Luke 21:25-36, Jeremiah 33:14-16
by Pastor Sarah Stadler
Imagine in your mind’s eye a group of runners, including yourself, spread along a solid white line on a track. You are ready. Ready to run. You breathe deeply, shake the tension out of your hands and arms, last-minute stretching. You press your toes against the starting line. You focus on the finish line for this short sprint. You decide to give it your all. Finally, the time comes. You set your left foot forward, your right foot back. You bend your knees. You wait impatiently for the familiar commands. On your mark! You bend down, listening. Get set! You’re just about to pick up your foot, to expend all your energy in pursuit of the finish line. Can you feel the tension, the anticipation, the energy of that moment? Like a chord unresolved, like the moment before the bride walks down the aisle, like those final pages of a mystery novel save one. That’s Advent.
Or put yourself in the place of the Twelfth Man from the Texas A & M legend. You’re rooting for the A & M football team while they play Centre College, the then number one ranked team. As the game wears on and team members sustain injuries, the coach remembers you, a basketball player now but formerly a football player. You are in the press box helping the reporters identify players. Suddenly called upon by the coach, you jog down to the field for instructions, suit up, and stand ready to go into the game. In this tough game, one by one, each suited player is called in until, finally, you are the only person left standing at the sidelines for your team. You never go in, but you are ready. Today, remembering the twelfth man, the entire A & M student body stands during the entire game, waiting to be called upon should they be needed. That’s Advent.
Today is the first Sunday of Advent, a season of waiting, a season of anticipation. Each year, the church calendar begins with Advent. Each year, we enter into the liturgical drama of Jesus’ life—even though we know his life on this earth is past and gone. In the season of Advent, there’s no question that the birth of Christ is imminent; still, we enter into Advent and wait.
The advent practice of waiting may be the most difficult of all spiritual disciplines. Whether we are waiting for medical test results, waiting in a Starbuck’s drive-through or a Safeway line, or waiting for the light to turn green, Phoenix residents circa now generally do not wait patiently. Gone are the days of waiting a month to receive a letter, waiting 6 weeks to sail from the US to Europe, or even waiting for someone to get home so that we can call them. The agony of very slow and continuously interrupted dial-up internet service wasn’t agony in 1996; that’s just what the internet was. The expectation that everything happens now, right now, is truly a 21st century expectation.
Still, ever since Jesus’ ascension two thousand years ago, followers of Jesus have anticipated, have waited expectantly for his return. During New Testament times, the Apostle Paul and most other Christians believed that Jesus would return in their lifetimes. In our own age, while we don’t necessarily expect that Jesus will return in our lifetimes, we assume that, one day, God’s kingdom will come in its fullness, that our redemption will draw near, as Jesus says in today’s gospel. In that way, we perpetually live in Advent. We live in a state of “get set!” We stand ready for Jesus to return, for God’s kingdom to come.
For many years, Christians have counted down the time to Christmas with Advent calendars. When I was a child, we hung up our paper Advent calendar in the family room. Starting with December 1, each day in December up through December 25 had its own little door. Behind each door laid a picture of something related to Christmas: a Bible verse or a candle or a cardinal. Counting down the days to Christmas helped me and my sister both keep our excitement in check and keep our excitement rising. Each day checking for what was behind that day’s door until, finally, we reached December 24, Christmas Eve, the night we opened presents and read the Christmas story from Luke chapter 2.
We have done the same thing here at Grace over the years. We have had Advent garland, one paper ring torn off each day in Advent. We have had Advent baskets in which we placed one non-perishable food item per each day in Advent—to be later donated to a food pantry. We have had Advent jars with one thing we could do to celebrate Advent written on a slip of paper for each day. Of course, every year as we are this year, we light an Advent wreath. One candle on the first Sunday of Advent, two candles on the second Sunday, and so on. Our Advent calendars and Advent wreaths help us mark time, December 1st through the 25th, but the reality of our life in perpetual Advent is that we don’t know when the Messiah will return, when the kingdom will come. If we were to mark a calendar, to collect non-perishables, to tear off rings of garland until the kingdom came, we could be doing so our whole lives—or maybe only until tomorrow. We truly live in Advent, a season of waiting, a season of anticipating. And because we wait and anticipate, we also don’t know. We don’t know when we will hear the commands completed “on your mark, get set, go!” or when the coach will wave us into the game. We don’t know when the kingdom will come. While our redemption is drawing near, we don’t know how near. God doesn’t work on our timetable, doesn’t even consult us on it.
Our only option, then, is to be present here and now, to allow what is here and now to be. And so, we enter into Advent by letting go of a need to control, letting go of a need for knowledge or power. God will do what God will do. Enter into Advent with me by being here, now, taking in the gifts of this time and space, allowing ourselves to sink into the love of God available for us in this moment. We do so with a poem entitled Let Your God Love You by Edwina Gateley.
Before your God.
Let your God look upon you.
That is all.
God loves you
With an enormous love,
And only wants
To look upon you
With that love.
Let your God –
In our Advent wait, just one thing is for certain: Our redemption by a loving God is drawing near.