Isaiah 40: 27-31
Luke 3:1-6 (NRSV)
Will you pray with me: Holy One, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you, O God, our Rock and our Redeemer, Amen.
This week, I found myself in a place I’d rather not be. A place I do my best to avoid. A place I that I dread. This week, I found myself in a waiting room.
It was just a routine appointment. Nothing serious. But I dreaded it all the same. You see, I am always rushed to get to my appointments. I am stressed for having underestimated the traffic or lack of parking. I am always dashing from the elevator to the check in desk. And then when I finally do arrive – I am told to take a seat and wait. I have no idea how long I will have to wait. . Could be 10 minutes could be an hour. I do not know.
And what is even worse than the waiting itself, is having to sit there with others who so clearly are suffering without having the capacity to do anything about it. In the waiting room, we are to sit still, be quiet, keep our eyes down. But even still I could not help but notice that while I may have been there for a routine appointment, others in that room clearly were not. For others, that waiting room was more akin to a wilderness experience. And when I say wilderness experience, I am not meaning a serene walk in the natural beauty. I am referring to what Professor Sharon Thornton calls a sense of profound dislocation. Of being out of one’s element, set down in uncharted territory, distressed, unsure of what to do or what comes next.
A wilderness experience is what the Ancient Hebrew people endured for those 40 years as they wandered in the desert facing hunger and thirst, challenge and complaint, uncertain of where they were going and if they were going to get there. And a wilderness is what Jesus experienced in the desert during those 40 days of temptations and trials.
Wilderness is what the woman across from me was experiencing as she held her head, thumb on one temple, pinky on the other, forehead resting in her palm, never looking up. Wilderness is what I think the woman to my right looked like she had not slept in weeks was experiencing. She had deep dark circles under her eyes and every few minutes sighed such a deep sigh that I thought she may very well crumble into a thousand pieces right before my eyes.
If you are like me, we may do our best to avoid waiting rooms, we may do our very best to avoid these dislocating wilderness experiences, but as a followers of Jesus, every year we will find ourselves in an even bigger waiting room than that which I was in this week. In the great poem that is the liturgical year, every December we enter a season of advent, a season of waiting for the coming of the Christ child. For four weeks we stand in the deficit of appreciating that the reality around us reflects very little of what was promised. For four weeks we stand in that gap and wait.
And actually, it is not just for the four weeks of Advent. Jürgen Moltmann that great German theologian reminded me this week that as followers of Jesus, we live in this space between the already of Jesus having come into the world two thousand years ago and the not yet of the full realization of God’s reign on earth as it is in heaven. We live in this great wilderness of waiting.
And make no mistake about it, this time we are in is a wilderness time. We are in a time of profound flux and uncertainty where what worked in the past no longer does so and where the new pathways into a viable future are not yet clear. Name it and it is in flux. Whether it be global economics, national sovereignty, religion, the environment, energy, gender issues, racial rights and white supremacy, name it and it is in flux. And this wilderness time that we are in, this in between time of waiting is hard. There is much dread out there and it is bringing out the worst of people. Simplistic fear mongering strategies of scapegoating are resurfacing. Anxiety more than oxygen fills the air. And as we know fear begets fear. The more people shut down, withdraw and isolate the more they feel that shutting down, withdrawing and isolating is the only way to be in this inbetween time. And in this wilderness, the light of hope, peace, joy and love can seem to recede further and further into a very deep darkness.
As followers of Jesus, we are not immune to fear and anxiety and the reaction of shutting down that fear and anxiety can create. We are not immune to passivity that fear can create. There can even be something attractive about passivity because passivity lets us off the hook. It lets us look the misery around us and instead of asking what is our role, how can we show up, we instead can put it on God asking why God is not showing up? We want to know, if God is in charge, why isn’t God taking charge? And if God isn’t taking charge than why should we?
But let us be clear. As hard as wilderness times can be, they can also be deeply clarifying. And one thing that has become increasingly clear for me is that one way that God shows up in this world is in the way that we show up. And when we refuse to show up, that refusal is in some way slamming the door on God.
A couple of weeks ago, we talked about the incarnation, this wild idea that God took on flesh in the person of Jesus and entered our world and that as we seek to be followers of Jesus, our flesh is also sanctified, that something of God’s love can be made known through our lives, our words, our actions.
We have the human tendency that in wilderness times we seem to regress, to shut down and shut out. But it turns out the Biblical witness offers a radically different way of being in wilderness times. The Biblical witness offers a profoundly different decorum for being in the waiting room.
I asked my Rabbi friend Lenny Gordan about the Hebrew word that is translated as “To wait” in our passage from Isaiah this morning. What is meant, he said, was a waiting has tenacity about it. Far from passive this waiting has resolve, muscle, of being able to bend, stretch and twist. To hold on and not let go. To trust in. There is muscle in this kind of waiting.
Biblical waiting in the new testament, looks like John the Baptizer, all fired up there on the banks of the Jordan, crying out in the wilderness, preparing the way for the Lord. Waiting looks like the good hard work of repentance of turning away from self absorption and turning towards God and others. Of lifting ones eyes, reaching out, seeking and finding and crying out!
Mary Luti in a piece entitled “Noisy Advent” writes, Advent is a “ruckus, not a time of retreat. Stars fall, moons collide, nations groan. God rips open the heavens. Torrents of justice hit parched earth with ear-splitting force. Mountains quake, fire erupts, seas boils. It’s a season for insomniacs—wake up, stay awake, watch out, heads up, on your feet! The Baptist cries out, heralds announce on mountaintops, the Daughter of Zion’s loud exultation keeps her neighbors tossing and turning into the wee hours. God clears the threshing floor, sleeves rolled up. Sweaty blacksmiths beat swords into plowshares. Heavy equipment is lined up to bulldoze, level, straighten, and build. If we ever imagined that our healing would be a gentle, quiet thing,” she writes “the Advent scriptures correct us. It’s noisy heavy-lifting.”
It takes great effort, muscle to resist the pull towards passivity in this our time of waiting, in this our wilderness time. It takes a great effort, a great deal of muscle to wait upon the LORD, to stand in the radical life affirming light of hope, peace, joy and love.
To wait upon the Lord in this wilderness is to affirm that the miracle of the manger was not just then but is now. Every day, in every way, we are to midwife love into the world. We are to fan the flame of the light of God’s love. We are to the watchers of the light. We are to be the John the baptizers calling out hope in our time of wilderness.
So what does that look like? If we had time right now we could fill this space with hundreds of your stories of how you have seen the miracle of love showing up. But before I close let me share two stories with you. Two testimonies of love erupting in the most unlikely places.
The first occurred this week as I drove past a middle school in Boston. I had to stop as a line of school buses were in front of me doors open. And out of their door stumbled sleepy, disheveled, disoriented looking middle schoolers. These middle schoolers looked like heading up into that building was the last thing on earth the wanted to do, the last place on earth they wanted to be. As I watched, my heart went out to these kids. Who knows what kind of challenges they were already facing in the wilderness of their young lives? Who knows what kinds of challenges were awaiting them in their future?
But then I noticed one that looked an awful lot like John the Baptizer right there on the front stairs of the school waiting for the approach of these kids. And not just one John the baptizer but there were at least a half dozen John the baptizers. I actually heard them before I saw them, they were there calling out to the kids getting off the buses. They were there on the top of the steps in their signature red jackets and tan pants. These were City year young people who looked exactly like a grown up version of the kids who were stumbling up thes stairs of the school. And these john the baptizers, these young people were standing there on the steps, calling out to each kid by name, giving each kid as they walked by a high five, lifting up each kid with a smile and a word of promise. Love showed up there on those school steps to pushing back fear, anxiety, despair with hope and love and joy!
And love showed up in a wilderness of fear when my son was no more than 18 months old. He had a condition that brought him into the emergency room at Children’s Hospital and then even more quickly into one of their operating rooms. I was told, that if there was any chance that I could be pregnant, I could not accompany him into the OR but instead would have to wait. And so my husband with my little boy disappeared through the doors, and I was left alone. I was distraught. I thought that I would break into a thousand pieces. Then I noticed a woman standing in the doorway. She was in scrubs so she was clearly working but she had stopped in the doorway upon seeing me sitting there. And then with a smile, she entered the room, sat down beside me, wrapped an arm around my shoulder and said, “How about if I just wait with you awhile?”
And so yes, we may not like it much, but we are in a time of waiting. We are in a wilderness time. Much is in flux. The way forward is not certain. But we are not to succumb to fear and anxiety. We are not to shut down and shut away. For we are to be the John the Baptizers calling out in the wilderness. We are to wait with expectancy and hope like those city year kids, waiting for those city kids to come off the bus. We are calling out hope. And we are to enter with love into the distress of our days, like that woman in scrubs who sat down beside me.
So in this wilderness time, this time of waiting, let us wait with everything we’ve got and everything we are. Let us wait not alone and apart but with each other and with our God so that in doing so, our strength may be renewed, that we too may mount up with wings like eagles, that we may run and not be weary, walk and not faint. May it be so. Amen!