Hurry Up & Wait!
For the first two years of our marriage, my wife Anne and I lived in different cities. We had met while attending seminary in New York City, but afterward, Anne (who, as most of you know, is also a priest) moved here to begin her first job in ordained ministry at St. Margaret’s near Dupont Circle. I, meanwhile, had begun doctoral studies at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.
So, each weekend, I would come up to DC to visit her. Now, the drive from Charlottesville to DC is about 3 hours or so—on a good day. Of course, here in DC, there are very few good traffic days. But there was good news: the trip by train was much shorter—just over 2 hours. And taking the train also let me get some work done while traveling, so it was a great solution.
The thing about trains, of course, is that they come when they come, and then they leave—and they’re gone. You have to be at the station before that happens. So each Friday, I would get dressed, pack my bag, get my shoes on, and made sure to get to the station five or ten minutes early. Amtrak trains will often leave just before their scheduled departure time, if they’re early, so you can’t afford to be late. So I would always hurry down to the station.
Now, nine times out of ten, not only was the train not early, it was late. Five, ten, fifteen, twenty minutes late. Those of you who ride Amtrak know that I’m not exaggerating (it’s not Amtrak’s fault, since freight trains get priority on rail lines, but it’s true nonetheless). So I would always hurry down to the station, but more often than not, I’d then have to wait for a late train.
I had to hurry up—and wait.
Advent is a strange season on the Christian calendar, because Advent season is not about Advent season. Advent points us to a future day. Every day of December points to the 25th. Advent is a season of expectation, of preparation—of waiting—for God’s salvation, God’s healing, God’s redemption to enter into the world. For us Christians, it is in this little child named Jesus that God’s presence comes closest, and so we await Christmas, his birth, with special attention.
But there’s a troubling thing about claiming that Jesus is the Savior, the Redeemer, of the world. Martin Buber, a prominent Jewish philosopher of the 19th and 20th centuries, put his finger right on the problem. Now, although Buber was a Jew, he worked closely with many Christian intellectuals, and had huge respect for Jesus as a teacher. Nonetheless, he said that he was sure Jesus couldn’t have been the savior, the redeemer, because when he opened his windows and looked out at the world, it was so obviously still un-saved, un-redeemed. If Jesus was the Savior, why are there still so many problems in our world?
Strangely enough, Christian tradition largely agrees with Buber’s critique. We Christians say that, in Jesus, God’s work of healing, salvation, and redemption begins again in a new way—it begins, not ends. St. Paul put it this way: Jesus’s resurrection was the “first fruits” of a divine harvest—the first fruits, not the last. And indeed, since the very first century, Christians have been talking about Jesus’s Second Coming. Presumably, if Jesus had finished his work the first time, there’d be no need for a second arrival.
So Advent is a season of waiting, but there’s a deep tension here. We wait for Jesus, who was born among us 2,000 years ago but who, however, still hasn’t actually quite arrived. We await for something that has already come and is not yet totally here.
This means, I think, more than anything, that Advent is a season of patience.
So what do we do with our Gospel reading for this morning, then? In the midst of this season of patience, we hear John the Baptist preaching. Now, you can say many things about John: he was dirty, rowdy, angry, a bit frightening, radical, and strange. He hung out in the wilderness eating bugs and wearing a shirt made from hair. He was an odd guy. You can say all this and more about John, but one thing you can’t say is that he was patient. Indeed, John had a holy impatience! Listen to him as he quotes from the 40th chapter of Isaiah: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make [God’s] paths straight.” He is quoting a text that, even in his day, was already 500 years old, yet he is speaking in the present tense: Prepare the way of the Lord—right now!—make God’s paths straight—today!
John’s is a message of urgency—we have to get to work right now! God is ready to act, God is ready to heal, God is ready to save. We have to turn and receive God’s loving action:
God is knocking on the door; we must open it.
God is asking us important questions; we must answer them.
God is seeking us; we must allow ourselves to be found.
So, in the middle of this season of patient waiting, we hear John pulling us in the exact opposite direction, and making our Advent more complicated. We have to patiently wait—with urgency?
In fact, though, things get even more complicated! Because although it is true that John is speaking with urgency, note what he does not say. He does not tell us that we humans can solve all of our problems. He doesn’t tell us to go out and heal the world or end all wars all on our own; he doesn’t tell us that we humans can save and redeem creation. No: he tells us to urgently get things ready for God: prepare God’s way, make God’s paths straight, so that God can come and save, heal, and redeem.
So even John’s urgency, strangely enough, is inflected with patience. We have to get the work started—but we can’t complete it, not on our own. It seems that we need both divine patience and human urgency to meet, to intersect. So Advent becomes even more fraught, pulled to and fro with this complex task of patient urgency, the divine and human tasks intertwined.
And isn’t that exactly who we are waiting for in Jesus? The one whom we Christians know as both divine and human, the very intersection of divine patience and human urgency that John seems to be calling us to. In Jesus, divinity and humanity meet, and are reconciled. In Jesus, that urgent human need meets God’s patient love. This is what we are waiting for in Christmas, wait we are preparing for in Advent.
And if this is who we are waiting for, then this is also who we are waiting to become. Jesus shows us who we are called to be—we need to incarnate divine patience and human urgency! God calls us to this tension, this paradox, this chaotic and fraught way of life:
we have to love a world so often full of hate;
we have to heal a world that can feel impossibly broken;
we have to teach a world that seems to revel in ignorance.
Now, you might be saying to yourself at this point: “this all seems great—developing divine patience and human urgency. But what does this really mean for us today? What concrete steps can we take to actually live this way right now?” I think the answer is: in all kinds of concrete actions, both small and large.
For example, when we’re walking down Pennsylvania Avenue and someone asks us for some change, whether we have anything to give them or not, we can choose to look them in the eye and talk to them like a fellow human being—instead of walking by with our gaze cast to the ground, pretending they don’t exist, as so many people do.
Or, to take an action that might be just a bit more difficult: if we are in a disagreement with a coworker or family member, we can choose to disagree with them respectfully, to love and care for them even while we are in conflict.
Stepping up the difficulty a bit more for many of us, we could choose to give a substantial donation to groups doing important work: giving money to Newtown or other groups working to reduce gun violence, for example, or to groups supporting migrants and refugees—you could even give money to your local church!
And this patient urgency could manifest in ways even more challenging: if we are at work, for example, and someone says something racist or sexist, we could choose to challenge them, speak truth to them, and call out this behavior—even though doing so might mean risking friendship or even professional relationships.
Of course, which actions seem harder or easier will depend on our differing personalities. But the point is that John is challenging us to take these kinds of real, concrete actions in the world, things both small and large. His point almost seems to be that we have to live as if the Kingdom of God has already come in order to make it arrive! The more we live as if God’s love is already fully realized here on earth, the more likely it is to actually be so!
So we have to arrive at that station early, for a train that seems to be taking eons to arrive. We have to hurry up—and wait!