Wednesday, December 03, 2008

How to Wait

[This was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, on Sunday, November 30, the First Sunday in Advent.]

Mark 13:24-37
Near the beginning of C.S. Lewis' classic The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, four children from our world enter, by way of a wardrobe, into another world. They find themselves in a place called Narnia, then living under the spell of a White Witch who has made it “always winter, always winter and never Christmas.”

But the hope of spring comes into Narnia when Aslan, the Great Lion, the son of the Emperor-over-the-Sea, returns to Narnia. I’ll say no more for those who haven’t yet read the book, but this: I suspect that the moods of many people in our world today can be described as Narnia is described at the beginning of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. For them, life is “always winter and never Christmas”: drudgery without joy, longing without fulfillment, fear without encouragement, and for some, sorrow without hope.

Each of us know what it is like to yearn, as Lewis puts it in another book, for "another country," a better place. I imagine that at their root, every longing you and I have ever known, goes back to our desire for something better, which we’re all prone to mistakenly imagine can be fulfilled by some one or some thing here on earth: a new love, a new car, a new job or career, a new baby, a new house, a new drug, a new exercise, a new buzz.

When I was a boy, this time of year seemed to drag on endlessly. The sun sank early, the nights lasted forever, and it felt like Christmas would never arrive. And while I was usually quite happy with my gifts, they didn't give me a joy that endured.

But the wintry state of our souls can be seen in more than little children with their Christmas lists. I spoke once with a man who told me that his teenage son, formerly an honors student and a great athlete, had gotten involved with sex outside of marriage and with drugs and destructive patterns of behavior. When a psychologist asked the young man why he had taken his life in this direction, he said, “Look, either the terrorists, or global warming, or some natural disaster is going to get me anyway. We’re all going to die soon. So, I just want to live while I can.” For this young man, it was always winter and never Christmas.

But it doesn’t have to be that way for any of us! We can live with joy, even in the midst of the humdrum. We can have our deepest yearnings for wholeness met. We can face each day with a hope that knows that one day all our sorrow will be turned into laughter and dancing!

Today is the first Sunday in Advent, the beginning of a new Church Year. Advent is a season of anticipation, of waiting. It coincides with the ebbing days of fall and the first stirrings of winter. But unlike that Narnian winter, our winter of waiting looks forward with the confident assurance that Christmas will come.

And it’s more than the celebration of Christmas, that day long ago when God came into the world in the person of the baby Jesus, that makes our Advent winter waiting bearable. In Advent, we also remember that one day, Jesus, the Lion of Judah, the King of kings, the Son of God the Father, is coming back. He, Who once died and then sprang to life again, will return. All the dead who have hoped in Him will rise again and all still living who have followed Him will be with Him in a kingdom that lasts forever. In Advent, we remember that the sins of Jesus’ followers are forgiven and so, have a hope that not even death can destroy. That’s why the color of this season is blue, the color of a bright spring sky, when life is new and the possibilities are endless.

In our Gospel lesson for this morning, Jesus addresses people to whom He has revealed that the massive, sumptuous stones of the temple in Jerusalem will one day crumble and disappear. His fellow Jews can hardly believe it! Like us, the ancient people of God built monuments of faith to God which also, in their way, served as monuments to their own egos. The ancient Hebrew and Judean peoples thought that the Temple would stand forever. If it were to crumble, Jesus' disciples seem to think, then surely the end of the world must be close at hand. It depresses them. They wonder about the signs that will take place before the end.

Jesus goes on to describe events like earthquakes and persecutions of believers, things that are going on today...and that have gone on for thousands of years.

What Jesus is saying is that the end, which will be followed by His reappearance and the establishment of His eternal kingdom could come at any time. All the signs pointing to Jesus’ return and the end of this world had already taken place twenty-one centuries ago. But that shouldn’t depress us. Nor should it be the subject of speculations. Instead, we need to be prepared for His return. Jesus puts it this way:
"But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert… Keep awake."
During our season of waiting, of longing for Christ to act in our lives, we’re called to remain awake, alive, tuned in to God, ready for Jesus’ appearance.

But what exactly does that mean? Above all, I think that it means being about the business that Jesus gives us to do, the business of loving God and loving neighbor, even when we feel inadequate to the task.

It seems to me that we can be about that business in two major ways.
  • First, we intentionally spend time with God, seeking God's forgiveness, listening for God’s direction and correction.
  • Second, in looking for ways to share Christ’s love in our everyday lives.
By far, the hardest of these two things to do is to, in the words of the Old Testament, “be still and know [that God] is God.” Lutheran pastor David Stark says that on the first Christmas, the only ones who seem to have gotten the word about the birth of Jesus, were shepherds, men who spent long nights silently watching their flocks.

The saying is true, “If you feel a long way from God, you can be sure it isn’t because God moved.” God is as close as your Bible, as close as a prayer.

As hard as it may be in the busy-ness of this time of year, I challenge you if it isn’t part of your daily routine to take time each day to turn off the radio during the morning drive or to turn off the TV or computer fifteen minutes before you go to bed at night and spend the time created asking that the dear Christ will enter into your life in fresh ways to guide you and fill you with hope. In the stillness, He will come to you. I promise.

When you spend time with Christ in stillness though, don’t be surprised if He then calls you to act in ways you may not want to act.

That’s what happened to Ed Rowell. While working his way through school, Rowell drove a school bus. Among his passengers was a five year old named Ryan. Ryan seemed to warm to Ed right away. One day, as Ryan got off the bus he told Ed that he’d like for Ed to meet his mom. “She’s pretty,” Ryan said. “I’m sure she is, Ryan,” Ed responded, “but I’ve got a pretty wife at home.”

Some days later, his run completed, Ed noticed that Ryan had fallen asleep and missed getting off at his stop. As Ed turned the bus around to take Ryan to his house, he asked when Ryan had discovered he’d missed the stop. "Back at Kim's house," Ryan said. Why hadn’t he told him then? Ed wondered. Because, Ryan told him, “I didn’t want to bother you.”

Soon thereafter, Halloween came and Ed, suffering from a headache, wanted just to get the kids delivered to their stops, his bus parked, and go home to get a good night’s sleep. He scanned the bus for any sleeping kids and took off.

Ed slept in the next morning, a Saturday, and had just settled in for a cup of coffee, when an item in the newspaper caught his eye. At the local YMCA Halloween party, there had been an accident. A five year old boy was crushed to death by some overturned gymnastic equipment. It was Ryan.

He didn’t want to, but Ed went to Ryan’s funeral visitation. “I’m so scared,” Ed thought. His greatest fear was that he would say something wrong, that he would add to the grief of Ryan’s family with an ill-chosen word.

When Ed arrived, he found Ryan’s “pretty” mom. As Ed saw Ryan’s body in his half-sized casket, he thought he detected a little bit of Halloween make-up on his left ear. “Don’t cry, you idiot,” Ed told himself. In a moment, Ed was standing in front of Ryan’s mother.

“I was Ryan’s bus driver,” he said. Her eyes began to mist and Ed was fearful that he was making things worse. Ryan’s mother then grabbed Ed and began to sob, which in turn set him to sobbing. Ed writes, “I held this young mother I'd never met before, and wished I had something to say that would turn…attention away from my tears and runny nose.” Ed thought he should say something. He didn’t know what it would be, so he just blurted out the first thing that crossed his mind: “Just remember, God knows the pain of losing a son, too." That made the crying worse and Ed got out of the funeral home as fast as possible.

A few months later, Ed’s wife took him to the hospital ER. He was experiencing an appendicitis. As he lay there on a gurney, a pretty woman walked in. It was Ryan’s mother. It turned out that she was an ER nurse.

"Hello, bus driver," she said with a smile. "I want to thank you for being there that night,” she said, as she gave Ed a shot. "I can't tell you how much your words about God understanding have helped me over these past few months. But the fact that you cared enough to cry with us meant more than anything."

This Advent, let God teach you how to wait God’s way.

We wait by taking time to spend with God so that He can forgive us and fortify us for whatever life brings our ways.

And we wait too, by reaching out to others, however unqualified we may feel, with the love, comfort, hope, and peace of God.

For the Christian, filled with God’s Spirit, even in the midst of the challenges of daily living, whether winter, spring, summer, or fall, it can always be Christmas, always a celebration that the Savior born in Bethlehem has died and risen and is always with us. Amen

No comments: