Sermon preached First Sunday in Advent November 28, 2010
Texts: Matthew 24:36-44
What kind of “waiter” are you? I am not talking about waiting tables here. I am not asking if you are good at remembering beverage orders or recommending the daily special. How well do you wait? Are you patient when you need to wait or do you tend to get frustrated? Do you look forward to times when you have nothing else to do but wait, or do they seem like a waste of time? Maybe it depends on the circumstances. If it is an expected wait, then maybe we do better with it – bring a book along, listen to music. When I have to fly someplace, I don’t really mind getting to the airport early and reading. If the wait is unanticipated, like getting stuck in traffic, that may be a different matter. For me, I have to talk myself into being a more patient waiter in those situations.
Waiting. Advent begins today, that season in the church year when we anticipate Christmas, the celebration of the birth of Jesus the Christ. In our culture this tends to be a busy, stressful time, a frantic and frenetic time. Here the church is counter-cultural, inviting us into a more reflective and deliberate time. For our reflection during Advent, I have chosen to focus on the theme “Waiting for God.”
Waiting for God? It is a rather odd idea, really. Don’t we believe that God is always present in our lives? Yes we do. In every moment of our lives, God is there. God seeks to influence us for our good and the good of the world, and God continues to respond to the actions of the world with new influences. God is a God of creative and responsive love. This God never leaves us nor forsakes us. How can we speak intelligibly about waiting for God?
God offers creative influence in every moment of our lives. God is always seeking to persuade us in the direction of our good and the good of the world. God responds to human action. Our relationship with God is a bit like a dance. When it is going well, there is a graceful flow. When it is not, we are stepping on God’s toes, trying to lead off in unhelpful directions, and God responds by seeking to gently move us in a better direction. But God is not just dancing with us individually, God is dancing with all others simultaneously. God has to respond not just to our actions, but to all that is going on in the world – a world that is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous.
In that multi-faceted responsiveness to a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world, there may be times when God seeks to move us in broader direction. Think of it like this. If I need to lose weight and become healthier, there are the moment by moment decisions – about what I eat, about how to stay active – but there is also the general direction of being healthier, and it is helpful to see that bigger picture. If I want to pursue a particular vocation, there are the moment by moment decisions about school and studying, but it is helpful to keep the bigger picture in mind. Waiting for God can mean waiting for that bigger picture to become clearer as God continues to work in our lives in response to all that is going on in the world.
So we wait. When we are good waiter, we wait looking for signs that what we are waiting for is coming. If we go to pick someone up at the airport, we pay attention to the schedule. We watch as people come out into the waiting area. We look for a familiar face, listen for a familiar voice. So what should we look for as we look for while waiting for God, while trying to understand more clearly how God might be trying to influence our lives and our life together as this church in response to who we are and what the world needs? In being ready for God, what should we be ready for?
“If the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into.” Jesus uses these words in Matthew 24 to tell us that perhaps we would do well to look for God in the unexpected, in the surprising.
Now not all that comes to us in life that is unexpected is good. Joan Chittister tells the following story. It was Christmas Day, an unlikely time, when it happened. He was driving across town from his brother’s home to ours for Christmas dinner. The ice storm that came up suddenly during the day left the streets empty and slick. Every road was a rink of danger. Dad’s car spun on an empty street, jumped a curb, cracked a telephone pole, and came to a befuddled stop, askew and confounded but not really very damaged, not smashed and crashed and crumpled. It was, at most, to the casual bystander, a kind of comic scene…. And yet Dad died in that moment’s slippage…. We were not prepared…. As the years went by, I began to understand that “preparation” is more hope than reality. Who is ever really prepared for anything life-altering…. How is it even possible for us to prepare for such a thing even when we want to, even if we tell ourselves every day of our lives that we must “be prepared”? (Gospel Days, 136)
I believe we need to look for God in the unexpected, but not all that is unexpected is God’s doing. We need to discern, to think, to ponder. God did not cause Joan Chittister’s fathers accident, but I believe God was there for her. When the unexpected is tragic, I believe we wait for God and look for God in signs of healing and growth. Joan Chittister learned about life from this tragedy and passes the lessons on. Grief grows us up. When we come to understand that whatever we have we can lose, we begin, first, to hold everything lightly and, second, we learn to squeeze happiness dry (Nov. 1). Be grateful for grief. It is an infallible sign that we have loved something deeply enough to miss it (Nov. 22). Lucy says it all the time: “Good grief, Charlie Brown.” Now what do you suppose that means? Maybe it means that those with lamps burning are prepared for anything – even grief – and that’s the real good in life (Nov. 30)
Waiting for God means being as ready as we can be for the unexpected, even when some of the unexpected is not what we, or what God, wanted. When the unexpected is tragic, we wait for God’s direction for healing, for care, for learning.
But sometimes the unexpected is just what God has in mind, and if we want to listen and follow the movement of God’s Spirit in our lives, we need to be ready for that kind of unexpected.
For the past couple of years, maybe even longer, I have had a sense that we as a congregation needed another opportunity for service. I sensed that there was something more for us to be engaged in in our community in the name and spirit of Jesus. We have people active in the community doing good in all kinds of ways. That is part of the ministry of our church. Our work with Lake Superior Elementary is significant, and your generosity with change for change has been amazing, as has been all the wonderful mentoring. I sensed there was something more for us.
Late last spring, Barb Hill began to talk to me, and then to our church council about a food distribution program. She arranged for a presentation from a group called “Jesus Delivers” to our council. We liked the concept they presented, a generous amount of food for a minimal donation, but there were some thing about their particular method that left us with some questions. Barb found a second organization that operated in a similar way – Ruby’s Pantry. I was cautious, but open. Things kept moving forward. Barb has told me that she never really saw herself as leading these kinds of efforts, saw herself more as a strong supporter, a good worker. But this unexpected role was what was needed. We were hoping for a Saturday distribution date, but Thursday was what was available – another unexpected twist. After August it became clear that when the weather got colder, we would need to put all the people coming for food someplace, and the sanctuary was really the only alternative. That was an unexpected turn of events, an unexpected use of this space, but it is working.
While it is not unexpected that our church should be involved in this kind of ministry, in fact, it fits who we are very well, there has been a lot here that has been unexpected. A year ago, who could have imagined this ministry in our midst? Yet I believe we are involved in this ministry in response to God’s creative-responsive love in Jesus Christ. God in the unexpected.
About two years ago during this season of the year, my dad got sick. He ended up being diagnosed with inoperable liver cancer and died in March of 2009. I know that I have mentioned that my relationship with my dad was not particularly close. It wasn’t hostile, but it wasn’t close. As an adult, my dad was unchurched. I became a pastor. My parents divorced when I was in seminary. I remember being in college and becoming politically interested. I subscribed to Mother Jones magazine, and my dad couldn’t understand that. I remember overhearing him talking to my mom about that, but he never talked to me about it. While my dad was dying, I visited him regularly. I will never forget one visit in particular, and the unexpected turn it took. As I was leaving, my dad said, “Pray for me.” Almost before I knew it, coming out of my mouth were the words, “Would you like me to do that now?” And so we prayed. Unexpected, but part of dancing with the creative-responsive love of God. I don’t believe my father’s unexpected diagnosis was God’s will for that time, but I do believe that unexpected moment of prayer had something to do with God.
Keep awake. Be ready. We hear these a lot at Advent. Waiting for God, we are awake to the unexpected. We are as ready as we can be for life and for God’s direction in it. Amen.