Advent is a season for waiting. Nobody likes to wait. We’re impatient; the things we want, we want now, not later. Waiting just gets in the way. In fact, waiting is more than an inconvenience, more than just one of life’s little annoyances. Being told to wait can feel like a punishment, like you’re being deprived of something someone else has now, sooner than you have it. You go to the doctor; she has some concerns about your symptoms and orders a test. You have to wait a week to get your lab work done. Then a month to see your doctor again, who now says you need to see a specialist. Getting an appointment with the specialist takes another three months. It’s like your life has been put on hold; it almost feels like you’ve been sentenced to a prison term while time passes between tests and appointments. All along you wonder, “What do I have to do to be first in line?” “Why do I have to wait so long?”
The frustration all of us have at some point with waiting we share with Israel. God’s chosen people, Israel, is a people founded on a promise, in fact, on several promises, which is another way of saying that Israel is founded on waiting. God promises to make a great nation out of Abraham’s offspring, but Abraham sees only two sons, Ishmael and Isaac. God leads the people of Israel out of Egypt, headed for the Promised Land, but they have to wait 40 years before they enter. Hundreds of years later, when the prophet Isaiah lived, Israel again is waiting: to see if God will deliver her out of the hands of impending doom. Fast-forward another several hundred years, and we find John the Baptist declaring that it’s time to make the final preparations, that the time of Israel’s waiting is almost over.
The waiting of Advent is not a punishment. When we wait during Advent, we are not denying ourselves the pleasures of the holiday season the rest of the world seems to be enjoying. Instead, Advent helps us to make a bold statement: “We are members of the people of God, grafted onto the promises given to Israel by the grace of God. Their story is our story. Our story is their story. Our story is not a story of instant gratification, of getting exactly what we want exactly when we want it. Our story is a story of learning how to wait patiently, of using the period of waiting God has given us. 2 Peter 3, which we heard at the lighting of our Advent wreath this morning, says it this way: “Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; and regard the patience of the Lord as salvation.” Advent is the time when we remind ourselves and the world that we are a people who see waiting as a time of opportunity—the opportunity to grow in holiness.
John Wesley taught the early Methodists that holiness is not something we can pursue on our own, as individuals, cut off from other Christians. What we need, Wesley said, is social holiness. Social holiness means that we seek holiness together, as a group, stopping to care for the least among us, never allowing a little one to stumble, never arrogantly assuming that Ihave reached a state of holiness while my brother or sister still needs to grow.
We might well mistake John Wesley for the prophet Isaiah or John the Baptist this morning. “Comfort my people” and “Prepare the way of the Lord” are addressed to the whole people of Israel, not just to this or that individual. The words cry out for a response: make straight! Confess! Repent! Turn around! Israel’s pursuit of social holiness depends on responding faithfully to these demands.
The problem was, in both Isaiah’s day and John the Baptist’s, there were people who thought waiting and holiness had nothing to do with them. In Isaiah 39, the chapter just before the one we read today, Isaiah warns King Hezekiah that the whole kingdom will be carried off to Babylon. Hezekiah shrugs his shoulders and says, “At least it won’t be on my watch!” In John the Baptist’s day, as we learn later in Mark’s gospel, King Herod has the same attitude. “Comfort—who needs that? Everything is fine. Prepare—for what?” Hezekiah and Herod are isolated, cut off and unable to learn from people who do need comfort, who long for the way of the Lord to be made ready.
These same words today—Comfort! Prepare! Make straight! Confess! Repent!—are for the whole church, in every corner of the globe, and not just for me or for you. We need to be sure that we are not like Herod or Hezekiah, that we are never cut off from brothers and sisters who spend their lives waiting. So if we want to grow in holiness, if we want to respond faithfully to God’s call to us this morning, we need to be in fellowship, in solidarity, with people whose lives and needs are very different from our own. We need to listen to those in the church who are waiting.
Friends, right now, at this very moment, our African-American brothers and sisters in Christ are waiting. They are waiting in Ferguson, Missouri, for leaders brave enough to listen to concerns about police militarization. They are waiting in New York City for friends and neighbors to realize that justice system failures are not about liberal or conservative constituencies. They are waiting across the country for media personalities and reporters and bloggers to have even a shred of decency or an ounce of shame. They are waiting for their white brothers and sisters in Christ to listen to them instead of talking heads or loudmouth coworkers. They are waiting for the day of the Lord. Today our African-American brothers and sisters in Christ need to hear these words of reassurance and comfort and peace. And our holiness, our social holiness, depends upon our refusal to live in isolation from them and our willingness to stand in fellowship and solidarity with them.
You may be wondering why I’m talking about a problem that seems so far removed from Forest Hill, but that’s exactly why I cannot remain silent this morning, why I feel compelled by the Word of the Lord to speak out today. The very fact that this waiting that affects so many of our brothers and sisters in Christ could feel so distant is itself a symptom of the disease, a sign of the problem. And the problem is not nearly so far off as you might think. I wasn’t in Forest Hill a week this past summer before someone tried to tell me that black slaves should have been grateful to their white masters. I was speechless. And just last week a group in our community had the audacity to call me up and offer money to help out a local family in need—as long as it was a white family. This time, I had something to say, and when I asked why it needed to be a white family, the person on the other end of the line said frankly that some members of his group were prejudiced and some were even members of the KKK. I told him he should look for someone else to help him.
Advent is a season for waiting, a time to grow in holiness as members of the body of Christ. Holiness is what we will find in the manger on Christmas Day, what we will find in our Lord Jesus Christ when he returns: a word of love that listens to those who long for their waiting to end; a word of judgment for those who make the waiting painful and for those who live as if there were no pain to bear. To be holy as Christ is holy: that is our calling as Christians. If we are to be holy, we must walk with those, like our African-American sisters and brothers, who spend their lives waiting and do not want to wait any longer—just as Christ came to a waiting Israel and a waiting world. That is what Advent is for.
“Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken it.” Amen.