Our Waiting for Christ
“OUR WAITING FOR CHRIST” or
“OUR WAITING FOR CHRIST”?
A sermon preached at the White Plains Presbyterian Church
on the Third Sunday of Advent, December 11, 2011
Isaiah 61: 1-4, 8-11 John 1: 6-8, 19-28
This sermon is born from two perennial Advent questions: “How is God trying to come into our life/our world? and “How do we prepare for God’s advent?” I’m going to start with the second question.
What do we need to do to prepare for God’s advent, God’s coming? I entitled this sermon “Our Waiting for Christ, or Our Waiting for Christ?” because during the season of Advent, it is easy to say “we’re waiting for Christ” but to put the emphasis in the wrong place. For when we let our waiting for Christ, become our waiting for Christ – the focus is on ourselves, on our preparation and readiness. And frankly, the Advent themes of preparation and readiness lend themselves to this confusion. Advent is sometimes compared to Lent as a season of introspection, and we Protestants are particularly good at introspection and self reflection. But the focus of Advent is not on us, it is on the God who comes. Our exhortation for the season, therefore is not “get ready, prepare, beware” but rather “Maranatha! Come Christ Jesus, come quickly, yes yes!”
You see, there’s really no need to prepare for the coming of Christ in terms of the incarnation, in terms of God-becoming-human-through-Jesus’-birth. It has happened. In an important sense, Christ has come; we’re not still waiting. That is part of the good news we proclaim every Sunday. But there is more. In our communion liturgy we also proclaim: Christ will come again. What we are invited to develop during Advent is a more robust understanding of what the church means when we proclaim Christ will come again.
Christ will come again! But, thanks to the Left Behind series of books by fundamentalist Christian authors (Tim LaHaye and Philip Jenkins), most Americans think that the phrase “Christ will come again” signals something called “the rapture.” Now this idea of the rapture, where Christ comes and takes only those who believe in him away to heaven and hands over the rest of humanity to a life without God or consigns them to a fiery demise was developed in the 19th century by an Irish evangelist, John Nelson Darby. And I will be absolutely clear, I think it is a dreadfully wrong-headed theological blunder, based on a profound misreading of Scripture. And the rapture, per se, I want to emphasize, is not a part of the confessional history of the Presbyterian Church.
Rather, when we in the Presbyterian Church talk about Christ coming again, we are referring to that time when all barriers to Love’s full reign in our world will cease; a time when the world will embody the just-peace God has always and ever intended; a time when our world will be ordered by love. And this, according to St. Augustine, exceeds out imagination.
I thought it appropriate to take the third Sunday of Advent, Joy Sunday, as a Sunday to return focus to the one who always defies and exceeds our expectations, for whose coming, regardless of our effort, we are always and ever fundamentally unprepared. So if that’s the case, What, then, does it mean to prepare for the reign of Love? It’s not a hurry, scurry preparation or a searching introspection, but rather it involves the ordinary formation of our lives so that through who we are, we point to the One who comes.
The invocation, “be prepared” urges us to be formed by grace. Now lest this sound enchanting, author Flannery O’Conner once wrote to a friend, “All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful.” But as we open ourselves to God’s grace, we begin to respond in thanksgiving by developing habits of love. These habits are not, in and of themselves, God’s reign on earth. These habits may not, in fact, be particularly spectacular. They are, in fact, more like the preparation of firefighters in the Fire Department. Most of the time, it is humdrum and practice; time being marked by the mundane, yet essential attending to hoses and jackets and tire pressure. We might practice, for example, the ability to listen with an open mind, the temperance to avoid taking and causing offence needlessly, the courage to speak candidly, and the humility to ask forgiveness from those who have been wronged. These unspectacular, but absolutely necessary habits of love form and reform us however, until our lives become visible signs pointing toward the God who comes. So that when the unexpected God comes, though we are still fundamentally unprepared, caught off guard, we can nonetheless recognize God and act.
John is a central figure in Advent. In our reading from the gospel, John is not portrayed as John the Baptist or John the son of Zechariah. He is just John, a man sent by God. He is sent to bear witness to one who is to come. He points not at himself, but at another. In many medieval and renaissance paintings, John is portrayed as a figure who stands at the foot of the cross with his finger raised, pointing at Christ, proclaiming him, thus demonstrating for the viewer what our role is: to point to Christ. To point to Christ in all we do: with our lives, with our words, with our actions. Remembering who John was, how he pointed not to himself but to Christ, frees us from needing to be little christs ourselves or of confusing our good work with the full reign of Love. All we need do is point.
Now then to my first question: How is God trying to come into our life/our world? How do we point toward this fundamentally surprising and unexpected God? I have a good friend who leads both the youth group and the adult education program in her church. A couple years ago she was asked to prepare an advent reflection for both the high school students and the adults.
She had started early to think about Advent and what it means to wait and what it is that we are waiting for, and we spoke several times as she was working on her program. Not led astray by the images of Christmas pageantry, she wanted to suggest to her students that during advent we are not waiting for the birth of Christ. Instead she wanted to take them to the place where we all wait (as if with baited breath) for an experience of the divine. But at the same time she didn’t want to succumb to the temptation to focus on us and our preparation. So, in the end, she asked her group, “When has God greeted you at an unexpected hour?” And then she told two stories about times when God had come to her unexpectedly, speaking, you might say, right to her.
In each case, she was focused on serving someone else, preparing, in particular, to share the love of God with the youth or her church, when she received God’s presence powerfully for herself. In other words, she was not preparing in a self-absorbed manner to “meet and greet God” but was preparing to point toward Christ. She had others in mind and was practicing the habits of love. She was, like John, a witness. And that was when our unexpected God came to her.
More important than the specifics of her story, however, is that she modeled for youth group, and for her congregation, how to go through Advent. You see, she had had this question before her for several weeks. “When has God greeted you at an unexpected hour?” She greeted folks with it in the weeks leading up to her program. And she struggled with how to present it to the youth. In other words, her attention was focused by the question, which enabled her to receive again these experiences of God’s surprise. It was by focusing upon how to share this profound question, “When has God greeted you at an unexpected hour,” that she received the gift of God’s presence anew in her own life.
The ability of God’s presence to surprise us reminds us that the reign of Love is always both here/now, but also “not yet.” The lyrics of Jane Parker Huber’s many hymns often capture tension between the now and not yet of our experience of God, of the unexpected in-breaking of God that causes us to hunger and long for the full reign of Love. In her hymn “O God of Earth and Space” she writes,
Where faithfulness is shown, Where love and truth abound, where beauty graces human life, There You are found… Wherever freedom reigns, Where sin is overthrown, Where justice fused with mercy rules, There You are known.
Or as she put it in another hymn, both familiar to us and pointing to the vision of Isaiah Chris Hughes read for us today, “Live into Hope of captives freed, of sight regained, the end of greed. The oppressed shall be the first to see the year of God’s own jubilee.” Jane passed away three years ago just as Advent was beginning, perhaps a fitting time for this harbinger of Love’s coming. Her words remind us that in Advent we have the paradoxical call to a “preparation” that neither hastens Christ’s coming, nor inaugurates Love’s reign, but rather is a recognition that we are always and ever, fundamentally unprepared for and longing for God’s in-breaking.
If we are able to remember this, God’s grace can work within us such that we cultivate habits of love that witness to God’s coming, that point to it and through which we, and others, are invited to savor the surprise. As Brian Wren has written,
Christ will come again,
God’s justice to complete,
to reap the fields of time
and sift the weeds from wheat:
then let us passionately care
for peace and justice here on earth,
and evil’s rage restrain with love,
till Christ shall come again.
 “Christ Will Come Again: A New Hymn by Brian Wren.” Brian Wren © 1989 by Hope Publishing Company. All Rights reserved. The full hymn can be found in Advent, Christmas and Epiphany: Liturgies and Prayers for Public Worship. Westminster/John Knox Press, 2008.