Last week (questioning Christmas) I introduced the season of Advent, the start of the church year and a time for preparing our hearts and minds for the celebration of Jesus birth. As a change from the traditional advent themes (hope, peace, joy, love) I have selected the traditional Carmelite themes of waiting, accepting, journeying and birthing (as suggested here with bible verses) for a series of advent reflections. This week I (and hopefully you will join me) reflect on waiting.
How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.’ Listen! Your sentinels lift up their voices, together they sing for joy; for in plain sight they see the return of the Lord to Zion. Break forth together into singing, you ruins of Jerusalem; for the Lord has comforted his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem. The Lord has bared his holy arm before the eyes of all the nations; and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.
(The New Revised Standard Version (Anglicized Edition), copyright 1989, 1995).
Today’s world is one of immediacy, and in the big cities like Auckland where I live, one of hurry and rush. I struggle to wait, I see it as passive and wasting time - there are always 10 other things I could be using the time for. The larger section of Isaiah that these verses are from are written to a people (Israel) in exile.
I imagine that these exiles knew a lot about waiting.
The exiles at this time would have had heavy hearts full of longing. They were living in a foreign land mourning their home, searching for somewhere that had meaning where they could worship their God. They had seen the structures and symbols of their faith destroyed, and the centre of their worship life lay in ruins. Foreigners (the oppressors) had moved in and set up home in the city at the heart of their faith.
How they waited those people in exile, waited to return to their land, waited for God to show himself miraculously.
But it is not just the exiles of long ago that wait. I have heard a few of your stories and I know that some of you will identify with the exiles addressed in Isaiah. I know that you too have heavy hearts and a longing to find somewhere that feels like a faith home. That you are mourning lost relationships, and a lost sense of belonging. That you search for somewhere you can worship God freely and without constraint. I know that you have experienced a dismantling of much that once structured your faith. The symbols and buildings no longer lead you deeper to God, and it feels like they are inhabited by an oppressive force that is completely foreign to your understanding of your faith.
How we wait also us modern day exiles, we wait for a new reformation that gives us a place to call home, we wait for God to work and change the systems and structures that no longer support the vibrancy of our faith.
I wait badly, I am impatient with people who don't see what is happening, and I am eager for God to work immediately. This passage in Isaiah provides comfort in that waiting, as well as some insights into how we wait. Looking back to Isaiah 40 we see that in this extended passage the prophet is instructed to reassure the exiles with God's comfort. One of the comforts is the reassurance that God will act in his power and that when he does it will be good. In many ways it will be beyond whatever the exiles could imagine (Jesus the messiah is coming). So to we may rest in the idea that whatever God is about to do in this massive shake up of Christianity it will be better than we can imagine. God has heard our cries and our longings.
As I wait for this beyond imaginable work of God, and reflect on Isaiah I realise that I fall into the trap of seeing and portraying waiting as passive. Viewing it as primarily negative and a waste of time. However we can see that in the Isaiah passage the waiting that we are called to is much more active. Waiting involves watching and listening, and a few of us, just a few, and just sometimes, will be granted plain sight of what is to come. But the majority of us just get tantalising glimpses. It reminds me of driving down NZ mountain roads towards the coast in summer. As you wind down the road you receive an inviting peek of the glitter of the sun bouncing on the blue sea. You know the sea is there hidden behind the hills, the occasional glimpses between the hills keep you traveling onward filled with anticipation. So as we wait we need to stay alert to the glimpses that keep us moving forward.
The exiles in Isaiah began to rejoice even though the restoration had not yet begun. They could celebrate because they saw that the steps were in place for God to restore the ruins. There is a challenge in there for you modern exiles, I know that it is easy to get caught up in your confusion and in mourning the loss of so much that you held dear. So put your heads up and look and listen and rejoice when you see those small glimpses of God at work.
We seem to sway between mourning the past or feeling frustrated that the future we see is not yet coming about. Part of learning to wait well is as Paula Gooder states "to rediscover the art of savouring the future, staying in the present and finding meaning in the act of waiting (p.5).” Rejoicing in the small glimpses we see helps us to live fully in the present even while anticipating the future. This is a challenge for me, I get so caught up in wanting the future to happen that I can forget to be actively in the present. As I pray through this passage, I realise that like using Advent to prepare for Christmas this stillness of waiting is important, as a pause to ready ourselves for the rebuilding work ahead.
So pause and although we are all anticipating the future that is to come, be still in this moment of waiting. May you rest in the assurance that God is at work and this period of waiting has a role to play in your life and in God's activity.
This advent you may like to reflect on the following:
If you are a sentinel who can see the Lord at work: What song are you singing? Are you singing loud enough for the other exiles to hear?
If you are an exile: Are you waiting actively, with eyes open and ears attuned? Are you looking out for all the ways that God is at work? Are you accessing the comfort he sends you? Do you have companions to help you rejoice when you get the glittering glimpses?
I love hearing your stories, so do get in touch if you have something to share (firstname.lastname@example.org).