Sunday, November 27, 2016

Advent: a season of waiting in faith

My youngest daughter can't wait for Christmas. She's 7 years old, and it's all she can think about. It might be during breakfast, it might be when she comes home from school, and it might be after dinner, but she has one question guaranteed to come up every day: How long until Christmas?

She's like this with everything. A week ago it was “How many days until my birthday?” Last week it was, “When am I going to see Emma?” Some people wait patiently, like a match that slowly burns its way to the end. My daughter waits like a forest fire. All she wants is what she wants, and when she wants it is right now.

To her, the worst thing imaginable is having to wait. On Sunday, she was scheduled to see a friend at four o'clock. It wasn't even lunchtime before she started asking how long it would be until four o'clock. By one o'clock, the question was coming every 10 minutes.

If you could turn impatience into a person and give it a face, it would just look like her.

Some people have no difficulty waiting. Tell them it'll be 30 minutes, and they'll pick up a magazine and start reading, clean up a mess, or tackle some quick and easy chores. They'll grab a pen and paper, and write a quick to-do list, or maybe a letter if they're the old-fashioned sort. They'll find a piece of paper, pull out a pencil, and doodle the time away in an act of silent contemplation.

People like this find ways not just to kill the time but to use it wisely, because they know that all their fussing and fretting won't move the hands of the clock across its face any faster. The sun still will crawl its way through the heavens at a beggar's pace, and things will work their way to their inevitable conclusion in the proper time.

For such people, whether waiting is a discipline they have learned or a skill they were born with, it is a practice that scarcely troubles them.

Life itself is often about waiting, and how we wait reveals pieces of our character. An engagement is announced, and with excitement we at once begin counting down the days to the wedding. Other times we wait with dread, as our stomachs twist into knots and drop through the floor below our feet: A police officer approaches the car after pulling us over, or we pace in the waiting area while a loved one is in surgery.

Sometimes waiting is an idle kicking of the heels before a job interview or doctor's visit, or as we wait for a loved one to come downstairs so we can leave. Sometimes waiting is an active process, as we work hard, apply ourselves and learn so that our dreams will come true.

The gospel of Luke tells the story of a man who spent his life waiting for God to keep his promise. His name was Simeon, and according to the gospel, God had told him that he would not die until he had seen the messiah.

The gospel doesn't say how old Simeon was when this finally happened, but I've always imagined him with far more gray hair than black as he cradles the infant Jesus in his hands and realizes that the work of redemption has begun. How many days did he show up at the Temple, hopeful that this would be the day at last, only to go home disappointed? I imagine they must have numbered in the thousands.

As day stretched into day, did Simeon ever despair? Did he wonder if God had broken his promise, or changed his mind; or if maybe Simeon hadn't really been promised what he thought he had been after all?

A lot had happened, much of it bad. Pompey the Great had conquered Judea in 63 BCE. By the time Simeon held the infant messiah, Judea had been a vassal state of Rome for 59 years. Herod the Great had been king for about 36 years. The messiah was going to change all that, of course, but in the meantime, the people were oppressed and entire generations had known nothing but tyranny.

For Simeon and those around him who anticipated the coming of the messiah, the birth of Jesus had been a long time coming. It had been nearly 450 years since the Word of God had echoed in the hearing of his people and the last of the great prophets had grown silent. And now in the coming of this baby, Simeon saw the first stirrings of the promised redemption of his people and of the Gentiles around them.

From the vantage point of history and with the perspective of faith, we can attest that Simeon's trust in the promise of God was vindicated, and his long wait ended gloriously. It's easy enough to imagine him going home that evening, contented and filled with wonder that he had held the messiah in his own arms, and then dying peacefully in his sleep.

The messiah, according to prophecy, was going to usher in a new era in the world, one that would see the mighty brought low and the powerless raised to new heights. Like other people of his period, Simeon probably anticipated a messiah in the vein of the Maccabees, one who would drive out the Roman occupiers, defeat the Gentile nations, and rule in justice for all time.

I wonder what he'd make of the messiah the gospels present to us instead. Executed by the Roman governor at the age of 33, Jesus never led the Jewish people to freedom. Forty years after his death, the Second Temple was destroyed by Titus, following a siege that had lasted for four years. Some messiah. Even the Resurrection was limited to him, rather than being the expected worldwide event.

At this point in history we too are waiting for the messiah, not for his arrival but for his return. The wait can be just as hard for us as it must have been for Simeon. The kingdom of God, Jesus taught us, is in our midst. The unveiling of God's grand design has begun in him. It exists and is coming, in a state of here-and-not-yet.

By sight we see untrammeled greed rewarded at the highest places, and the hard work of the masses accumulating nothing but poverty and debt slavery. By sight we see a world where a liar and a bully can become president by fanning the flames of fear and racial resentment. By sight we see a church that allies itself with him in hopes of gaining influence.

But by faith we see a much better world, one where women are treated with respect and not dishonor. By faith we strive for a time when all nations, peoples and races are uplifted together and never demeaned, and their voices are respected rather than dismissed; where people are honored not because of (or despite) their status or behavior, but because of the Imago Dei that they carry. By faith we imagine a society and a church where the wealthy and the powerful exert all their efforts on the betterment of the powerless and disenfranchised.

Like Simeon, we also are waiting for the vindication of our faith, for the Redemption begun on the first Christmas to find its fulfillment.

As an observant Jew, Simeon would have known that righteousness is far more than mere religious piety. Study of the Torah and the writings of the Hebrew prophets would have taught him that the pursuit of justice is the sine qua non of religion, that mere belief in God is insufficient for righteousness. It requires action.

The wait is so long. By faith, let us make the one who is coming proud with how we have filled the time.

Copyright © 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.

1 comment:

Minx McCloud said...

Oh man. What can I say? Excellent. A real keeper. I am very moved by this piece.