God blesses us while we wait
Sermon Preached at the Church of St. Peter & St. Paul, Marietta, GA
by the Rev. Tom Pumphrey, November 29, 2020
The First Sunday of Advent, Year B, 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-37
Mark 13:24-37 (NRSV): Jesus said to his disciples, “In those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see `the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven. From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake– for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”
1 Corinthians 1:3-9: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind– just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you– so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
Today we celebrate the first Sunday in Advent. Advent is the season of waiting and preparation before the Christmas season begins on December 25. On this Sunday, we hear the prophecies of Jesus’ second advent—the expectation of his second coming in great glory at the end of all things. This message is for those who are frightened by troubled times and great world-rocking events. Jesus tells us that many great disturbances will come, but they are just signs for us to watch and wait for his return. “Keep awake,” therefore, Jesus tells us, for we know not the day nor the hour.
Well, we are certainly seeing a lot of instability and unrest and world-rocking events going on in our lives. The pandemic is only part of the picture. So how do we wait? And why do we wait? And where is God while we wait?
I was looking at notes from old sermons recently, and I saw a story of a conversation between me and my son James one advent. James was about seven years old, and I told him that he had to wait for something in his room. He was not at all happy that he had to wait. I told him that I was going to preach a sermon on waiting that Sunday. He said, with his usual candor, “It’s going to be a boring sermon!”
Of course, you and I are a lot like that seven-year-old boy, aren’t we? Whether we are seven or seventeen or seventy-seven, waiting is not what we’re used to doing. We’re used to gigabyte speed responses at our fingertips, microwave-fast meals, and fast-foot disposable quality experiences. But for the things that last, the things that are eternal, often there is preparation and waiting to receive the gifts that will endure. Like the anticipation before Christmas, like the smells that fill the house as a Thanksgiving meal cooks and a feast takes shape, like the months of pregnancy, waiting can be an active time of joy, expectation and preparation.
We have many experiences of waiting in our lives. Some are easier than others. We wait for a child to be born. We wait for a diagnosis. We wait for graduation. We wait for healing. We wait for retirement. We wait for the kids to come home. We wait for the response to an application. We wait for the seasons to change. We wait for a garden to grow.
In all these times, waiting is a time of expectation and anticipation. Waiting is also a time of patience with the unknown, a time of humility before things that are out of our control. We wait to receive the future, and at our best, we wait with openness to God’s blessing and God’s strength in that future.
Certainly, we can wait badly. We can wait trying to control the outcome. We can wait anxiously and defensively, and aggressively. We can wait with despair or anger or indifference. But when we wait with preparation and expectation—when we wait with God, then we open ourselves to God’s blessings in this time of waiting. God blesses us while we wait.
When we wait on the Lord, we wait actively and attentively. I’ve shared with some of you that a spiritual director of mine once described the way a hunter or nature photographer waits for a deer. They do not simply fall asleep or stop paying attention; they would miss the deer as she passes by. Neither do they wait anxiously and noisily, which would scare the deer away. No, the hunter or photographer sits attentively, listening to the noise of the forest, sitting in stillness, learning each of the noises of birds and trees and squirrels, more ready to recognize the sound and sight of the deer when she arrives.
Likewise, we can wait on the Lord with the same attentiveness. And while we wait, God blesses us. God helps us to recognize him at work in our lives, even in small and subtle ways. Waiting for God in prayer and reading scripture helps to ground us in God, in God’s permanence and God’s providence, rather than our current worries and stresses. Waiting for God and waiting with God reminds us of the gifts God has given us already, strengthening us for this time of waiting, and preparing us to receive him again.
What does this waiting with God look like in our current situation? How do we wait in this time of COVID? Georgia and indeed Cobb County now join the rest of the country in going through a spike in new cases. How do we wait through another cycle?
I think that there are some practical steps that we take as Christians, steps that we take as good stewards of ourselves and good stewards of each other.
First, we can do our part. Wear a mask, keep good distance when in person, watch good hygiene, limit your risk in where you gather, with whom you gather and with how many you gather. All these steps help to protect yourself and the whole community. All of these steps involve inconvenience and loss, of course. But we can find encouragement from others and we can encourage others too, so that we are not alone in our waiting.
As we wait and encourage, each of us can act to diffuse fear, anger, polarization and contempt. We can act to increase understanding, patience and collaboration. Each of us can make an extra effort to stay connected to others, especially to those who might be more isolated right now. And as we encourage each other, I recommend that you leave plenty of room to laugh at the weirdness of it all! I mean, look around us—isn’t it surreal? Laugh at the strange and conflicting and changing rules that we have to navigate. We’re all trying to figure this out at the same time, and the more we can laugh at the humor to be found, the more playful we’ll be in finding solutions.
As Christians, all these practical steps are rooted and grounded in God. We could try these steps motivated by fear or obligation. Or we could take these steps as stewards of God’s good gifts to us, open to what God is doing with us and in us and through us. So practical ways in which we wait with God start with prayer every day. Take time to rest with God and bring to God yourself and others. Pray that God would give skill and wisdom to the medical world in treatment and prevention. Pray that God would protect the vulnerable, heal the sick, console the bereaved, and provide for those impacted. Pray that God would give you his wisdom and guidance during this time.
Ground yourself in reading the Bible and in worshipping with us together. As you bring your requests to God, and as you rest with God in silence, watch attentively for God’s presence and power in your life. Reflect on your day. Like that hunter or photographer in the woods, listen and look carefully for ways in which God is alive and active in your life, blessing you, guiding you, drawing closer to you to assure you of his presence and power with you as you wait. And be thankful.
When we wait on God, we set aside our own pride and self-reliance to wait and receive God’s wisdom. We set aside our worries for a moment to rest in God’s steadfast love for us. We are more prepared to receive what God has to give if we wait for it. And that is what the season of Advent is about: a season of expectation and waiting and preparation to receive Christ anew at Christmas. We watch and wait with joy because we now look back on Jesus’ birth and we await his return. And we wait equipped by the Holy Spirit with all the gifts we need. As Paul writes in today’s lesson:
I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind… so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end…
God bless you as you wait with him this Advent.