Grace Presbyterian Church
December 20, 2020, Advent 4B (recorded)
Waiting Until the Coming of the Lord
So here we are, almost there. Come this Thursday, Christmas Eve will be upon us, and Christians all over will, whether online or in outdoor services or even “drive-by” observances, mark the birth of Jesus in that feed trough in Bethlehem. The season of Advent will meet its culmination, or at least one of them.
Advent is, as we have observed already, a two-faced season after a fashion; even as we look back and remember that birth, we also look forward, anticipating the longed-for return of Christ. While it’s not at all impossible that such could happen between now and Christmas Eve, it’s not something we can predict or count on. We’ve been reminded many times in scripture that nobody but God knows that hour (not to mention reminded many times by the failures of those who tried to predict those events). As far as we know, we will be continuing to wait for that “second Advent.”
The readings we just heard offer us some examples of waiting, both done well and…not so well. The account from 2 Samuel finds its place in Advent as a reminder of and connection to all those other texts of the season that point to the anticipated Messiah as being of the line of David; that “house” is evoked at the tail end of verse 11. This account also serves, however, as a good example of how not to “wait upon the Lord.”
Let’s be clear: King David wants to do a good thing. He sees the magnificent palace he has built for himself and at least has the decency to notice that the tent in which the Ark of the Covenant is housed is rather meager-looking by comparison. David also has the decency to realize that, as the king, he can do something about that. Meanwhile the prophet Nathan, apparently without hesitation, agrees with the king’s insinuated plans. God does not agree, however, and gives Nathan a substantial bit of instruction to relay to David, which might be summed up as “did I ask you to do this? I’m the one who builds around here…”
However well-intentioned, David’s plans were not God’s plans. This is an easy trap. We mean well. We want to do a good thing, or at least what seems a good thing. Yet it isn’t the thing God wants us to do. On the other hand, there are those who think that by their moves and machinations they can manipulate God into giving them…oh, so much – wealth or power or whatever gets covered by the social media hashtag #blessed. Or there are even those who think they can hasten “the day of the Lord” by their political or religious or financial machinations. All of these things fail to meet the criteria of good Advent waiting. God is the one who initiates, and we are to follow.
When God does initiate, though, it’s our job to be ready to jump in and cooperate with God’s action. This is where Zechariah falls short in the beginning of Luke’s gospel. Zechariah served as a priest in the Temple in Jerusalem, so you’d think he’d be ready for something to happen while on the job, but even the priesthood could apparently have a numbing repetitiveness to it. He is performing his service when an angel appears, and his first reaction is to be frightened – Luke says that “fear overwhelmed him.” The angel, who later identifies himself as Gabriel, pronounces a shocking thing: the old priest and his old wife will have a son, and not just any son at that; one who will be “great in the sight of the Lord” and who “will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God.” Zechariah’s response – again, out of fear – is one of incredulousness, pointing out that he and Elizabeth are quite old. Gabriel’s response, which really seems to need a deep breath or sigh before it, is to point out that “look, I’m bringing this straight from the presence of God,” and to pronounce the old priest mute until the promise is fulfilled.
Now if you go to the end of this chapter, you’ll see that all does come right in the end; Elizabeth does conceive and bear a son, and Zechariah, despite being unable to speak, does prevail over those who somehow had taken it upon themselves to decide the baby would be named after his father, despite Elizabeth’s protestations. He apparently manages to write forcefully “His name is John,” and his voice is restored, and he gets to have his own prophetic moment, paraphrased in the first hymn we sang today. But that first moment of fear did cost Zechariah, at least several months of being able to speak and to do his job for that matter.
I’ve never been able to shake the thought that Gabriel decided, after his experience with Zechariah, that he was better off going directly to the potential mother for these exchanges, and so next appears to Mary herself instead of going through Joseph. And Mary, as it turns out, manages to do what Zechariah could not: she responds to Gabriel without fear. Let’s be clear: she’s not unaffected by the event – Luke describes her as “perplexed.” Furthermore, it’s not as if she doesn’t have her own question for the angel – “how can this be?” But there’s a way of questioning that makes it clear you think everything is ridiculous, and there’s a way of questioning that makes it clear you’re trying to understand, and Mary apparently found the latter. Or maybe Gabriel simply had more compassion for an uneducated, frightfully young woman from nowhere in particular being thrust into this impossible situation than he managed for a priest who by all rights should have known how to react to a word from God. Whatever the case, Mary’s response is ultimately on target: she asks her questions, but she listens and ultimately answers “yes” – “let it be with me according to your word.” She then goes to visit her old cousin Elizabeth, sings a Magnificat, and ultimately, in chapter 2, delivers that promised Son.
All of the watching and preparing that we associate with Advent has a purpose: to help us to be ready to respond when God calls us or comes to us or appears before us or begins to move in the world. Not to jump the gun like David and try to do what God has not called us to do; not to shrink back in fear and slip into disbelief like Zechariah. Instead, we listen like Mary, we even ask questions, but we respond in the end with acceptance and obedience and readiness to do what we’re called to do, no matter how crazy it sounds.
I’m pretty sure Tom Petty didn’t mean his song “The Waiting” to be an Advent song (certainly not based on the verses), but the chorus does get it right:
The waiting is the hardest part
Every day you get one more yard
You take it on faith, you take it to the heart
The waiting is the hardest part
And so we wait, watching and preparing, so that when the day comes and we behold the Lord’s action in the world, we respond in faith and obedience. May God so prepare us to respond to that call.
For the waiting, and for being ready to act in obedience, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless otherwise noted): #109, Blessed be the God of Israel; #—, To Our God Who Holds You Strong; #83, Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus