I love the Advent season. It’s my favorite church season of the year. Always has been.
When I was a child, Advent was this time of joyful and festive anticipation, a time of excited waiting. It was the countdown to Christmas! There would be decorations and lights everywhere as the days were getting darker, the Christmas markets of course were opening, we’d be baking Christmas cookies with my Oma, every day I opened yet another door of my Advent calendar for a sweet surprise, and even in school – at least elementary school – we’d spend the first period of the day, when it was still dark outside, lighting candles in the classroom, reading Christmas stories and singing carols.
And every Sunday, our family would sit down in the afternoon for ‘Kaffee und Kuchen’, which translates to ‘Coffee and Cake’ – a great German tradition – only, during the Advent season, we’d eat the cookies we ourselves had baked –and ceremoniously light the candles on the Advent wreath. Erst eins, dann zwei, dann drei, dann vier, dann steht das Christkind vor der Tür – first one, than two, then three, then four, then the Christchild stands at our door.
My family was and still is not religious, but Advent was THE season that we observed religiously. Looking back, I am truly grateful we did. And doing all these special things during Advent made the waiting for Christmas meaningful – and it made the waiting so much easier.
Because waiting is hard. Especially for a child. Life is so exciting, there is so much to see and experience, why wait, why the need to be patient? ‘Are we there yet?’ No, my dear, not yet.
As we grow up and mature, waiting becomes somewhat easier. We get used to waiting. We do it all the time. We learn that, in life, some things just cannot be rushed, that we need to be patient. But it’s sometimes still hard to come to grips with that. Case in point: the fact that it still isn’t safe to worship in person. Today was supposed to be the day we gather in our sanctuary again, as we celebrate the beginning of a new church year. And I know that some of you were so looking forward to it. We’ve been waiting for so long. But the COVID-19 situation in this country is more serious than ever.
I don’t know how many times over the course of the last months people asked me, ‘Pastor, can we gather in person again soon? Are we there yet?’ And I’ve always had to say, ‘No, my dear. Not yet.’
If the last months in this country have taught us anything, it is that we as human beings – especially those who are used to a certain standard of freedom and access to anything anytime – have a very hard time being patient. There are many who want instant gratification, who don’t want to give up a smidgeon of their liberties, even if it is for the good of the greater community – and that’s part of the reason why we are in this ever-growing COVID mess right now. Patience is not a virtue anymore. Waiting – for many – is just not an option. I don’t care that we’re not there yet, I want to get off this ride right now!
And so we are entering the season of Advent, a season of waiting and anticipation. Now talk about something counter-cultural!
To me, it is not surprising that many people in this country don’t even know what Advent is, not to mention observe it. If you turn on the radio, where some stations have now for some days played nothing but carols and holiday songs, if you go to the stores, if you look into living rooms which often are already decked out with a tree – Christmas is already here. Why wait for it? But in the Christian tradition, we are not there yet.
As those who follow Christ, we are a waiting people. We stand in the tradition of our Jewish siblings, whose Holy Scriptures, which we have adopted as part of our Bible, are shock full with people who wait – wait for God to enter this world in which people experience war and famine and enmity and illness and inequality and death – wait for God to bring everlasting peace and justice. The prophet Isaiah, whose words we heard in our Old Testament lesson this morning, is one of them. And we hear his urgent words directed at God, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down! From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him.”
God works for those who wait for him. And, by the way, the Hebrew word for waiting doesn’t mean idly sitting somewhere and twiddling thumbs – no, it is an active kind of waiting – you are alert, you watch out. The English and German words ‘waiting’ and ‘warten’ also originate in a Proto-Germanic word that means ‘to be on guard’, ‘to watch out’. With a little imagination we can still hear today that there is a close relationship: ‘waiting’ and ‘watching’, ‘warten’ and ‘wachen’. Waiting throughout most of human history meant to be on the lookout as one anticipates a certain thing to happen – and then seize the opportunity and make it happen.
Isaiah wasn’t just crying to God to rend the heavens open and come down and do something – he also admonished God’s people to be alert and be prepared for God, to look out for the marginalized in society, to work for justice. ‘Are we there yet, Isaiah?’ ‘No, my dears, not yet. But why don’t you keep busy and do good as we are waiting for God to come and establish an everlasting reign where the lion will lie next to the lamb?’
Waiting becomes a characteristic of the young Christian community as well. God came into the world and was incarnated in the child in the manger, and grew up to let the people of God know, ‘The kingdom of God has come near!’ And there were those who, watching and waiting for the Messiah, were excited. ‘Are we there yet, Jesus? Is this is?’ ‘No, my children, not yet. On the other hand: yes! I am here among you, and where I am, there the kingdom of heaven is at hand. Be alert at all times!’
Now talk about confusion and tension. The first followers of Christ lived in this tension – and Christians throughout the ages would live with it as well. When will thy kingdom come to be among us forever? We heard Jesus’ answer in today’s gospel lesson: no one knows but the Father. All you can do is wait – and watch. Keep awake.
But Jesus also gives clues that the coming of the kingdom of God is not only something unpredictable in the distant future. ‘Truly, I tell you, this generation will not pass until all these things have taken place.’ ‘Where two or three are gathered in my name, I will come and be right among them.’ ‘And I will send you the Advocate, who is the Holy Spirit, who represents not only the Father, but me as well, to be with you always.’
The kingdom of heaven is near, in fact it is among us whenever we let God enter our lives and live into God’s vision. On the other hand, we are still waiting for the ultimate fulfillment of God’s vision for all creation. So we are not there yet – but get some very clear glances of the final destination on our journey here on earth.
We are a waiting people, a people who waits actively, keeping watch for God to enter our existence in the here and now – and a people who acts according to our hope.
And this is what this season of Advent is all about. Waiting for God’s presence to enter our lives here and now – and for what is yet to come.
I said in the beginning that Advent always has been my favorite season of the church year. For me, it is still a time of joyful anticipation, a time of excited waiting – even though my focus has shifted from receiving a bunch of gifts on Christmas day to something more profound: the mystery and awe of God becoming flesh and entering our humanity. As a babe in the manger and among us in sometimes quite unexpected moments of our lives.
Are we there yet, God? And I can hear God’s voice during this time: No, my dear, not yet. But enjoy the journey, look around, keep your eyes open at all times – and see where you can find me along the way. The journey is part of the destination.
This post is also available in: German