November 27, 2016 / THE WAITING GAME / Sara Wolbrecht / Matthew 24:36-44
Friends, how do you feel about waiting? I don’t know anyone who ever looks forward to waiting. Most of us consider waiting a waste of time. Something we have to do at times to get what we want. We do it because whatever is on the other end seems worth it. When we wait, we’re mindful of how that time spent waiting is time NOT spent on all the other things we’d rather be doing. Anyone wait in line for Black Friday?
Four years ago this week Jason, June and I flew from our home in the Bay Area up here to visit my brother Steve and wife Jenn and their brand new baby on the Monday of Thanksgiving week. The plan was that we’d land and head to their house and have a full afternoon and evening together getting acquainted with our new nephew before the holiday craziness began. And when we got the to airport in Oakland, we learned that our 10am fight was actually going to leave at 6pm. And we had a two-year old. And I was so mad that we lost that afternoon time with a spanking new nephew. But there was nothing we could do, we just had to wait. Anyone else ever had plane delays? Don’t get me started.
How do you feel about ‘waiting?’ We’re beginning today the season of Advent. Advent is the time spanning the four Sundays before Christmas. But what impresses me, in light of how much we love waiting, is that all the figures who appear in the first pages of Luke’s Gospel, the people who are a part of sculpting the story of Jesus’ birth, they are all waiting. Elizabeth, who is Mary’s cousin and newly pregnant miraculously in her old age, is waiting, as is her husband, the priest, Zechariah, who also waits for their son John to be born, and for his voice to be restored. Elizabeth and Zechariah are waiting. Mary, her body growing with life and surrounded by the scrutiny of others at her out-of-wedlock pregnancy, is waiting. Simeon and Anna, who are there at the temple when Jesus is brought in after his birth, they are waiting. The whole opening of the story of Jesus is filled with waiting people.
I find that fascinating. The birth of Jesus begins with waiting people. I mean, if you want to tell a great story, why not have it be high-functioning, productive people? Why not successful, popular people? Why not a captivating plot line filled with action that clearly points to a drool-worthy Messiah? Nope, people who wait.
So here’s another question for us, another way to unpack why there is all this waiting in the Jesus story. Tell me, what are things in our lives that take time? Building trust and rapport and connection in relationships – whether romantic, work colleagues, family members, friends. Good food takes time. June is taking piano lessons and soccer – Learning, developing a skill. Falling in love. Reading a book. Personal growth and healing and development. Starting a new church! Writing or learning music.
The more we think about it, we begin to notice: the things that take time are so often the best things. I think we see waiting people in the beginning of the Jesus story because: Good things take time.
Like a piece of art. You begin with a blank canvas – not knowing what it will become. And Dani could simply throw some paint up there and have a piece of art in five minutes. Or we could wait. And watch. And see this art in various forms and stages, each moment significant, as a moment of art, even as we will watch and wait and see it become a completed masterpiece by Christmas. We will wait and see what happens over the course of Advent. Because good things take time. There is so much to see along the way. And we can’t rush the process.
Into this awareness of waiting, we hear our text for today. It’s a text much later in Jesus’ life, these are Jesus’ words in his final big speech before his crucifixion as told in Matthew’s gospel. And this is just a small portion of that speech. I invite you to listen closely, to notice what you hear, what is confusing, what stands out. Ask yourself: what is Jesus talking about?
Matthew 24:36-44 The Message
(Jesus continued) “But the exact day and hour? No one knows that, not even heaven’s angels, not even the Son. Only the Father knows.
“The Arrival of the Son of Man will take place in times like Noah’s. Before the great flood everyone was carrying on as usual, having a good time right up to the day Noah boarded the ark. They knew nothing—until the flood hit and swept everything away.
The Son of Man’s Arrival will be like that: Two men will be working in the field—one will be taken, one left behind; two women will be grinding at the mill—one will be taken, one left behind. So stay awake, alert. You have no idea what day your Master will show up. But you do know this: You know that if the homeowner had known what time of night the burglar would arrive, he would have been there with his dogs to prevent the break-in. Be vigilant just like that. You have no idea when the Son of Man is going to show up.”
So – what the heck is Jesus talking about? How would you answer that?
Let’s name two common applications of this text – one of them may have come up in your own hearing of this. The first, is to read this text as a warning to Christians to be ready for “the second coming of Jesus.” We have been promised in Acts 1, 1 Thess 4 and many, many other passages, that one day, when God remakes the entire world, Jesus himself will take center stage. And since nobody knows when that’ll be it’s vital that all Christians should be ready at all times. That’s one way folks hear this.
The second application, many readers have seen here a warning to Christians to be ready for their own death. Whatever precisely one thinks will happen immediately after death, it’s clearly important that we should, in principle, be ready for the great step into the unknown, whenever it is asked of us. That’s another way this is often read.
A third way to read this, is to note how Matthew, who wrote it, knew his first audience would receive it. And it is in this third way that the passage can also be applied.
And it’s this. You see, this passage speaks of a great crisis that was going to sweep over Jerusalem and its surrounding countryside at a date that was, to them, in the unknown future. Something was going to happen which would devastate lives, families, whole communities: at the same time, somehow the event would be seen as ‘the coming of the son of man’ or the appearing of Jesus himself. And in other passages, as well, it is articulated that this future event will be the swift and sudden sequence of events that will end with the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple.
We now know that this did actually happen in year AD 70, at the climax of the war between Rome and Judea – the Romans destroyed the Temple and Jerusalem. There’s a lot more to say on another day about the destruction of Jerusalem, but for our purposes today, it is important to at a baseline level know that context, to know this is a piece of God’s people’s history, heard at the time in a particular way.
But these words – like the whole of the Bible – these words also ring through subsequent centuries, and into our own day. We hold these words both in their original intended context, and as provocative words that can speak into the times we live in now which are also – like then – turbulent and dangerous times.
So what is this text about? It is absolutely about living in the great unknown as people who wait. Yes it is about a particular historical moment, but this text is about the dynamics of how to live in the in-between time of knowing something will likely come, and not knowing when.
So my friends, how do we become people who wait well? We’re going to pull out some insight for us from this text, and as we do this, I invite you to bring to the surface something in your own life that is taking time now. What is something you wait for – now? Maybe something boiling and urgent and needing attention, maybe something that is on a low simmer, just humming in the background most of the time, maybe you’ve been waiting for a long time. For me, I have an older brother and a younger brother, and my younger brother has not spoken to my older brother for nine years. And this is one of those low simmer, always with me, painful realities that is taking so much time. What do you wait for? And to hear what we’re about to discuss as something that speaks to that place of waiting and taking time. And that it speaks not only about the outcome of that thing being fulfilled, but this speaks about the ways and timing of how God shows up in the midst of the waiting, as we give things time. You got your one thing you wait for? Ok, let’s do this.
What Matthew 24:36-44 Reveals About Waiting: (begin list of four) First, you may have picked up a certain idea being repeated. It says: “No one knows… Knew nothing… No idea what day… You have no idea when…” There is this over-emphasizing of how in the midst of waiting, of things taking time – SURPRISE: we don’t know the future! We don’t know when. And we know this, right? (Even if we may not like it). For me, I don’t know when or if my brothers’ relationship will be reconciled. Or when I was 23 years old and ended the three-year dating relationship I had been in, it felt so scary to not know if and when I would find love again. (Spoiler alert: I did find love).
So, when waiting, much of the time - 1. We don’t know when.
Second, the text makes the point that even as we don’t know when: life will go on as normal up until that point – that’s the point of the parallel with the time of Noah. Until the flood came to sweep everything away, ordinary life was carrying on with nothing unusual. And that point is further made with the men working in the field and the women on the grinding floor – 2. Life goes on when we are waiting for things to unfold in our lives. Again: somewhat obvious. But I appreciate this affirmation because there have been times of waiting, of things taking time in my life where I found it hard to go about life as usual. This affirms that we can hold the tension, the longing, the distraction that comes with waiting, alongside the ongoing flow of our lives. Life goes on in the waiting – and chances are that folks we bump into in our lives who seem like their lives are just humming along, they are also, likely, playing the waiting game in some way, just like us.
But notice in the text, that even as life goes on as normal, there is a quality to what our waiting game looks like. Another idea that is repeated in this passage is: to “Stay awake… Stay alert… Be vigilant…” Did you pick up on that, too?
Life goes on as we wait, but our waiting is also, in itself active. 3. We wait actively. Stay alert. It’s not just a sit back on your butt kind of waiting. Most of us think of waiting as something very passive, it’s out of our hands. But there is none of this passivity in scripture. Those who are waiting are waiting actively.
Anyone ever played softball or baseball? I played for about 10 years growing up. Would anyone be willing to stand up and show us the way in which you are supposed to stand when you are out in the field? You don’t stand there flat-footed waiting for someone to get a hit. You are on your toes, knees bent, arms in front of you, ready to sprint, to jump, to nab a line drive. There is anticipation. Expectancy. Urgency to how you wait in baseball. And so it is for us as Jesus followers. Waiting means being on our toes, ready to respond.
For our fourth and final insight on waiting, let’s remember Elizabeth and Zechariah, Mary, Simeon and Anna. In each of their stories in Luke’s gospel, right at the beginning all those people in someway or another hear the words from God, “Do not be afraid. I have something good to say to you.” These words set the tone and the context. Now Elizabeth and Zechariah, Mary, Simeon and Anna are not just waiting – they are waiting for something new and good to happen to them. They wait with a sense of promise. “Zechariah…your wife Elizabeth is to bear you a son.” “Mary…Listen! You are to conceive and bear a son” (Luke 1:13, 31). The promise they receive is not only what will happen BUT even more profoundly, that they are met by the God who knows they wait and who waits with them. 4. Our God waits with us. (Leave list on screen until quote) Zechariah, Mary, and Elizabeth were living with this promise that nurtured them, that fed them, and that made them able to stay where they were.
All of this points to the beautiful reality of who God is, that our God waits with us. Like the folks of Jesus’ birth account in the opening pages of Luke’s gospel, like the unveiling of a piece of art, we wait actively by adopting that posture of being present fully to the moment, in the conviction that something is happening here, where we are and that we want to be present to it. Something is happening now, because God is with us now. And good things takes time.
So. That thing that is taking time in your life. We come back around and hold all of this alongside the very real ways in which we wait, now. And we ask ourselves what God is saying to us in this, and we now ask a few questions in response to these four things. You may want to write down your thoughts as we dig into hearing from God about the ways in which we wait…
So looking back at number two, if life goes on as normal – in what ways do you find it hard or easy to keep on with life as normal? For me, with my brothers, celebrating the holidays is a challenge because we can’t all be together. It’s hard to keep on with life as normal, when normal doesn’t feel like a possibility for me. But I feel encouraged to discover the new normal, the rhythms of celebrating and being present even when someone is absent.
And looking at number three, what does it mean to wait actively, what kind of posture do we hold? With my brothers, I can’t fix their relationship (if you were here a few weeks ago to hear Pastor Abby – we know that we need to watch those triangles in our families), so I can’t be active in that, but I can be active in noticing signs of healing, progress, hope. I can be honest about my own needs and feelings. I can be present with each of them in their own process, too. How do you stay active, what does that look like as things take time?
And my favorite, number four. Waiting times can feel so lonely. Often hopeless. But we hold as central to the life of God that God is with us. God sees our lives, ourselves, our waiting. And knows us, and knows the longing we carry. What does it look like to believe that God is with us, to believe that good and sacred things can happen in the present, even as we wait for something that seems far-off? On Thanksgiving, we enjoy the time with family or friends while our tummy growls for the turkey to be done. While waiting for love or even for having a child – we enjoy the freedoms and opportunities that we have in this season of singleness or of childlessness, even as we wait. How do we see the gift of the present moment?
Friends, what is God saying to you in this? About ways to embrace whatever form waiting is taking in your life now?
To pull this all together, I want to offer, in closing, a quote from the Catholic priest, Henri Nouwen. It’s printed on the backside of your bulletin insert today, because I wanted it in your hands – It is that good and that pertinent to this work we’re diving into of being God’s people who wait. Chew on this with me:
“To wait open-endedly is an enormously radical attitude toward life. So is to trust that something will happen to us that is far beyond our imaginings. So, too, is giving up control over our future and letting God define our life, trusting that God molds us according to God’s love and not according to our fear.
The spiritual life is a life in which we wait, actively present to the moment, trusting that new things will happen to us, new things that are far beyond our own imagination, fantasy, or prediction. That, indeed, is a very radical stance toward life in a world preoccupied with control.” Henri Nouwen
That one is going on my fridge this week, because, oh, goodness, I need to read this everyday. Our journey together through Advent is a journey into WONDER. Wonder, is at the heart of the Jesus-story because the Jesus story affirms that God is always up to something. That is what we’re diving into, that is what our journey of waiting in this season of darkness will lead us into. Wonder. And it absolutely begins today – on this day where we have lit the first candle of Hope, on this day where the sights of this unfinished, painted masterpiece have only just begun, on this day where we have pulled to the surface our deepest longings – because waiting is a spiritual reality. All these waiting people – in the birth story of Jesus, and the story of God’s people throughout history reveal how waiting teaches us to see how good things take time. But also, about how time can do good things in us. When we’re willing to wait.
As the band comes up, I want to teach us a simple prayer for us to pray as we sing and listen for God together now. A prayer to take with us into our waiting times. And it is this: “God, let me know when the time is right.” My friend Angie shared it with me this week as something she has prayed in times of waiting – and over and over again she has heard from God about how to stay in those hard, waiting times, and then when the time was right, when to move forward because the waiting over.