Advent is the season of waiting. When our children were young, we often bought an Advent calendar that had a small door to open for each day of the week. The anticipation would grow as we got closer to Christmas Day. Opening a door each day was one way of measuring the waiting that had to occur. It was almost like a countdown, seeing the open doors indicating that Christmas was getting closer.
It isn’t just youngsters who find it hard to wait. Grownups seem to have as much difficulty. The impatience of waiting is not something that we apparently outgrow. That’s why the sales technique of “a limited time offer” works so well.
As we once more anticipate the coming of the Christ Child, we wait with expectation. I wrote in the June Grapevine about the unhappy result of Saul’s inability to wait for Samuel to arrive before offering the sacrifice before battle (1 Samuel 13). There was a designated time that Saul was supposed to wait for Samuel’s arrival. When that time had passed, Saul was faced with a dilemma. What should he do? The troops were beginning to fearfully drift away. So he offered the sacrifice before Samuel arrived. As soon as the odors of the sacrifice drifted skyward, who should appear but Samuel! And he was upset.
I think that scenario illustrates one of the challenges of waiting that we often face. On the one hand, waiting for the Christ Child and Christmas is a fixed time frame. If you have the tradition of the Advent calendar, you know that the waiting will be over when you get to Dec. 25. Waiting when there is a fixed time frame may not always be comfortable, but it at least has boundaries and limits.
On the other hand, there are times when we are asked to wait for things to unfold without the benefit of a definite time frame. Think of the promise that God made to Abram in Genesis 17. He would be the father of many nations, and the land on which he was now living as an alien would be given to him and his offspring. While he had already waited a long time for a child, from this point on he only had to wait a little longer. But with respect to possessing the land, the writer of Hebrews observes in chapter 11 that he did not realize that promise during his earthly life. It is one thing to wait for a fixed amount of time. It can be quite another to wait for an indefinite period of time and still remain hopeful.
That’s why in the church Lectionary, the readings for Year B (the one we are beginning) has the gospel readings for Advent coming from Mark’s gospel account. Mark has no infancy narratives like those in Matthew or Luke. Instead we read about waiting for something about which “only the Father” knows the time (Mark 13:32). While we may wait again for the Christmas event that heralds Jesus’ arrival as a tiny baby, we are simultaneously still waiting (now more than 2000 years after that historical event) for the consummation of God’s kingdom.
What is the element that enables us to wait for an indefinite period of time without despairing? Mark’s gospel begins by pointing toward the work of John the Baptist and reminding us of the prophecy of Isaiah 40. It is the expectation that God’s hand will deliver the people of God. This is a word of comfort, offering hope to those who have been waiting. Hope is the magnetic force that draws out our ability to wait, even if we do not know how long we must wait. It shows a confidence that God’s word will be fulfilled. That is what we wait for expectantly even if there is no “end date” on the calendar before us.
As once more we are called to wait during this Advent season, may you be strengthened in your waiting by “the hope that is within you” (1 Peter 3:15).