“Until Christ Comes…Watch”
Sunday, December 2, 2007
The Christian year is a play and the first act is Advent. The theme of Advent is waiting.
And waiting itself, which is a very concrete experience, is about more than waiting. Waiting is a universal human experience but it is also a symbol – a symbol of our finitude, the limitations with which we all must live. It is a consequence and symbol of our lack of control. We are not fully in control. There are things we can not make happen when we want them to happen. There are things we can not make happen at all. We have to wait for them.
We plant a seed in the ground, and there are lots of things we can do to create good conditions for the seed to grow and to keep ourselves busy –water, hoe, mulch, fertilize – but we still mostly need to wait. It is a process that we are not fully in control of. At best, we are cooperating with some other forces and powers.
What do we do while we are waiting? This is the question raised by Act One “Advent” in the drama of the Christian year. What do we do while we are waiting? Which is also to ask the question, how do we handle the reality that we are not fully in control of our own fate, our own future, our own welfare, and – by God – not even our own existence.
What do we do until Christ comes? Until the future comes? Until fulfillment comes? Until the end comes? What do we do with those places and situations in our lives where we are not finally in control? They are scary places for many of us, I think. Vulnerable places.
What do we do while we are waiting? What do we do with the places in our lives where we can not make what we want to have happen happen through the force of our own efforts and willpower?
One of the traditional Christian answers to the question of what we do during Advent is to watch. It is an answer worth taking a look at again.
Watch and pray, Jesus tells his disciples more than once (Mt. 26: 41; Mark 13: 33; Mark 14: 38; Luke 21: 36) Stay alert, as the New Revised Version translates it. Pay attention.
One of the things we do while we are waiting is to watch. One of the things we do in those places and dimensions of our lives where we are not fully or finally in control is to watch. Stay alert. Pay attention.
We do this because life…or the universe…or God has a way of sometimes having something else in mind other than what we are waiting for.
Theologically this is the concept of the freedom of God. Craig Barnes has a book entitled When God Interrupts: Finding New Life Through Unwanted Change.
He writes: “Since the days of the exodus, one of the hardest things for God’s people to accept is that they have a God whose ways are not their ways. For this reason the Hebrews were once tempted to have a god of wood and stone that would be predictable and familiar. People today turn to gods of power and wealth for the same reason, because we understand these idols. [Work hard and you will succeed.] People,” Barnes writes, “who live without a mysterious Savior that they cannot always understand, much less control, live without any sense of awe or wonder to their lives. Nothing amazes or astonishes or overwhelms them, because their world is too small for God to fit into.”[i]
The reason we have to wait, the reason we are not fully in control of our lives and world, is because something greater and bolder and more wonderful is happening here than we could imagine, plan, or engineer. Most of the time the most amazing parts of life are not the things we’ve planned for but the things life throws at us.
So while you are waiting, watch. Because the most consuming and powerful experiences of your life are likely not to be what you are waiting for but what life throws at you while you are waiting. The growing edge of our lives is not the stuff we are managing and in control of but the places where we are not in control.
I like Barnes’ title – Finding New Life through Unwanted Change. I told you about my friend whose life went through radical change beyond his control is a few months time. He felt as if his world was falling apart. He was seeing a therapist. He told me that the most helpful thing the therapist suggested to him was that, when something happened, instead of saying to himself, “Isn’t this awful,” he should say to himself, “Isn’t this interesting. I wonder how this will turn out?”
While you are waiting, watch, stay alert, pay attention, because the richest and most profound parts of life may be what happens to us and not what we work for or ask for or hope for.
The Psalmist in Psalm 130 adds another dimension to this. He begins the Psalm, by praying “Out of the depth I cry to you, O Lord.” The Latin is “De profoundus.” From the profound places of my life, I cry out to you O Lord.
Then he writes, “I wait for the Lord, my soul waits for the Lord…more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning.”
In the midst of whatever profound sadness or grief the Psalmist is in, he waits, and the waiting is hard and long and seems to take forever, but he waits with confidence that the Lord, like the morning, will come.
The big struggle of waiting, of not being fully or finally in control, is the struggle of trust. Is life, with all its ups and downs and fears and surprises, finally good? Is the universe an accident, a fluke of some kind, a joke maybe, or is it the work of a caring and benevolent divinity? Is humanity the product of the survival of the fittest in an eat-or-be-eaten world or are we made in the image of a good God? After the darkest night, will morning eventually come?
To watch for the morning in the profoundest night, is an act of trust…the essential act of faith. It is what we are invited and called to do as a people of faith. It is what we are invited and called to share with all those around us in despair.
While we wait, in those places where we are not in control of our fate, our future, our own existence, on the other side of the night is the morning. Watch for it.
[i] M. Craig Barnes, When God Interrupts: Finding New Life Through Unwanted Change (Intervarsity Press), 82.