Sunday, December 26, 2021

Christmas: After all the waiting, what changed?

In my local grocery store, the Christmas items were stocked and displayed from the day after Halloween. Now, the day after Christmas, they are gone without a trace. It was just merchandise to them. In my home, the Christmas decorations are still here; when their time is past there will still be signs of the one who was born. The celebration is of an event that matters. 

In worship this morning, the gospel reading focused on people who had waited a long time. Mary traded nine months of waiting for the reality of being a mother. At the Temple in Jerusalem, Simeon and Anna traded a lifetime of waiting for a chance to see Mary and Joseph present Jesus. But even for most people in Israel, it was another thirty years before they realized something important had happened. Simeon and Anna were paying closer attention to God's promises. They were watching, they were waiting, so they saw it sooner. Those who are paying attention to God's promises get "spoilers" about the future: that he has not left us, that he is with us, that he is acting for us even now. They enjoyed the hope and the celebration that others missed. The watching and waiting are not for God's benefit -- it is for ours. 

Sunday, December 19, 2021

Advent 4: The fullness of time

We live in a culture that does not do well with time. Sure, we're obsessed with time. We pay close attention to time. We are expected to make good use of time -- and may think of that in terms of over-scheduling. And we like to do things faster. So another approach to time may not make sense to us. 

Jesus taught us about the kingdom of God, explaining that it is like things that cannot be rushed: growing seeds in a field, growing a mustard plant in a garden, baking bread. They take their time. Going faster can spoil things that are growing at their own pace. 

In this week's reading in church, we read of Mary and Elizabeth -- both pregnant -- meeting each other. Babies are another thing that takes time. They take the better part of a year to grow to full term. We know how long to expect, and the end of the wait is usually blessed, in the fullness of time. 

God challenges our faith in his promises to be as fixed as the faith of a pregnant woman: someone who knows that the fullness of time will come, and at the end of it a child is born. The present hardships are not to be compared with the good that is to come; in fact, they will be forgotten in the light of what comes after.

Come, Lord Jesus!

Sunday, December 12, 2021

Advent 3: It's the waiting that gets us

God promised Abraham a son. And he couldn't wait! So he had a son, Ishmael, by his servant-woman Hagar. The son of the promise, Isaac, came later. That impatience has complicated the history of the lands inhabited by their descendants for millennia.

In the desert, God promised to lead the Israelites, and Moses went up the holy mountain for 40 days. The Israelites couldn't wait. And so they made a golden calf as an idol.

In the Garden of Gethsemane, the disciples had a different kind of trouble waiting: While Jesus went to pray, they fell asleep. 

As human beings, patience is not our strong suit. When God asks us to watch and wait, we either don't watch, or we don't wait. Sometimes we try to force a miracle to happen on our own terms and our own deadline. Sometimes, when something important is happening right in front of our eyes, we don't realize and aren't paying attention.

Part of Advent is waiting -- where we remember not just Jesus' original arrival in our world, but look forward to his return. Until then we have been asked to watch and wait, among our other tasks. The Gospel of Matthew records Jesus teaching parables that I think of as the Parables of the Long Absence: where a whole collection of sayings and parables drive home the point that the wait will be so long that the wait itself becomes a problem (Matthew 24:44-25:30). We can't say he didn't warn us. 

The wait is a temptation to force our own solutions, or find other solutions, or give up our expectations. That's what people do, when we are asked to wait a long time. But even when we try to force a solution, God still has his own. After Abraham had Ishmael, he still had Isaac. After the golden calf was turned to dust, God still led his people, still sealed his covenant with Israel. Those who have kept their expectations in God's promises have seen God prove himself faithful.

Sunday, December 05, 2021

Advent 2: The Wisdom of Hope

I remember watching a football game some time ago, professionals playing. The team with possession needed a big play. The receivers went deep, but they were tightly covered. They kept scrambling to get open, but the people covering them were sticking close. Meanwhile the quarterback's defenders broke, and the quarterback was dodging erratically to try to stay upright against the people who had gotten through the line. He was nearly tackled more than once. Still the receivers were scrambling to get or stay open. It's not an unfamiliar scene in football, but this particular down kept going, the scenario playing out longer than it typically does, so it stuck in my mind. The quarterback persisted and eventually found an opening -- and found one of the receivers who had shaken free of his pursuer by just enough. The quarterback completed the pass to the open receiver. Those who supported that team were elated at the victory. It was a game-changer, a momentum-changer -- but it was not luck. None of it would have happened if any of the players on the one team had given up. For such a physical game, that play had a large psychological element. The receiver trusted his quarterback, or at least still hoped. Hope was not delusion, it was a shrewd play.

It is not unusual to hear people mocking the idea of hope as wishful thinking, delusion, or mere stubbornness. Cynicism is often mislabeled as realism. I can relate: the one play from a long-forgotten football game stuck in my mind precisely because I thought it was silly that they were still trying after everything had clearly gone against them. I wondered if they would accept defeat graciously. They may have been mature enough to do that; I'll never know because they were professional enough not to assume a loss just because they had more obstacles than any one player could overcome. Even when we advocate for hope, it can be difficult to catch sight of that clear opening that we're fighting for. Sometimes it can be hard to believe that our effort makes a difference. 

And yet it does. Our action -- based on our hope -- makes a difference to ourselves and to the people around us. Despair is a psy-op of evil. We live in a time when some rising causes of deaths are labeled as "deaths of despair" and yet people still mock hope. Depression -- in which a large component is adopting despair into the worldview -- is considered a major mental illness, yet people still manage not to consider the essentially healthy nature of hope. 

The reason it is easy to lose hope is because it is easy to misplace hope: to base it on someone or something that will fall. But for those who trust in God, hope is a shrewd play.