But this is not ordinary child; this is the judge of judges, the king of kings, he whose winnowing fork is in hand . . .”
I like to think of the purpose of this season as threefold:
- expectant waiting: we know what’s going to happen; it’s not a surprise to us anymore, but there is still a time of waiting, of being still, of dwelling in this liminal space, as the Christ-child was gestating, growing in his mothers womb
- joyful anticipation: this is exciting, there’s a baby to be born, the Messiah has come, the Lord will dwell in our midst, fulfilling prophecy of old
- repentant preparation: this is John the Baptist’s message in the scriptures, repent, change your heart, change your mind, change your ways, the kingdom is near
I hope we can approach this season of Advent holding together this triad within our hearts—expectant waiting, joyful anticipation, and repentant preparation. As we wait at the doctors office and read Advent meditations. As we wait in the grocery line and pray for that person in front of us. As we wait Sunday after Sunday for the Nativity of Christ and worship out God and creator, may we open our hearts to the mystery of this holy season. And as we wait, may we contemplate the wonder of the day that approaches: the uncanny prophecies and the scandal of God born in our midst as a mere child.
© The Rev. Justin R. Cannon