When my siblings and I were kids, Christmas morning was for us, like most children, a magical experience. But in our house, it had some rules. Like, no one was allowed downstairs before Mom and Dad had woken up. The three of us would huddle at the top of the stairs, filled with an unimaginable amount of nervous energy, while Mom and Dad went downstairs to “survey the scene” (really, this meant starting the first pot of coffee so they could keep an edge on us kids!). Or, one person played “Santa,” doling out one gift at a time, so that everyone could see who was opening what, and who had received what, and from whom. And finally, the big presents, the “Santa” presents, would be opened last.
This year, I have been reflecting a lot on our experience of waiting. This season we are just concluding tonight, the season of Advent is one of waiting, of expecting, of anticipation.
What are the things you have waited for, or are waiting for, in your life? My Grandfather jokes that he has spent half his life waiting for my Grandmother. But there are many times when we find ourselves in a season of anticipation: both positive and negative.
We count down the days to milestones: graduations and weddings; we spend nine anxious months nervously preparing for the arrival of a new baby; we spend even more time wading through the process of adoption; for birthdays and anniversaries and on and on…
But we also find ourselves waiting for other things, too: holding our breath for the rent check to clear; test results to come back; treatments to work; the ends of relationships to be finalized.
All of this waiting…
Back in First Century Palestine, the Jews had been waiting, too, for a Messiah that would come and raise them up over their oppressors, the Romans (and before them the Babylonians, and before them the Assyrians). They waited… and they waited… and they waited…
Yet what they received was not what they expected. In fact, Jesus is pretty much the opposite of the King they were prepared for. He wasn’t a warrior or a bully or self-focused; he was humble, self-sacrificing, and constantly pointing the way toward wholeness.
A couple of days ago, my wife, Elena, shared in a new blog post about her word for the new year. Each year she chooses a word that she will lean into for the year. Her word for 2018 is “well.” In her reflection on why she chose this word, she reflected on a story in the Gospel of John, chapter 5, when Jesus finds himself at the healing pool in Bethesda.
“Many manuscripts say that the pools were a common gathering place for the sick, disabled, and paralyzed; they were waiting for an angel to come to stir the waters, which they believed would heal them. The particular man in John 5 had been at the pool for 38 years, hoping… praying… waiting. Jesus finds this man and asks him, quite simply: “Do you want to be made well?” And the man, bless his heart, lists off all the reasons why that would be impossible. He has no one to help him to the pool, and when he does try to get there, someone always pushes him out of the way. And so he shrinks back. Swallows against the lump of disappointment that burns hot in his throat. Retreats to what is familiar, and he waits some more” (elenateresaann.com).
Jesus’ response to this man is quintessentially Jesus:
“He doesn’t nod sympathetically, or pick up the man and carry him. Instead, I imagine Jesus holding the man’s gaze tenderly, yet firmly, as he answers him. ‘Pick up your mat and walk.’ Stop waiting for others to do for you what I alone can give you. Throw all your excuses as to why you can’t away because I’m here now and I can. Get up, and leave behind the desert of waiting and wandering, and walk into your promised land. Arise, shine, your light has come!” (elenateresaann.com).
And this is the amazing thing about the Christmas story, isn’t it? Jesus is here! The waiting is done! The celebration has begun!
So why does it feel like, on most days anyway, it hasn’t? Because all you need to do is turn on the news or look on your phone to see how broken our world is: war lingers on the lips of our leaders; sexual abuse is being illuminated in all arenas of our world; the gap between rich and poor is a chasm; racism and bigotry against anyone who looks “other” is on full display. In a report I heard the other day, public trust in our institutions is at its lowest point in modern history; that includes government, media, and the Church.
Trust in the Church has been eroding for a long time, perpetuated by things like the clergy abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, or financial fraud in some big “mega” churches. But really, if we get right down to it, I think it’s because we in the Church haven’t been acting as if we really believe that Jesus is here. We have been behaving poorly because either, at best, we don’t think Jesus is looking, or at worst, we just don’t believe he’s here, or coming back.
But he is here. He is here in every single one of us. In you, and in me. He is looking at us right now and asking, what are we waiting for? What is keeping us from living as if we believe it? What is keeping us from living the full, whole lives that Jesus desires for us? Lives that are rich, and full, not because of what we have, but because of who lives in us.
That is the truth of the Christmas story, and to be quite honest, the challenge of it, too. It’s not an easy path, so it’s no wonder folk get often discouraged. It’s difficult, often thankless, and doesn’t get us the big shiny car or the big fancy house.
But it does bring us into a community of love, of grace, of acceptance for who we are, no matter where we came from or what we look like. That is the light that shines, and it shines for each and every one of us. Amen.