December 15, 2013 –– Third Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 35:1–10 / James 5:7–10 / Matthew 11:2–11
Waiting is hard for most people. Waiting for Christmas Day is hard for children. It’s hard to wait when a big turkey dinner is cooking; the smell fills the house, and you are hungry. Waiting is hard when you are in a supermarket and have just a few items, then you get to the checkout and the lines are backed up with people who have full carts. Waiting is hard when you hit some problem on the interstate where traffic is backed up for several miles. For some of us, waiting is even hard when you just missed the green light and have to wait though a whole cycle.
Long-term waiting seems like an extinct species in our culture. It is common for people who want some expensive, but non-essential, item not to wait and save for the money to buy it; they go into debt to have it now. More and more couples who are “in love” do not wait for marriage before sexual intimacy. There is a surrender in our society to a spirit that says, “I want it, and I want it now!” Do we in the Church understand that embracing this attitude is sin?
A major emphasis of Advent is waiting. Throughout the Bible God’s people are waiting more than anything else. God is not in the instant-gratification business (but we might consider the evidence that the devil is). Getting what we want is rooted in selfishness. Satan made selfish desire ultimately appealing to Eve. Getting what we want now compounds it. Because we are broken, waiting is a hard thing. Yet God uses waiting to develop faith and hope in us. Satan tries to use waiting to defeat us―for us to become so obsessed with what we want and when we want it that we allow unfulfilled desire to affect everything else.
Advent is a time to take a head-on look at this issue of waiting. Today’s Scripture texts help us see three ways that waiting can affect our spiritual lives. We are warned not to allow waiting to cause us to be discouraged, distracted or demanding.
Think about John the Baptist. After an initial popular ministry he was put in prison. He had preached that One greater than himself was coming, but sitting in a jail can dampen one’s enthusiasm. Maybe John was waiting for the Coming One to make everything right―including a rescue from jail. Finally he sent some of his disciples to ask Jesus: Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?
Why did John ask this? He was probably discouraged. He was stuck in prison and waiting. John’s discouragement may have been exacerbated once it was clear that no popular Messianic expectations were being reported. So often we nurture our ability to wait by thinking God is going to work a certain way, but if God doesn’t work the way we think he should, it discourages our waiting.
Is it accurate to suggest that a spiritually discouraged person is a complaining person? How easily little irritants in life turn us into complainers! (I am preaching to myself.) James exhorts, Do not complain, brothers and sisters.... He reminds us of the patience a farmer needs (most of us are so far removed from basic agriculture that the example doesn’t connect). He commends the example of hardship and patience that we find in the prophets. They faced real hardships––like John being put in prison. We live in a world that tries to convince us that life needs to be easy and pleasant all the time, and if it’s not, it is our “right” to be discouraged and complain.
Once we are discouraged, we are vulnerable to distraction. We find other ways to compensate for the pain of waiting. The world will always offer us something that seems innocent, but it can cause spiritual weakness. We may no longer feel “discouraged”―but it’s because we are distracted. Something else can give us temporary comfort and joy, then we are not focused on our Lord and waiting on his promise to come.
And if that state of mind goes for too long, we develop demanding spirits. We embrace an attitude that all but insists that we get what we want and that we get it now. Surrendering to an attitude like this is spiritual death. The person who refuses to wait patiently―the person who demands his own way―is cutting himself off from the Spirit of Jesus.
Advent is a time of expectation. The question today is: What are you waiting for? Are you waiting for God to do things your way? Could it be that God isn’t even part of the equation, but you are simply waiting for what you want (and you’ve decided you can’t be happy until you have it)? Or, on the other hand, are we waiting on the Lord? Maybe it would help to reflect on the idea of Christians as people living in a Waiting Room! Advent calls us to this, and the Church has wisely built this time into the rhythm of our spiritual lives to help us not become discouraged, distracted or demanding. You see, as we live in this world, we can be waiting on the Lord wherever we are and whatever else we are doing. Advent is waiting.... on the Lord.