By now, as we come near the end of this service, I suspect some of you may feel a little hoodwinked. “Lessons and carols, they called this thing. I get the lessons, but where are the carols?” you may be thinking. “I thought I was coming to hear ‘O little town of Bethlehem’ and ‘O come all ye faithful’ and ‘O holy night,’ but instead here we are singing six thousand stanzas of ‘O come, O come Emmanuel.’”
You may have expected a little Christmas decoration here and there. You know, a twinkling light, an early sprig of mistletoe. Nope. Can’t be found. Instead things are pretty spare—the music, the decorations, the tone of the evening. Even the music is in a minor key.
It’s hard to think of a time when we Christians are more out of step with our culture than in the four weeks of Advent. Every store we enter is decorated to the nines, houses at night are lit up like penny arcades. I’m already starting to overdose on “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” although it doesn’t take much. Commercial good cheer seems to be popping up with an all-out effort to get us to feel good, do good, and spend money. On the other hand, it takes a pretty calloused old Scrooge not to get at least a little caught up in the spirit of the season, in the beauty of the decorations, in the chances to connect with friends and family.
Still, the season of Advent is not about celebration and Christmas joy, but about the longing, hoping, and yearning for God to come into the world and into our lives again. Advent calls us, amid all the Christmas bustle to do something strange—to wait. Most of us are not very good at waiting. Secretly, I suspect we believe that, as a friend once pointed out, patience is like modesty—it’s good for those who need it. And most people who need patience are people who haven’t yet succeeded enough to get everything they want when they want it.
Our lessons and hymns this evening are about this active, hopeful waiting. When Israel had been overrun by a foreign army, and its leaders taken away, the prophet Isaiah came along with words of immense hope and assurance:
Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins. A voice cries out, “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill made low.”
Something is going to happen, Isaiah says. And all you can do now is wait, but wait actively, hopefully, and prepare for the Lord to come.
And why all those stanzas of “O come, O come Emmanuel?” Because that’s what waiting feels like—steady, repetitious, yearning, trusting, waiting for God to act.
And think of Mary, being told that she will give birth to the savior of the world. Her job isn’t to do anything. It’s to wait, to wait hopefully, for what God will do with her.
There is a hard, demanding spirituality to waiting, I’m afraid. What it means is we can’t deliver for ourselves on demand what our lives and our world need. We have to depend on God, and on a mysterious, complex world, to receive what we most need. In fact, waiting has long been seen as foundational for any real spiritual life. We have to be willing to wait on God’s time, to make space for the timing of others, to allow answers and fulfillment to emerge in a time not our own.
The poet Rainer Marie Rilke once advised a young friend not to reach prematurely for answers to the deepest questions of his life. “Live the questions,” Rilke wrote, “until one day you live into the answers.” Waiting, we call that.
And this has to be a certain kind of open-minded, open-hearted waiting. To wait on God can’t mean sitting there certain that God will fix my life or meet my need or clean up the world exactly on my terms. It means to trust, to be open, to be expectant. T.S. Eliot puts it this way in the Four Quartets:
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and love and hope are all in the waiting.
We wait on a God who loves us, and we are often inclined to have pretty firm ideas in mind of what would please us. But our calling is to wait expectantly, hopefully, with hands and heart open to receive. If our hands are full from clenching what we desperately want, we can have a hard time opening them to receive the surprising gift God wants to give.
Waiting is what parents do—watching, hoping, waiting for their child to blossom into the full human being they were made to be. It is what God does, waiting for us to turn from our self-absorbed lives and live. A child waits today in Botswana for her grandmother to return from her forty-mile trek with a basket of food and a sack of water. A student waits to hear about college admissions. An immigrant father in Fairfax waits to be called for a day’s work, in hopes of being able to send a check back to his family in Mexico.
For us privileged ones, good things can happen when we wait. We discover we aren’t the center of the universe. We get to watch our oversized egos act out in frustration and anger, as if all the world should be arranged to work for us. And if we can linger in the stillness and uncertainty long enough, we can discover a strange sufficiency in our waiting. We can discover God is already giving us enough, that we need not be so addicted to the drug of ‘more.’ There in the stillness, the waiting, we can sense God holding us now, in this finite, incomplete moment. Waiting may be our window into the real God, not the fantasy Santa Claus version we imagine for ourselves.
When Isaiah proclaimed “Comfort” to Israel he had no idea what form that comfort would ultimately take. He could hardly have imagined the shape of Israel’s return to its homeland, nor could he have conceived that centuries later his hope would be met in the birth of a child in Bethlehem. Mary had almost no comprehension of what was happening in her. She only knew that she was to be a bearer of God’s life in the world. For the rest she had to wait.
So welcome to Advent, my friends, to these weeks of delayed gratification, four weeks of being willing to worship, pray, think, and be with friends and family in our incompleteness, aware that the deepest things in life aren’t ours for the grabbing, aware that we wait on God for what matters most in our lives.
The promise of this season is that God does come, has come, will come, in answer to the waiting and yearning of our hearts. In a little over three weeks the waiting will be over, we’ll sing the carols, we’ll toast the Christ Child, we’ll open the presents. But not now. We need this space, this yearning, this waiting…for God.