In Switzerland, waiting for a train is practicality an oxymoron. With such punctuality in transport, there is little need to wait for a train unless it is self-imposed. At the time is it meant to arrive and depart—it will, 99% of the time, arrive and depart.
As I imagine some of you experienced, or will in this holiday season, this is not usually the case for American transport. Often, I am waiting at the departure gate…or more recently the arrival gate for a plane or bus to arrive. Punctuality is not assured and I have found a number of ways to distract myself from mounting frustration as wait times increase—different books, music to listen to, pacing back and forth—but, as many distractions as I may try to deploy, the aircraft, or bus or train doesn’t seem to arrive any faster. It is out of my hands.
This is difficult when, often, so much seems to be in our control. As Christmas approaches, we can pick-up gifts, we can make cookies or clean. In business, we can prepare for time away and rearrange meetings—even while planning for the time away we can plan for places to stay and for activities in which to participate. But there remains the challenge that some things coming are simply out of our control.
Advent, in Latin, means “arrival”. For four weeks before Christmas we wait, in this Advent season, for what is coming from God. When we wait for God, what we wait for arrives on God’s time. It is not ours to try and make it faster or hurry it along.
This kind of waiting often challenges us. Overall, in the United States today, waiting for something on someone else’s terms is not something we excel at. We have same-day shipping for packages. We can call ahead to put ourselves “in line” at the DMV. We can plan our calendars down to the minute to maximize efficiency. We can’t seem to get things fast enough. There is an awareness that time is precious, but the value seems to be because the time is “ours.” We don’t see it as God’s. But in Advent we are reminded that that waiting is important. It’s essential, for our spiritual well-being and even our happiness.
Zechariah and Elizabeth, who’s songs of rejoicing we read together, prayed practically their whole lives that they might have a child. It was not until Elizabeth was “advanced in years” that, by God’s grace, they had a child. They would have preferred a baby much earlier—but God delivered when God delivered. And, as it turns out, their child, John the Baptist, was necessary for the coming Messiah.
John the Baptist, as our Gospel passage says, received the word of God—not in the first year of Emperor Tiberias’s reign—but the fifteenth. It was when Pontius Pilate was governor not someone else. And he receives the word of God in the wilderness—not in a seat of power, or a city. We don’t know if John was trained in public speaking or communication. God’s word arrived when and where God’s word arrived—no sooner and no later.
God’s arrival doesn’t happen on our time. December 25th will be here on December 25th —and even in that–a child is born, not always on the due date, and we can’t forget that even Christmas is twelve days, not just one. Yes, that provides lots of time for us to celebrate but it also provides a space of time that we may expect God’s arrival—we just may not be sure when.
When things seem out of hands it can be difficult, even frightening. And in human terms this isn’t unreasonable, we need to experience at least some sense of control in our lives. But at Advent, we remember a different set of terms. We are waiting for the One who we can, without question or doubt, allow to set the timing, allow to lead, allow to set the next step and trust in what will arrive and when. This is what God asks of us and what God shows us. God comes, mysteriously and miraculously, as one completely at the hands of another, as a baby, who like any other, depends on the love of its parents for life.
And we get tastes of this divine arrival—moments in life when what arrives—is greater than we could imagine. When only God can create an outcome that, as hard as we might try, we can’t create on our own. We can only get ourselves so far—at some point we must trust God to bring us the unexpected, which may be what we desire even more deeply than we can realize on our own. This is why we look to Christ for salvation and not our own means.
So we practice waiting.
And our waiting is one that need not be idle.
John’s carries with him a message of repentance. In Baruch, we are told, “take off the garment of sorrow and affliction.” We are, in this time, to look ahead by cleaning up what we already have, to change out of old routines we may find ourselves stuck in for too long. By looking forward to God, to Christ’s coming we are not to be impatient but to receive, with patience, the love of God that washes us and frees us to receive Christ with joy—whenever that arrival will be. This waiting is not wasted time. We take off the garments of sorrow and affliction to put on instead that of God’s beauty, glory and righteousness. And we do this to look East —to set our eyes on God and when all people—from the East and West will be united, under God. We prepare our hearts to hope for God’s kingdom—that we may have thought was unreachable. We prepare our hearts to believe, we re-member that God’s kingdom is real.
If our waiting for God is boring…we may be missing something—this waiting is more than what happens at an airport or train station. This is a season, not about frustration, distraction or forgetting but of patience with an endless depth if we open ourselves to receive it. God’s arrival will come on God’s time but it is up to us to let God in—for God to arrive, on God’s terms. So let us prepare ourselves to receive, as Baruch says, the joy, the light of his glory and the mercy and righteousness that comes—only– from God.