A sermon preached on Dec. 6, 2015 at St. Paul’s (Southampton) at a joint service of the Anglican Regional Ministry of Saugeen Shores, Tara & Chatsworth
Texts: Malachi 3.1-4; Philppians 1.3-11; Luke 3.1-6
The human lot in life is one of perpetual waiting. There is not a time in our lives when we are not waiting for something, whether it is for the meal to arrive or for the sermon to end. Indeed, the whole of humanity has been waiting for what seems like an eternity for liberation from suffering, and death. We need only consider the wreckage of history as a clear testimony to humanity’s bondage to sin. The news of the past month alone is enough to confirm our brokenness.
Where are we to find hope in the darkness of our suffering? Is hope even possible or is hope merely the result of delusional thinking in the face of the inevitable?
Despair and cynicism are, it seems, the only options we have. Of course, optimism is a possibility, but such the power of positive thinking often rings hollow, even for the perpetually cheerful in the face of darkness.
Despair, cynicism, and optimism are all, in their own ways, coping mechanisms born of the assumption that humans are simply left to their own devices in the world; we are left with the choice to either try to make something of ourselves, be it through our cunning or resources, or to accept our fate that life is short and we are all going to die. We can either face our future with stoic resignation or sunny optimism while we watch those we love die and as the world around us burns.
And yet, there is a quiet yet insistent voice that speaks of promise and hope, if we have ears to hear it.
It is an ancient yet urgent voice that continues to sound throughout the cacophony of our modern world, if we are willing to listen.
It is a voice that echoes through the ages, the voice of God himself, promising that suffering and death do not get the final say; a voice that speaks of hope and life amidst darkness and depair.
Despite the stories of exile, chaos, and destruction throughout Scripture, this voice remains constant: God will intervene, decisively and completely, to undo the power of sin and death, to restore creation to its original goodness.
And yet, we, like the ancient Israelites, wait for the fruition and fulfilment of the promises of this voice. We, like the ancient Israelites, so easily tune out this voice when the brutality of reality roars in our ears. We have been waiting so long, the voice must be wrong or, even worse, lying. The world is so dark, the voice must be unable to do what it promises. Bait taken, the trap of despair and cynicism snaps shut.
After all, how long can one wait for the improbable, let alone, the impossible? Hope is for the naïve.
The book of Malachi stands at the end of the Old Testament. God’s people are still waiting for the promised and long-awaited Messiah. Tired of waiting, God’s people turn away from God, time and again, in the attempt to manufacture reality to their liking, assuming they are left to their own devices, worshipping idols and flirting with the aspirations of human empires. The result is always the same: in their unfaithfulness to the covenant, God’s people find themselves caught up in the machinations of the world where the innocent and powerless bear the scars of brutality and suffering. God’s people would rather live life according to their own devices and desires rather than under God’s caring sovereignty and promised faithfulness because these seem to take too long.
Despite their unfaithfulness, God remains faithful to his people, a faithfulness evidenced by God’s steadfast promise to deliver his people from their self-imposed bondage, a promise that is repeated over and over again throughout Scripture. The diversity of voices in Scripture intone the same promise: God will send a deliverer, a Messiah. And so God waits patiently for his people to hear his voice and return to him.
God’s patient waiting requires that God’s people patiently wait for the fruition and fulfilment of God’s promise. And waiting is so hard to do, particularly in a culture where there are a myriad of voices demanding our attention: the ring of the telephone, the blare of advertising, the most recent e-mail, the latest scandal in the news. So caught up in the false urgency of our culture, we fall yet again into a cycle of unfaithfulness, cynicism and despair. We become anxious about the future, striving to bend it to our demands, desperate to keep the darkness at bay and to avoid the inevitable. We simply do not have the time to attend to God’s voice or the inclination to trust his promises. Life is short, so we must get on with it while we can. Who has time to wait?
And yet, our lives are defined by waiting. Moreover, our lives are affected by the manner in which we wait; we wait either impatiently or patiently.
Frustrated with the reality that the world does not operate on our preferred timeline, we become impatient. This impatience, in turn, often breeds hopelessness and cynicism as we become aware that we cannot bend time according to our will. Impatience is ultimately born of the selfish demand that the world unfold in the way that I want it.
Patience, on the other hand, “is the virtue of waiting. It involves waiting for all things to reach their end: waiting for others, as well as for ourselves, to take the time they need, and above all waiting for God to fulfil his purposes in his own good time. Patience is the virtue which encounters frustration with a calm and steady frame, waiting steadfastly for time to be fulfilled” (John Webster, The Grace of Truth, 243). Patience is born of the realization that God will use whatever befalls us, whether good or ill, for his good purposes; patience and perseverance go hand-in-hand.
As Christians, patience is “trustful confidence about our lives” (Webster, 246). This patience is born of the confidence that “he who began a good world in [us] will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1.6). Christian patience is rooted in the trust and hope that “time has a telos, a goal” (Webster, 246); the goal of time is the first and second Advent of Jesus Christ. Therefore, the Church is always ready and willing to wait patiently. The Church does so because it rests in the assurance that time itself belongs to God.
As God’s people, we are called to witness to the telos of time. The prophetic purpose of the Church is to proclaim that despite all seeming evidence to the contrary, that the world is and will always be “the place of God’s compassion and mercy” (Webster, 247). This proclamation is not born of frenzied urgency and it does not require that we attempt to shout above the noise of the world. Born of the confidence that God is faithful to God’s promises, our proclamation echoes the quiet yet insistent voice of those who’ve gone before us; our proclamation harmoniously reverberates with the prophets and apostles, the melody of which is the voice of God himself, Jesus Christ.
Therefore, Christian waiting is not a passive resignation to our fate, but it is an active and joyful anticipation of God’s promised future. Indeed, amidst the darkness of the world, the Church celebrates as if the fulfilment of time were already a fait accompli. Indeed, with the first Advent of Christ, we have the assurance that God’s promised future is already moving toward us. Through Scripture and Sacrament we are both reminded of and participate in this future.
The first Advent of Christ also means that the waiting of the Church is undergirded by the expectation of the unexpected. The fact that God would come to earth as a baby as the promised Messiah is utterly unexpected. That God would call an assortment of misfits, rejects, ne’er-do-wells, and sinners to proclaim his message of liberation is utterly unexpected. That God would call someone as strange as John the Baptizer to prepare the way for the coming of Christ is utterly unexpected. And so the Church patiently waits for the Second Advent, expecting the unexpected as harbingers and signs of God’s promised future breaking into our present.
Prophets and spiritual sages have and will continue to come and go throughout human history, each claiming a new revelation, a new form of enlightenment. The Church can continue to expect prophets who claim to speak on behalf of God, offering the latest in spiritual innovation in some seemingly unexpected ways. However, if the patient proclamation of the Church is to remain faithful to the one who sends it, the Church must always point to Christ.
In the early 16th century, German artist Matthias Grünewald painted a famous work known as the ‘Isenheim Altarpiece’ depicting Jesus’ crucifixion. One of the most noticeable things about the painting is the finger of John the Baptist. John stands on the right side of the painting holding a Bible with his index finger pointing to Christ on the cross. The message is unmistakeable: the message of John the Baptizer and of the entirety of Scripture point to Jesus Christ.
If the Church is to remain faithful to its calling to patiently proclaim the gospel, it must clearly echo the shared testimony of the prophets and apostles as attested by Scripture. Only in pointing to the scandal and mystery of the manger and the glory of the cross, is the Church able to fulfil its purpose to prepare the way of the Lord
Like John the Baptizer before us, the Church is called to prepare the way for the coming of the Lord. Like John the Baptizer, we are called to be a voice crying out in the wilderness of our culture, a culture marked by despair and cynicism. We proclaim that the forgiveness of sins is possible and that “all flesh shall see the salvation of God” (Lk. 3.6), the God who came to earth and took on the flesh of a human baby; the God who will come again to renew and reconcile all things.
The question is: in a world scarred by brokenness, are we ready to patiently wait for Christ’s Second Advent with the confidence that God will remain faithful to his promise?
In a culture marked by both despair and false optimism, are we willing to wait with hopefully anticipation, joyfully proclaiming the good news that Jesus Christ is the fruition and fulfilment of time?
Come, let us wait with patience and perseverance, celebrating all that God has done and will do and let us share with all the world the hope that is in us because of Jesus Christ.
Let us pray.
Father in heaven, we confess that amidst the brokenness of our world that it is easy for us to lose hope. Despair and cynicism are constantly waiting in the shadows. When the chaos of the world and the noise of our anxiety deafen us, help us to hear your voice. Grant us patience and perseverance that we may rest in your promises and proclaim to the world the life and hope that you offer. We pray in the name of Jesus Christ, in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. Amen.