Advent is a time of hope-filled waiting. Surveys have shown that at any time, about 80% of Americans are waiting hopefully for something significant – a wedding, the birth of a child, entering or graduating from school, finding a job or retiring. We might think that since we seem to live in expectation most of the time, we would be really good at it. But we are not particularly good at waiting, especially in every day circumstances. At one time or another we have all stood on a long line in a store, sat in an unending traffic jam, or even just waited impatiently for a light to change. Even if we are normally patient ourselves, we are surrounded by impatient people. They blast their horns the minute the light turns green, they swerve around us on the highway because 68 or 70 miles an hour is too slow for them. On several occasions I have observed people drive over the median on Sunrise Highway because they couldn’t wait for the cars in the turn lane ahead of them.
We hate to wait, and our frustration with being delayed, or sitting still for more than a few minutes, can make us cranky. What is it that causes us to feel that way? It is partly because of the pressure of time. Time is a human invention. As the author of 1st Peter writes, “with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.” The writer is not referring to our notion of time, as in “it took me a thousand years to get home tonight; traffic was so bad.” God’s time is nothing like our time. God has the gift of being able to access human history in all times and all places.
Yet in our lives everything is governed by time. There are so many places that we have to be and so many things we need to accomplish that it is no wonder we get cranky! Nature is governed by a different sense of time, as natural forces such as the change of seasons and the gravitational pull of the moon create patterns for the tides, for planting and harvesting, for changes in the patterns of animals. Yet humans are the only creatures who actually wait for these things. When we are throwing the ball for the dog, the dog is enjoying the moment, retrieving the ball over and over again, usually with great joy. The dog is not thinking, “My human can only throw the ball for me for ten minutes before they have to leave for work” as we so often do. Rarely do we allow ourselves the luxury of just enjoying something – like throwing the ball – without watching the clock.
Our gospel reading for today is the opening of the Gospel of Mark. Mark was not concerned with time the way Matthew and Luke were. Instead of beginning his account of the good news of Jesus Christ with a long genealogy, as Mathew does, or with historical background, as Luke does, Mark plunges immediately into the story of Jesus and his ministry. Mark does not seem to care about the birth or childhood of Jesus. He begins his story with the fulfillment of a prophecy by Isaiah. He tells us that John the Baptizer is the one sent by God to prepare the way for the Messiah for whom God’s people have been waiting. There won’t be much waiting in the Gospel of Mark, things happen immediately, and Mark moves swiftly through the parables and stories of Jesus’ ministry, death and resurrection. Mark lives in the moment with Jesus and he expects us to do the same.
As we hear Mark’s gospel in the coming year, we have to keep in mind that the good news he is sharing is the fulfillment of ancient prophecies, for which the people of Israel waited patiently for many years. By the time Jesus was sent to earth, they were getting more and more impatient waiting for the messiah. Their country had been conquered and become an unwilling part of the Roman Empire. They were permitted to practice their religion, but only as long as they remained in compliance with the rules and regulations dictated by the Roman authorities. They longed for a leader to rise up who would free them from Roman domination. They were tired of waiting. It’s no wonder why such huge crowds gathered to hear John the Baptizer.
But here’s something we may not have thought about. When they gathered for Sabbath worship in their synagogues or the temple, they heard the same readings from Hebrew scripture that we hear today. They listened to our first lesson, the words of the prophet Isaiah, written when the people were still in captivity in Babylon. “Comfort, O comfort, my people, says your God.” The day will come when there will be justice for all people. Those who have power, who have wealth, will be brought to the same level as those who are oppressed and struggling. That day will come; the Lord will be the good shepherd for God’s people.
The words of the prophet are timeless. They brought comfort and hope to the people in exile, they brought comfort and hope to the people of Jesus’ day as they suffered under Roman oppression, and they bring comfort and hope to us today. There is no expiration date on God’s promises. Today we need to hear those words just as much as the people of Israel needed to hear them during various times of their history. Perhaps the fact that it is relevant to all times and all places is the greatest gift that scripture offers us.
Unlike us, God is extremely patient. Perhaps God has not returned in physical form into the world again because God is patiently waiting for everyone to repent, to turn our lives around, as John the Baptizer reminds us. Both the prophet Isaiah and Mark insist that God is in charge, a powerful force that comes in glory. But instead of acting like a triumphant warrior ruler, God in Jesus comes as the good shepherd, who will gather the lambs in his arms and gently lead the sheep.
Last week we noted that the best way to prepare for Christ to come again is to not worry about it. Instead we should invest our time, talent and treasure in the present, in the everyday and the ordinary, in the people and the need we encounter. Perhaps we should observe the other creatures of God’s world and, like them, just live in the moment. Even if we only begin with 15 or 20 minutes a day, we can try to escape the domination of time in our lives. We can take some quiet time – not thinking, not planning, not worrying, and not even wishing. We shouldn’t regret the past or worry about the future, just try to live right in the present. We can look at all the pieces of our lives and see how they have come together in a beautiful mosaic. We can discover God’s providence as it has blessed our lives, even during challenging or difficult times. Perhaps we will even discern the piece that is missing that we need for true fulfillment.
Another useful thing to do while waiting is to pray. How often do we take time for a good conversation with God? We can pray for our families, friends and loved ones, for their healing, for strength, for wisdom – whatever we believe they need. There are more than 7 billion people in the world, many of whom are hungry, poor or suffering in some way. They can certainly benefit from our prayers. We can pray for the natural world, which is being threatened at an alarming rate. We can pray for that most elusive of dreams, world peace. And it is even OK, to pray for something that we each need in our own lives, be it patience, healing, wisdom, or even the ability to manage our time better. Then there are all those things we have to be thankful for…Time passes pretty quickly when we are engaged in a good conversation with God!
We have faith that prayer is effective, and our hearts and minds and souls are expanded when we pray, strengthening our relationship with God and with those for whom we pray. May we use this Advent season to perfect the art of patient waiting, and to allow ourselves to be freed from the tyranny of time, transported to a place of hope and serenity, rooted in prayer. Amen.