Today is the first Sunday of Advent and I had the privilege of preaching at St Clement’s. I had a couple of passages to work from — Isaiah 2:1-5 and Matthew 24:36-44 — and the brief to keep it short and sweet because there was quite a lot to squeeze into the service. I couldn’t resist spending some of that on a dramatic gesture at the start. I had drawn theatre curtains project and deliberately faffed around, getting a music stand set up, adjusting my notes and looking round the room. I’d warned the couple running the projector as well as the Rector but the rest of the congregation were left wondering what I was up to. Which led into:
Have you ever been kept waiting? I know the answer is yes because I’ve just set you up for that. Take a moment and think about how that felt? Did you guess the punchline I was setting up or did you start to feel impatient, anxious or annoyed?
I won’t risk doing a poll in case ‘annoyed’ wins! Perhaps it *was* an unnecessarily dramatic opening; waiting is such a common part of our human experience. You’ll have waited for a builder to show up, a parcel to arrive or a telephone call to come. As if I needed an extra experience to share with you, the touch screen on my old phone died on Thursday. I bought a cheap new one on Friday only to discover that my old SIM card was too large. That means I’m now waiting for a new SIM with the old number to come through the post. In the big scheme of things, it is trivial but – argh! – it niggles.
Maybe you have something more serious in mind. Will you get an interview… did you get that job? Perhaps you remember waiting for exam results or the findings of a medical test? I’m doing another module with the Open University and the first assignment went in earlier this week. I’d love to confirm that I’m on track but the tutor will be swamped with work to mark so, unless the turnaround is much quicker than on previous modules, I’m going to have to knuckle down to studying the next part before I find out.
Waiting can be about life or death. You can look forward to the arrival of a new child but there is opportunity for worry until a safe delivery is confirmed. Frankly, that aspect of concern never goes away entirely – it is a facet of love although hopefully not a dominant one. Not everything is a bruised knee that can be kissed better and, in those times, love has to stand alongside and feel the pain. Sometimes we wait for death – madly, sadly or gladly – but we cannot avoid the need to wait.
Am I pressing you down with the cares of a lifetime? Waiting can last longer still! Early November sees an international call for prayer for the Persecuted Church. I’m sure many of us responded to that and that, in this room, we have personal connections with the persecuted part of our family around the world. You don’t need to know much about history to know that this isn’t just, for example, six years of torment for our Syrian family but something that stretches back a long way before we were born. For centuries, the voice of the faithful has gone up ‘Worthy is the Lamb’ (Rev 5:12) but there is a harmony that persists: ‘How long, Lord?’ (Rev 6:10).
You can find both those phrases in the book of Revelation – chapters 5 and 6. Let’s take that as a cue to consider what God might be saying to us about waiting through our two readings.
The first passage was from Isaiah and dates to about 700BC. That is a *long* time ago. Unless my estimations of the size and average age of the congregation are off, you could take the combined span of all our lives, lay them out from end to end and still not get that far back in time. Even compared to the time of Jesus, it was a long way back – roughly equivalent to the time between us and when Chaucer wrote his Canterbury Tales.
The link to Jesus is important because Isaiah records several passages that have very clear fulfilment in the person of Jesus Christ. In Acts 8 (26-40), the Ethiopian eunuch asks Philip to explain a portion from Isaiah 53: “He was led like a sheep to the slaughter…”. For us, wondering what Isaiah 53 is about, we really can say that the answer is in the back of the book! That passage comes up a lot at Easter but there are ones you will hear at Christmas too, like Isaiah 7:14: “The virgin shall give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel (God with us)”.
Some of the prophecies in Isaiah still seem to be unfulfilled and I would be inclined to put the one we read in chapter 2 among them. We know Jesus the King has come and that, as we will be celebrating in the Eucharist this morning, he gives us life through his body and his blood, his death and resurrection. We wait though for swords to be beaten into plowshares – right now, they still look more like missiles and guns. In a very imperfect analogy, we’ve got the phone but are still waiting for the SIM card.
While we would love for this wait to be over, for all the pieces of the puzzle to be in place and the picture to finally make sense, Jesus himself cautioned that the wait would go on a little while longer. That is what the second reading, Matthew 24:36-44, was about. Are we there yet? Just a little while longer! King Jesus will return – just a little while longer.
I’ve tried to get you to reflect on how you emotionally engage with waiting but there is a key set of ‘waiting’ words I haven’t used yet, like anticipation and expectancy. If I’m brutally honest, if I was trying to understand what Jesus taught by looking at the evidence of how we do church, I might be tempted to assume he had said ‘keep yourselves busy until I come back’! Maybe Advent is a good season to think about how we put flesh and blood on his message? Do we make waiting something holy and precious or do we just demand ‘Grant us patience – now!”?
We hold two truths in tension. Firstly, Jesus *is* with us through the Holy Spirit (John 14 / Matthew 28). Secondly, he alerts us to watch for his return. I’m grateful that time precludes me from even attempting to unpack the mysterious subject known as ‘eschatology’. Frankly, I don’t think human languages are quite up to the job – certainly not English, despite its breadth and subtlety. God doesn’t measure out time in hours and minutes – he moves when the time is right.
As we turn now to worship, remember that ‘worthy is the lamb’ and ‘how long, O Lord’ are both heart cries of faithful, hopeful people. As we enter into the season of Advent, let us celebrate Jesus, our King, who was, is and is to come.