What are we waiting for?
John 1:6-8, 19-28
Any of you who are married will know that when a marriage begins, there is a clash of cultures. Two family cultures collide with each other and for a few years there are a series of compromises until you figure out your own family culture. Now at Christmas time I’m always reminded again of that culture clash when it comes to Christmas stockings.
Joe and I both grew up with Christmas stockings in addition to other gifts. But somehow in Joe’s family it was the stocking that became the primary and most important thing to dig into on Christmas Day. The stockings would be hung out for each person in the family and filled over the course of the days or month before Christmas. So rules had to be developed because of the impatience of the two children (and probably the adults as well) – you can feel from the outside but not reach in, you can shake but not peek – stuff like that.
In my family the stocking were under the Christmas tree and empty until Christmas morning, and invariably filled with several of the same items: peanuts, an orange, some chocolates and maybe one or two other small trinkets. And only for the kids. Later as my brother and I realized the inequity of stockings only for the children, we instituted parent stockings as well.
Now that we are married, Joe is still extremely impatient about gifts – he tried to trick me into telling him what I’m getting him. He still feels the stocking and shakes the boxes. I, meanwhile leave the boxes and stocking alone. Even now, my stocking is the only one hanging on our mantel that has anything in it and I’ve stayed away. I figure, why increase the curiousity level or, why spoil the surprise. I want the joy of opening the gifts on Christmas morning seeing for the first time. Joe likes the game and the intrigue of trying to figure it out.
Has it been what we were waiting for that made the difference in how we waited? Was it knowing what might be in the stocking? Was it being able to see and feel and guess that made it exciting? Or was it just that I’m not that curious and know how to delay the gratification.
We are, of course in the season of waiting. Advent means waiting for God to be birthed into human form into a life that shares all the struggle and messiness and joy and beauty that it is to be human. But the people in the advent of Jesus’ ministry wouldn’t have known. In the days and weeks and years before the voice spoke ‘this is my son, my beloved; listen to him,’ when Jesus was baptized. In the days before Jesus spoke in the synagogue…in those days, Jesus would have been an absolute and total surprise.
I’ve been caught up this week in what it would be like to live in a world without Jesus. That is almost unimaginable to me. I have certainly had my share of questions, wondered if I am crazy to believe in the story of Christianity, in the saving power of non-violent love as Jesus lived it – and died and lived again. But through and after all that, I always believe that even those who are Buddhist and Muslim and atheist, even the convicted serial killer on death row, even the Christians who I profoundly disagree with – all share a piece of Christ, the God-made-human who also shared our experience on the earth.
It seems often like this is a Godless world. That this is a Godless corner of the United States. But for there to be no inkling that God has been shaped into a human person whose ministry, death and resurrection change the world and history? We now have the opportunity to choose Christ – or to choose not Christ – but Jesus is there to choose. I can question and doubt because there is a Jesus to question, to welcome us, to teach.
We are living in the reign of God. In that 2000 years since Jesus, it seems like it’s gone on forever – we’re waiting, waiting, waiting for it to be fulfilled – Jesus we’ve seen you, how long to we have to wait for you to come again? How long until this madness and violence will be over? The earliest Christian thought it would be within their lifetimes but by now we’ve begun to expect not that Jesus will be with us tomorrow – or even at Christmas – not even in the lives or our children – but maybe not for another 2000 years – maybe not ever.
John’s audience in the wilderness had no Jesus. They had no idea what they were waiting for. Their prophets talked about a messiah, but no one knew. Even John the Baptizer, though he must have known Jesus the person – Luke tells us that his mother Elilzabeth and Jesus’ mother Mary were cousins – even he had no idea what he was prophesying. He only knew things were about to change. John preached,
“He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’” as the prophet Isaiah said. 24 Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. 25 They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” 26 John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.”
One whom you do not know – and not even John knew. He was one of their own – their friend and relative and neighbour, Jesus – a Hebrew, a carpenter. But they had no idea. They had no idea what to expect, no idea what they were waiting for.
John the Baptist quotes from Isaiah who was also preaching to a people who thought they had finish waiting. Not for a Messiah, but for a return to Jerusalem from Babylon. A quick aside to say a word about Isaiah. There is not actually one Isaiah but three. In the first chapters of Isaiah, the poet and prophets speaks to Israel in the 700’s BC – an Israel which has been subjugated to Assyrian rule and is languishing under foreign domination. In the second part of the book, we jump ahead a century and members of Israel have been sent into exile in Babylon, their temple destroyed, depressed and uncertain. The prophet speaks in the tradition of the first Isaiah: comfort, O comfort my people.
By the 500’s BC after years of hoping, the people are finally able to return. Their messiah was the emperor Cyrus who allowed them to go back through the dessert to the city that they loved and longed for.
In our lection for today we hear from what is likely a disciple of the that other Isaiah – someone who has been back in Jerusalem already for years and it hasn’t been quite as rosy as they had hoped. They didn’t come into a vacuum. The temple reconstruction hadn’t happened. There was hunger and drought. But the poet remembers and speaks in the tradition of the one who John quotes. Who is truly more prophetic than perhaps he knows when he says:
The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; 2 to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; 3 to provide for those who mourn in Zion– to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, to display his glory. 4 They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.
The prophet names his own authority that has been given to him by YHWH but he also will be echoed centuries later by another whose authority will not only be in God but be God. Isaiah did not envision Jesus specifically – could not have know that God would be incarnated in a person. But it is Jesus who later speaks these words in the synagogue in his home town and they are provocative enough that his fellows want to lynch him.
In a world without Jesus, where does hope come from? There is no gospel of peace, there is no inversion of power, there is only the hope for the Messiah and the claims of the prophets that God will reverse their unhappy lot.
John the Baptist has a tiny inkling of understanding of what the Messiah will be. He claims the authority of the Spirit like prophets before him but recognizes outright that he is not the one that is hoped for – there will be another after him – he only prepares the way. He is also calling people to action in their preparing. Just like Isaiah before him, who called the people to ‘build up the ancient ruins’ and raise up the former devastations’ and ‘repair the ruined cities’ John is calling the people of Israel to action. There will be no
Unlike the people who heard Isaiah’s message we do have Like those in the Isaiah tradition before him, John did not know who and whose Jesus was – the only One of God. He also knew that he was not the Messiah – he admitted as much to the priests and Pharisees – and in fact, he knew that the Messiah was coming.
Immediately after this interaction with the leaders in Israel – the next day, John meets Jesus. The gospel tells us:
“The next day he saw Jesus coming towards him and declared, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world! This is he of whom I said “After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.’”
What are we waiting for? That! It’s Jesus that we’re waiting for. And how do we wait?
While I find Joe’s constant asking and prodding and examining and feeling the stocking to be a little annoying after awhile. But I actually think that’s how our advent waiting should be…full of anticipation and activity. Most of us know that there can be as much joy in the anticipation of an event as in the event itself. What are we waiting for? Not a Chicago Cubs toothbrush and a bag of York peppermint patties but Jesus Christ, God come into the world. We have a clue – we have the Bible. We are anticipating not only Jesus the child, but the fulfillment of the Reign of God. Sure, we’ll never know the day or the time, so Jesus will be a surprise – hopefully a wonderful surprise – but those of us who are Christians have a lot of resources to be able to know who we’re waiting for and how to wait.
We live in the beautiful and messy and complicated middle: knowing Jesus exists and reigns but not being able to see and hear him directly (or most of us can’t). We have hints and signs of the reign of Christ and we have to live with asking questions, feeling for the truth, and shaking up the world so that it settles in the direction of peace and justice. But we have the example. We know what we’re waiting for and have that example to live by.
Perhaps we feel like the returned exiles – been told again and again that there is something to hope for but disappointed – leads to disputes, rule-making, lonerism, defeatism. I wrote on my facebook status this week that I was ‘buying’ into Christmas consumerism and that is one way to go – co-opted into the economy of empire we consume. Matt suggested a couple weeks ago that we should go about the hopeful mundane: watch baseball games, play with our kids, go on picnics. I have appreciated the call lately to be generous in the face of fear of the economic loss. I can get behind that. I also can get behind the prophet call to rebuild and plant, to proclaim liberty and bind up the broken. Above all, now, in this season to proclaim Christ as the one we await. Have joy and delight in the anticipation!