Monday, December 7, 2009

Expectant Believers: Expect to Wait

Scripture Readings: Titus 2:11-14; Matthew 1:1-17

A pastor, and his wife, and their little girl were making the long drive to see grandpa and grandma for Christmas. They had been on the road for a long time, already, when the daughter asked the inevitable question: “Daddy, are we almost there yet?” Her father said, “No, honey, we still have 200 miles to go. It will take us at least three hours to get there.” The little girl couldn’t really comprehend what three hours felt like, so she leaned forward as far as she could and whispered to her mother, “Mommy, is that as long as one of Daddy’s sermons?” (Daniel Koehler; “Parables, Etc” July 1990)

It can be hard to wait. But one of the most important things we do in life is waiting. It is one of the holiest things we do.

One of the hardest things of all, about life, to understand and appreciate is the gift of waiting. We don’t understand the meaning of waiting; and so we usually get it wrong.

We can hardly wait. We can hardly wait till we are ten and have an age in double digits. We can hardly wait till we are thirteen, and be a teenager. We can hardly wait until we are sixteen and have our driver’s license. We can hardly wait till we graduate from high school. I won’t even go on to some of the other things we can hardly wait for.

Both of the scriptures we have read, this morning, are (among other things) about waiting.

The first chapter of the Gospel of Matthew tells us about nearly two thousand years of waiting. There was a promise that God made to Abraham, the first ancestor of the people of God and the people of Israel.

The promise is found in the twelfth Chapter of Genesis, and we can summarize it like this: the Lord said, “I will bless you, and you will be a blessing. By you all of the families of the earth will bless themselves.” (Genesis 12:1-3) “By you all the families of the earth will bless themselves.”

The promise was about one of Abraham’s offspring. One of Abraham’s offspring would bring blessing; would bring grace into the world; would change the hearts, and minds, and lives of all the families of the earth. It would be the greatest of all gifts.

Someone born of Abraham would bring something different, something entirely new into the world. Someone would restore the ruined image of God in human life, and in human relationships, so completely that there would be nothing else to call it but a new creation. It would be like being born again.

Paul believed this. And he wrote of it this way in his letter to Titus: “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men.” (Titus 2:11)
We believe the good news is that Jesus brought this new life to his creation. Matthew believed this, and so he called Jesus the son of Abraham. Matthew was careful to trace the ancestry, to trace the genealogy, of this promise across the centuries from Abraham to Jesus.

Here is a promise that was two thousand years and over forty generations in the making, or in the keeping. That is one long, long wait.

Yet the wait is not over. For all we know, it has just begun.

Paul said that the grace of God teaches us the meaning of waiting. He said to Titus that the grace we have been given in Jesus: “teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope – the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness, and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.” (Titus 2:12-14)

The waiting that God’s people have been doing, since the first appearance of the grace of God in Jesus, has been going on for almost two thousand years and counting.
Both Matthew and Paul teach us that waiting for God to work is not supposed to be passive, and the time spent in waiting is not supposed to be empty. What we call waiting, God calls preparation.

The waiting that Matthew and Paul describe was preparation for grace. It was preparation for a gift of something that would be saving, and enabling, and liberating; something transforming and recreating.

The word advent means coming. It relates to the coming of God, in Jesus, as the baby of Bethlehem. It relates to the coming of God, in Jesus, in his return to rule when this age is complete.

When that happens, we, and the creation of which we are a part, will be ruled by the one who died for us on the cross. Our celebration of Christmas relates to all of this.

But the peculiar thing about the season of Advent is that it is about waiting, and learning how to wait, for this coming. And this is completely contrary to how we want to live: because we live in a world that is the devoted enemy of all waiting. We live in an age of fast travel, and fast food, and high speed access to the internet, and instant oatmeal, and the un-deferred gratification of our strongest desires.

God’s ways of working are opposite to this. There are so many ways that living life to the fullest, and living live at its highest, requires us to understand the meaning and holiness of active and productive waiting.

It is as simple as vegetables and dessert. Children want to eat their ice cream before they eat their vegetables. They don’t want to wait. But a life where ice cream always comes first would probably become a life without vegetables at all, and a life without vegetables, at all, would probably become a life of diabetes.

It would not be a good life at all. A life where ice cream came first would not be a healthy life. And one would never really understand the true meaning of ice cream without learning to eat your vegetables first.

I was talking to a member of our high school football team. Even though the football season is over, for us, the team is waiting for the next season.

They are waiting by weightlifting, which is one of the most boring and tedious things you can do. And the coaches want the team to do the most boring and tedious thing until it hurts. To tell you the truth, when I was a kid, I would never have done it; but this is the kind of active and productive waiting that is called preparation.

I want to read you something I found by an author named Paula Gooder. She wrote something she learned about waiting when she was pregnant with her first child. She wrote: “It was only when I was pregnant with my first child that I realized I had completely misunderstood what waiting was about. I have a very low boredom threshold and, consequently, am bad at waiting. Yet no one who is expecting a child wants the waiting to end and the baby to come early – that can only spell heartache. I began to discover that waiting is not just about passing time but that it has a deep and lasting value in and of itself.

“Waiting can be a nurturing time. Pregnant waiting is a profoundly creative act, involving a slow growth to new life. This kind of waiting may appear passive externally but internally it consists of never-ending action and is a helpful analogy for the kind of waiting that Advent requires.” (In “Christianity Today”; “The Meaning is in the Waiting: the Spirit of Advent”; p 64)

Even children who would rather eat their ice cream first can show us some of the holiness of waiting. It comes out as Christmas approaches. They learn to count the days, and look forward to each day as the nearing of grace and (of course) the nearing of presents. They want to be part of things. They want to help make things good for others. They can be taught to care about those who don’t have as much as they do. They learn to enjoy the planning and giving of gifts. They want to create things for the joy and happiness of others. This is the waiting of a life that is lived to the fullest.

It’s true that they may even get into the “naughty or nice” syndrome, which is not about grace at all. But that (at least) is about an understanding of what brings pleasure to others.

In airports you can watch families waiting and learn from them; especially from parents of small children. Waiting in an airport is not easy for anyone, especially when flights get delayed by the weather. But you learn about waiting by watching parents help their children to wait. Sometimes it’s not a pretty sight; but some parents are really heroes. You see their love in action and you know that their children will be blest by this.

Paul says that grace teaches us to wait by learning godliness, and this is an interesting word. The Greek word that gets translated as “godliness” would be more clearly translated as “reverence”. It is like a windmill that is designed to catch the wind by pointing toward it. Godliness is a God-pointed life, but it isn’t blind to everything but God.

A good husband sees his wife just as she is in God, and he points his life toward her; and she does the same to him. Parents and teachers see children just as they are in God, and they point their lives toward to them, and give them the best nurture that they can. Those who have something to share see those who are in need just as they are in God, and they point their lives towards them with the best gifts and help that they are able to give. Those who know the Lord, see those who don’t just as they are in God, and they point their lives toward them with the love of God. Reverence causes you to live toward everything and toward everyone in a God-pointed direction.

Godliness, or reverence, is a way of responding to grace. It is also a way of waiting and preparation for grace. It is a transformation that gives you a different life because you know what it means to have received grace in the first place. It is also true that this grace-shaped kind of life opens your eyes and enables you to see more of the grace of God that is reaching out to you. And, so, it makes you receptive to grace.

“For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all people.” Christmas celebrates Jesus, who is the incarnation of God (which means God in the flesh; God becoming human). Jesus is God with us; God pointing his life toward us and giving us grace. And here, again, we see the holiness of waiting.

God didn’t just wave his hand and say, “I give you grace. I give you my forgiveness and my life-changing love.” Maybe the truth is that no such grace can be easily and quickly give. Maybe true grace always takes time.

God used time to give us a holy grace. God used his baby face, his sleeping in a manger, his family’s escape as refugees from a murderous king. God used the silent/normal years of his boyhood and his work as a carpenter. God used the three years of his wandering life on the road, his healing of the sick and his feeding of the hungry. God used his time in the process of the injustice of his arrest, and his being mocked, and his being beaten. God used his time in the process of and his conviction, his execution, his death, and his resurrection. All this took time and none of that time was wasted.

This is God at work. He took time to point his life toward us and give us grace. And so our time now never needs to be never passive, empty waiting. All time is grace to prepare us for grace.

There is plenty to do, plenty to think about, plenty to pay attention to, even when we think we are just waiting and wasting our time. God gives us the gift of time, and that is good for us, because that is grace.

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