The Advent Wait
BookTrends: Sacred Waiting: Waiting on God in a World That Waits for Nothing
By: David Timms|Published: December 16, 2009 6:37 PM
Charles Dickens’ classic portrayal of the old and miserly Ebenezer Scrooge in his 1843 novel A Christmas Carol captured the heart and imagination of Victorian England.
Scrooge had devoted his life to accumulating wealth and displayed open contempt for everything but money. When the Christmas season arrived, he dismissed all hospitable invitations with his infamous “Bah! Humbug!” and declared Christmas a fraud. To his mind, it served no useful purpose at all.
Dickens used the story to attack various social ills of his time, including the indifference of the wealthy to the poor, whom they described at times as “surplus population.” But just as important, the plot also reveals the redemptive possibility for everyone, as Scrooge’s own hard heart is transformed by the terror of his ghostly visions one night. Christmas, therefore, signified both a season of hope and a season of transformation. Indeed, the turnaround in Scrooge validated the anticipation that people associated with Christmas Day.
Historically, Advent—the four Sundays before Christmas, on the church calendar since the fourth century—expresses a period of growing anticipation. The first two Sundays represent a period of repentance, as followers of Jesus acknowledge the darkness in and around them and their desperate need for a Savior. The third Sunday reflects a Sunday of promise and rising hope that the Savior draws near. Finally, the fourth Sunday bursts forth with anticipation. Messiah’s birth and coming are at hand. Thus Advent denotes a season of increased attention to Christ—acknowledgment of our sin and waywardness, an appeal for absolution and deliverance, and anticipation that the Deliverer is about to arrive. This is sacred waiting.
Advent provides an opportunity for us to pause, reflect, and wait on God—the One who comes to us in the flesh—in fresh ways.
For most of us, the Christmas season usually denotes the busiest and most chaotic time of the year. With just a month between Thanksgiving and Christmas Day, there’s no time for quiet reflection or downtime. From Black Friday (the crazy bargain-hunting that begins the day after Thanksgiving) until Christmas Eve, we plan, search, buy, cook, wrap, and hurry. The goal for many of us is simply survival, not attending humbly to the Lord.
There is so much to do! Light displays to put up, trees to trim; Christmas pageants to schedule or attend; parties to host or participate in; Christmas brunch or dinner to prepare. There are mail orders to place; shopping and waiting in long checkout lines; gifts to wrap, cards to write. The rush, congestion, and distraction of the season can be overwhelming for most of us.
The biblical story of Advent—that period immediately before the arrival of the Christ—calls us to wait on God in deeper ways, even while the time flies by. Thus it becomes not only a story to tell but a life to embrace.
A Cast of Waiters
All the key figures who appear in the first few pages of Luke’s gospel demonstrate a keen attentiveness and responsiveness to God: Elizabeth and Zechariah, Mary and Joseph, Simeon and Anna. When we read their stories, we quickly realize that they represent well-seasoned waiters.
Elizabeth and Zechariah, described as “upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commandments and regulations blamelessly” (Luke 1:6), had wanted a child all their lives. As with so many figures in the Old Testament, the Bible simply notes that “Elizabeth was barren.” Those three words hardly capture the many seasons of hope followed by heartache, the yearning and the disappointment, the anticipation and the devastation. Barren. It’s another word for someone who has suffered one shattered dream after another and either lost hope or given it up. But then, by divine blessing, Elizabeth becomes pregnant and secludes herself in glorious anticipation of the birth of her prophet son, John. Perhaps she felt some anxiety. For an older woman to go full-term without complications is not easy.
Zechariah shared the anticipation. The angel Gabriel had announced to him that he and Elizabeth would have a son (Luke 1:13–17). At last! But in a moment of doubt, Zechariah sought a sign, and the angelic messenger struck him dumb. He could not and would not speak until after the birth of the boy (Luke 1:18–20). For nine months, Zechariah shared the excitement of the pregnancy in silence, unable to chatter about this spectacular news.
It is important to note that the angel Gabriel spoke to Zechariah as he waited on the Lord. Scripture tells us that Zechariah “was performing his priestly service before God” (Luke 1:8 NASB), and had entered the temple of the Lord to burn incense, while a multitude of people stood outside and prayed. The circumstances are significant. Zechariah had given his full attention to the Lord—literally waiting at His table—when the angel appeared and declared the news. The temple was a sacred place and perfect for sacred waiting. Little wonder then that it plays a role in the birth stories of John the Baptist and Jesus.
Meanwhile, far to the north, Mary and Joseph had their married lives ahead of them. As an engaged couple, they anticipated marriage, intimacy, children, and family life. But an angel of the Lord came to Mary before her wedding day, and said, “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus” (Luke 1:30–31). Don’t be afraid? This could mess up everything! Yet Mary submits to the Lord and bravely replies, “I am the Lord’s servant. . . . May it be to me as you have said” (Luke 1:38).
Mary’s response to the angel demonstrates a heart accustomed to waiting on the Lord. She listened well and then presented herself in humble service to the will of the Lord, even though the request could entail great personal cost.
The pregnancy could end her engagement to Joseph. Once her pregnancy started to show, it would certainly shame her in the eyes of the people who knew her. Perhaps she experienced nights of fear. What might a God-conceived child look like? Who would care for her as a single mom if Joseph broke off the engagement? But those who wait on the Lord know that faith, not fear, must prevail. We can trust Him even when everything we have wanted and dreamed about seems at risk.
Not long after the birth of Christ, Simeon, an old man living in Jerusalem, saw the newborn Jesus. Luke tells us that Simeon was “righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ” (Luke 2:25–26). Once again the temple comes into the story. Simeon “came in the Spirit into the temple” (Luke 2:27 NASB) and then saw the child Jesus.
The phrase “came in the Spirit” might have various interpretations, but at the very least it suggests that Simeon’s spiritual antennae were on high alert. He came to the temple for one purpose: to honor God and to worship Him, deeply sensitive to the Presence of the Lord. And there in the Presence of God, and with an open heart, Simeon unexpectedly found himself in the Presence of the Messiah. Waiting on God produced an extraordinary encounter with God, albeit with a certain bittersweetness. On the one hand, the great joy of seeing the Messiah. On the other hand, knowing that once he had seen Him, he would die. But Simeon saw only the privilege. Waiting on God never evoked dread. Indeed, when the baby Jesus was placed in his arms, he blessed God, and said, “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation” (Luke 2:29–30). Simeon’s longing was fulfilled. He was at peace.
Similarly, Scripture tells us the story of Anna, an eighty-four-year-old widow, who never left the temple, fasting and praying both day and night. Why? Because she was among the many who “were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem” (Luke 2:38). Oppressed by the Roman occupation, she and many others longed for the day when Messiah would come and deliver Israel from bondage. And Anna’s anticipation of Messiah was not an occasional afterthought. It preoccupied her waking life. She waited on God with prayer and fasting and with great persistence. Widowed after just seven years of marriage, she had not left the temple in nearly sixty years! (Luke 2:36–37). And then, at the very moment that Simeon delivered his prophetic word upon seeing Jesus, she also arrived on the scene and recognized the One whom she had longed to see for six decades.
The coming of Christ—His advent—involved all manner of waiting on God. A barren wife, a young maiden, a dying man, and an old widow all model hearts yielded to God, alert to His Presence, and diligent in His service. Their stories, their experiences, and their examples turn Advent into a season of powerful teaching on sacred waiting.
Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “How much of human life is lost in waiting?” The typical Christmas can produce the usual waiting as people count down the days and rush to squeeze in as much as possible. And such waiting does indeed fritter away human life. But the season of Advent reminds us that human life finds its greatest meaning and blessing in sacred waiting. Sacred waiting actually forms the centerpiece of the biblical Christmas story.
As we learn to practice faith, hope, attentiveness, submission, and patience, we see the Child. Jesus does not yell over the blare of Christmas music. Nor does He create a spectacle more dazzling than decorations or parades. He does not force His way into our gift-opening traditions, or override our feasting and football. He tarries in the stillness.
Emerson’s quote lacks accuracy. We don’t lose life when we wait on God, we find it. Our lives will never look the same again, and they’ll never have looked so good.
Very few of us find ourselves ready for Christmas when it arrives each year. Take all of the decorations, gifts, cards, food, and travel plans, and add in our regular routine of home and work, and Martha Stewart could hardly pull it off without a few moments of insanity. It’s hard to feel ready. On the other hand, for others of us “ready” is not possible. We dread the holidays, filled as they may be with painful memories or experiences of loneliness. We’re ready to get past Christmas!
As moms and dads, we may be counting down for school to finish, for a few days to sleep in, and maybe some time off work. In that case, we may have been ready for a month!
Churches that recognize Advent sometimes use a specific set of Bible readings associated with the season. Those readings include the words of John the Baptist, who came as a voice crying in the wilderness: “Make ready the way of the Lord” (Matthew 3:3 NASB). Advent and Christmas call each of us primarily to a readiness for Christ. Yet we frequently stand ill-prepared for Him. Perhaps being ready for Christ is toughest of all. Why?
Some of us struggle to wait on Christ because He has high expectations. He no longer needs the gold, frankincense, and myrrh of the magi. “What gift will we give Him?” might be better rephrased “What gift would He want from us?” And it turns out He wants not our wealth but our hearts. Are we ready to yield our hearts fully to Him in love and obedience?
But to make ready the way of the Lord is also to clear everything else out of the way. Our culture has so cluttered the highway with flashing Santa signs, glittering gifts, bouncy jingles, and oversized decorations that we can barely see a way through. Can we truly look beyond the distracting sights and blaring sounds of secularism?
“Are you ready for Christmas?”
Our ultimate readiness, surprisingly, is not measured by budgets, miles, pounds, or postage stamps, but by the countercultural call to quiet and attentiveness. The ancient prophet continues to cry out and challenge us to prepare for what matters most. “Make ready the way of the Lord.” But to do so—to wait on the Lord properly—may mean we’ll have to slow down.
Stop the Hurry
I live in a hurry. People don’t walk quickly enough for me. Goals take too long to reach. Programs feel bogged down by minutia. Email replies are too slow. Meaningful relationships take forever to develop. And so it goes.
If I could just release the brakes, the world would function so much more efficiently and effectively. We could achieve so much more. The slowness around me breeds increasing frustration, especially my own slowness to learn, grow, change, or achieve.
Hurry up, please!
My impatience, however, reflects how unaware I am of God’s work in the world. I’m waiting more on myself than on Him. I have an agenda most of the time, and His timetable rarely matches mine. We seem to be on different wavelengths. But God countermands our “Hurry up!” with His own “Listen up!” And He reminds us again, through Advent, that we usually overestimate what we can do in the short term and underestimate what He can accomplish in the long term. And His long term is the longest perspective of all. Indeed, the Lord’s timetable is just that—His timetable, not ours.
If I had been sent to save the world, I surely would have “landed” ready to go. Arrive and conquer quickly. Every minute counts! Waste no time! But Advent challenges this haste. It reminds us that Jesus arrived as a baby, to grow, to learn, and to share life before beginning His earthly ministry.
Many of us may feel more affinity with “Hurry Christmas” than “Merry Christmas.” But perhaps tucked in this story of the babe of Bethlehem is the invitation to once again discover the Lord’s timing rather than our own—in all of life.
The spiritual exercise of hush should replace our cultural inclination to rush. Despite our self-importance and sense of urgency, Christ sets the pace and determines the results that matter most. And often, while we celebrate His coming to us, we ought to reaffirm our coming to Him—in humility, in contentment, in surrender, in readiness, and in worship, much as the magi of the East modeled.
His Coming, Our Coming
In August 2007, my friend Joe and his wife took a week’s vacation together. Joe served as a church pastor, and they needed a break. The week away rejuvenated their spirits and replenished some of their energy. They talked about the future and made plans together. Already they’d been married for over twenty years.
But the following week, Joe’s wife dropped her bombshell. She wanted a divorce. In fact, she and a client had conducted an affair for months.
Joe felt shattered. He needed to move out of the house immediately but had nowhere to go. Dazed and shell-shocked, he decided to borrow a car and drive immediately to Idaho, where his aging parents lived. For twenty years—most of his married life—he’d had minimal contact with them. In his own words, he had hurt them greatly. But what else could he do in this crisis? Where else could he go where he could buy some time to clarify his thinking and plan his next steps?
The drive to the old family homestead overlooking the Idaho Valley took many hours. The roads seemed irritatingly congested, and roadwork slowed the trip even more. It was late in the evening—about 11:00—as Joe approached the family’s ten-acre property that had birthed fond memories for three generations.
He pulled over on the shoulder of the road, uncertain whether or not he could actually face his mom and dad, overwhelmed with this pain and burden. He considered heading to a local hotel for the night. Yes, that would be best; then call them in the morning and drive out to see them.
But a voice within urged him, “Go on home.” Reluctantly, Joe slipped the car back into drive and eased back onto the road for the final five miles of the journey.
As he approached the family home, he saw a strange glow. It was mid-August and the night still had plenty of heat in it. But this late at night, what could produce such a glow? Then he saw it.
His parents had hired someone to put up all their Christmas lights. Lights bedecked the house and the driveway. Decorations stood out on the front lawn. And Joe’s parents—in their eighties—were sitting quietly on the front porch, where they had maintained a loving vigil for many hours looking down the road for his arrival.
Their grace triumphed over his shame. Their love dispelled his anxiety.
As Joe told me his story, tears filled his eyes. In the midst of his pain and confusion, his parents reflected Christ to him. Their home became a sanctuary for him a week each month over the following six months as he processed his brokenness. That godly older couple became a source of grace and healing for Joe’s woundedness.
How appropriate that they should put out the Christmas lights! Those lights, reserved for Advent each year, signaled not only the coming of the Son of God (the Light of the world), but that August, they signaled the coming of their own son.
How appropriate that during Advent we bedeck our homes with lights. More than just pretty decorations, they serve as important symbols. They affirm our commitment to be light in the darkness. And they remind us that the Father sits on the front porch for our coming—the other advent.
Many Christians recognize Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran pastor who was arrested by the Nazis for plotting against Hitler and who was eventually hanged on April 9, 1945, at thirty-nine years of age, just three weeks before the fall of Berlin. Less well-known is Alfred Delp.
Born a year after Bonhoeffer, Delp served the German people as a Jesuit priest, staunchly committed to the way of Jesus. A week after the infamous July 20, 1944, failed attempt to assassinate Hitler, the Nazis arrested Delp, suspecting him of complicity in the plot. Over the following months he endured interrogation and torture. In January 1945, he stood trial and was found guilty, then sentenced to death. The hangman executed him on February 2, 1945—two months before Bonhoeffer’s execution.
During the war and during his imprisonment in Tegel Prison, Alfred Delp reflected often on the advent. He understood the significance of waiting on God amidst the chaos of a world at war. He recognized that advent meant the freedom of God to come when and how He chooses—perhaps as a thundering warrior or as a helpless babe; perhaps at the beginning of oppression or in its advanced stages. He is coming—always coming—on His own terms and timetable. Meanwhile, we serve as lights in the darkness.
Throughout his life, Alfred Delp practiced the longstanding church tradition of the Advent candles. Four candles are lit during Advent—usually three purple and one rose. For each of the four Sundays of Advent, a candle is lit; all four burn brightly on the Sunday before Christmas. The white “Christ candle” is added on Christmas Day in the center of the other four. The candles lit over the four-week period symbolize the darkness of fear and hopelessness being replaced by hope. The flame of each new candle adds to the brightness, until Christ takes center stage, and we celebrate His coming again.
In some notes smuggled out of Tegel Prison, in December 1944, Delp wrote: “Light the candles wherever you can, you who have them. They are a real symbol of what must happen in Advent, what Advent must be, if we want to live.”
Several years earlier, Delp had spoken in detail about Advent candles as a powerful symbol of the Christian journey.
This symbolism speaks powerfully to us when we realize that our waiting at Advent—our sacred waiting—is not just anticipation of the coming of Christ, but a commitment to be consumed in His service. Just as Advent begins the Christian liturgical year, so “to do good at the cost of [our] own substance” marks the beginning of the Christian journey into a deeper place with Christ. Waiting on Him is not a wallowing in the darkness, but a shining in it. And as we give ourselves to a “peaceful, reticent, but constant shining,” we find ourselves consumed. Our own ambition, our selfishness, our grasping nature, and our pride are gently burned up, but not by accident. It stems from our decision to give our all to Christ, with Christ, and for Christ; yes, to wait on Him.
“Whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:39).
The true advent, the coming of Christ, delivers us from the frenzied pressures of materialism that increasingly dominate the end of each year. It invites us into a sacred waiting on God rather than a secular attention to gift-wrapped packages. It beckons us to an acknowledgment of the darkness and an anticipation of the Light, and then to be candles of the Kingdom in the kingdom of this world.
1. Consider the traditional Advent, which first highlights the darkness in the world around us and then progressively anticipates the Deliverer. Have you seen Advent/Christmas in this light before? How does it shape your idea of sacred waiting?
2. What comes to mind when you read about the sacred waiting modeled by all of the biblical characters associated with the coming of Christ?
3. Waiting on God meant significant personal cost for Mary and Joseph. How ready are you to say, “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said”?
4. The Christmas lights in Joe’s story represented Joe’s coming home. When was the last time you truly “came home”? How can Advent become a “homecoming” for you each year?
5. The Christmas candle gives light at the cost of its own substance. What might this analogy mean for you? And how does it speak to waiting on God?
Excerpted from: Sacred Waiting: Waiting on God in a World that Waits for Nothing by David Timms. Copyright © 2009; ISBN 9780764206788, Published by Bethany House Publishers, Used by permission. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.
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