The Good Comes in the Wait

December 9, 2014

I shouldn’t be surprised.

This happens every year. In the days after Thanksgiving I have the shocking realization—It’s December already!

And in the conversations that I have been having with folks, many at Radial Church, something seems… well, different this year. Now this isn’t the case for everyone—but for some, I’ve heard people say “You know, I’m just not into the Christmas spirit this year.” And admittedly, if I’m being honest, I kind of agree. This goes beyond not being ready for Christmas because of all the gifts there are to buy and parties to attend.

Many people are having a hard time getting super amped up for the “Christmas” season, when we find ourselves in a season of suffering. It’s hard to have the warm and fuzzies of Christmas, when we are in a difficult place. Even as Jamie and I talked the other night, I said “Yeah, you know what? I’m not really in the Christmas spirit. But I am in the Advent spirit.” And I think at times, that’s probably the more appropriate thing.

The fact is, as we look back into the Church’s calendar… historically there hasn’t been a “Christmas” season… we have in the liturgical calendar, the season of “Advent.” And that is exactly where, or rather, when we are… So—the message of Christmas is only as meaningful as the depths of despair in the season of Advent.

Christmas is only as meaningful as the depths of despair in the Advent.

Advent literally means “the arrival.” And the season means waiting. It is a season of holy waiting. So for something or SomeOne to arrive that we are waiting for, means that we are in that place of deep desire, despair, and need.

As Louie Giglio writes, “Jesus didn’t arrive without a wait. While you and I simply turn the page [in our Bible’s] moving effortlessly from the end of the Old Testament promises to the opening of Matthew’s Gospel, it wasn’t quite that easy. Four hundred years of silence spanned the gap between the final prophecy spoken in Malachi (the last Old Testament) and the birth of Christ.”

I think part of the reason why many of us struggle with doubt and with a loss of hope, and a loss of faith… is that we’ve been conditioned to believe that the promises of God ought to come to us “easily” and “effortlessly” as we just read from Giglio. But if Jesus didn’t “easily” and “effortlessly” and “without a wait” for His people in the Scripture—what makes you and I think it’d be any different for us?

Christmas cannot come without Advent. Jesus cannot arrive easily. We cannot receive the promise without a wait.

Henri Nouwen writes “For many people, waiting is an awful desert between where they are and where they want to go. And people do not like such a place. They want to get out of it by doing something.

Many of us are here tonight waiting… we are waiting for a new job. We are waiting for a new relationship. Some of us are waiting for direction. Others are waiting for a healing. Still, others are just waiting for the season to pass because healing didn’t come for a loved one. Yet, all are waiting for rescue! It is for you that this message is for. It is for you who are “Advent-ing” that Christmas is for. It is for you that God has made a promise that He will not fail you on.

Nouwen goes on to say that “Waiting, as we see it in the people on the first pages of the Gospel, is waiting with a sense of promise.”

It seems only appropriate that the first pages of the Gospel of Luke are explored to parse through this premise.

Luke 1:39 Mary got up and hurried to a city in the Judean highlands. 40 She entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42 With a loud voice she blurted out, “God has blessed you above all women, and he has blessed the child you carry. 43 Why do I have this honor, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 As soon as I heard your greeting, the baby in my womb jumped for joy. 45 Happy is she who believed that the Lord would fulfill the promises he made to her.”

46 Mary said,“With all my heart I glorify the Lord!
47     In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my savior.
48 He has looked with favor on the low status of his servant.
    Look! From now on, everyone will consider me highly favored
49         because the mighty one has done great things for me.
Holy is his name.
50     He shows mercy to everyone,
        from one generation to the next,
        who honors him as God.
51 He has shown strength with his arm.
    He has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations.
52     He has pulled the powerful down from their thrones
        and lifted up the lowly.
53 He has filled the hungry with good things
    and sent the rich away empty-handed.
54 He has come to the aid of his servant Israel,
        remembering his mercy,
55     just as he promised to our ancestors,
        to Abraham and to Abraham’s descendants forever.”

56 Mary stayed with Elizabeth about three months, and then returned to her home.

 

When I was a young kid, I grew up in a single-parent household that was strapped financially to say the least. Now, at the time, I didn’t know that we were “poor.” I didn’t know that having popcorn for dinner was because of poverty—I just thought it was because my mom was the coolest. My 4th birthday was a big deal because my mom saved money to rent a VCR and a Disney movie for the night—which incidentally was a little of a let-down because the rental store accidently replaced “Pinocchio” with a horror movie. But I vividly recall my 4th Christmas getting a generic WWF wrestling action figure. It was meant to look like Hulk Hogan, but it definitely wasn’t a licensed product. So this was… we’ll call it “Bulk Bogan.” But I thought this toy was so cool because it came moveable arms and legs and even some sort of accessories. And I can recall one night playing with the toy that I couldn’t attach the accessories. I asked my mom to help me secure them to the toy, but she was on the phone and motioned for me to wait just a moment. But I couldn’t wait. My knock-off Hulk Hogan needed his wrestling accessories NOW! My mom, still on the phone emphatically motioned for me to wait. At this point I began to panic. Didn’t my mom know that if Bulk Bogan didn’t get his stuff he’d face certain defeat to Nacho Man Sandy Ravage?! Phone call or not, my mom needed to get on the ball! I continued to launch into full tantrum mode when I noticed that my mom wasn’t even talking to the person. I couldn’t wait anymore! As my complaining turned to inconsolable screams my mom reluctantly hung up the phone and quickly attached the accessories in a brief moment. “There, that wasn’t so hard, was it,” I thought. But to this day I can still picture the look of disappointment on my mom’s face. Suddenly, the excitement of my toy’s completion wore off. I knew something had gone awry. I asked my mom what was wrong and she told me that there was a radio contest that she was calling and calling and calling—trying to get through to win the contest. She had finally gotten through and was asked to wait on hold. While on hold I went berserk… the contest was to win a lunch with Cookie Monster. She told me this and minutes later we heard them take another caller who was able to wait… lunch with Cookie Monster went to another little kid. I had no idea that waiting would not only yield the thing that I thought I needed so badly—but something so much more than I could imagine. We’ll discover this concept in this passage… but first we must honor the text by diving into the historical and social context to which it was written.

Our passage opens up with two devout Jewish women who have both experienced unlikely pregnancies. One is an aged-woman who had been barren; the other was a mere child who had never known the intimate touch of a man. To say this was a radical situation to find one’s self in is quite an understatement. Yet, the sense of being radical is underscored when considering the environment that this occurred.

Greeting Elizabeth, Mary captures her exuberance and amazement by reciting a song known as the Magnificat. The term Magnificat is a Latin term that comes from the Greek term megalynei that is used in the opening stanza—“My soul magnifies…[or] With all my heart I glorify…” Yet, many scholars feel that this probably wasn’t a song that Mary composed herself on the spot. Perhaps the song was composed ahead of time by Mary on the arduous journey to visit Elizabeth—but even so, we can be fairly certain that this song was pieced together from other Hebrew texts that would have been salient to Mary’s situation.

For one, the Magnificat is striking to the song of Hannah in 1 Samuel 2:1-10… a text in which Hannah also had an unlikely conception and birth of a son who would be used by God—Samuel.

Delving deeper into the lyrics we see terms used elsewhere only in the Psalms—and verse 49 in particular is lifted from Deuteronomy 10:21.

So the song starts primarily by exulting God in worship… it celebrates that yes, like Hannah of old, Mary will be a mother. She offers praise that God has “looked with favor on the low status of His servant [verse 48].” But then Mary’s tone shifts…

It is here that we must pause. Because we may have a distorted view of Mary—and thus a distorted view of the arrival of Jesus. We often have a sanitized image of Mary; one of Mary in a spotless blue garment with a pristine and pious expression. This is not the Mary of the Bible though. One commentator warns us, stating: “There is a danger in trying to spiritualize the Magnificat. These are the most revolutionary words ever spoken.”

John Howard Yoder notes that the Magnificat “is the language, not of sweet maidens, but of Maccabees: it speaks of dethroning the mighty and exalting the lowly, of filling the hungry and sending the rich away empty. Mary’s praise to God is a revolutionary battle cry.

Even Hannah’s song that Mary initially quotes is one of social interest. Hannah sings that the “poor are raised to sit with nobles”—yet, this pales in the subversive nature of Mary who sings the militant song of zealots and Maccabees where the “nobles” are stripped down and “toppled” from their thrones. Many of us squirm with the notion of such a Mary—yet, indeed this “worship” song that Mary sings, is one that we would have found on the lips of those protesting in Ferguson and the awful death of Eric Garner.  The Magnificat is so politically charged, and revolutionary and subversive in nature that it has historically been banned from being read by several countries including Great Britain in the colonization of India, and even Guatemala in the 1980s.

We cannot understand the hope and promise that God wants to form in us tonight without first understanding the depths of despair that Mary and her people were waiting for centuries in. We must read the text from Mary’s eyes. From our eyes we can see that Mary was a revolutionary within an oppressed group. But what was it that her eyes were seeing to compose this tune?

Mary’s words were undoubtedly pointed initially at Herod the Great. Herod was a self-proclaimed “king of the Jews” yet ruled the Jewish people with brutality. His oppressive taxes suffocated the people in poverty so that he may have more padding on his affluent life. Herod was an arrogant and proud leader that would not bat an eye at having his family—even his own wives and children—murdered if he even sensed a threat to his rule. The Bethlehem sky that Mary would eventually gaze into with wonder in the months to follow was obstructed by the massive palace that Herod had built for himself to gloat in his decadence. This palace was constructed upon a 2,500 ft high man-made mountain. So “scattering the proud” and “pulling rulers down”—and 2,500 ft is a long way down—was acutely pointed at Herod.

Yet, it wasn’t just Herod that oppressed Mary and the Jewish people. This is firmly planted in the context of the Roman Empire that gave Herod the permission to rule—essentially leasing the land. Rome was just as brutal to the marginalized Jewish people. Following the death of Rome’s emperor Julius Caesar, his adopted son Augustus took the throne. Julius Caesar was decreed a “god” in his death and in his wake, Augustus was proclaimed as a “savior of the world” because he had ended bitter civil wars within the empire by enacting Pax Romana. Though, this peace was through violence enacted often against the people that Mary would identify with. Thus, there was a political propaganda when Mary received this news, that was known as “gospel”—this “gospel” was that Augustus Caesar, the “son of god” saved Rome by bringing peace to the world.

So there was definitely a sense of restless longing and waiting by God’s people—from Mary’s context of Herod and Empire, touching the Maccabeean revolt, and the exile at the hands of the Assyrians and Babylonians—they had become well-acquainted with waiting for God to bring the goodness of His promise.

Yet, I think it is prudent to pause to contemplate the thought that Mary’s song is pieced together from elements of Hebrew literature throughout Israel’s history. This song underscores the waiting that Mary and her community found themselves in.

For centuries—the people wait on a promise from God. The people suffer and wait… and wait… and wait… Can you imagine the pain they endured? Can you imagine how their faith must have been rocked by asking many questions that you and I likely ask? Has God gone mute? Why is He silent in our suffering? Is He even there? Does He care? Does this wait even matter?

What is the “wait” in my life that causes me to ask these questions? What is the “wait” in your life that casues you to ask these? Why does God allow us to wait—and why is it so hard?

The reality is, we struggle with waiting for several reasons. First, in my own life… much of the difficulty waiting is attached to fear. I’m afraid. Henri Nouwen writes that “fearful people have a hard time waiting, because when we are afraid we want to get away from where we are. The more afraid we are, the harder waiting becomes.”

The second component is that we don’t really understand the biblical foundation of waiting. We refuse to wait for good things, so we settle on bad things. In my refusal to wait, I only got a cheap plastic toy with an accessory attached when I could have had lunch with who was at that time, my hero. We cannot wait in being single until God brings someone into our life so we settle for dating someone who is not good for us. A job becomes difficult or boring and so we quit on a whim. We cannot “wait” to have this thing… so we bury ourselves and family in debt because we “need” it now. The reality is, we confuse waiting, with wishing…

Nouwen goes on to say..

“Waiting is open-ended [which ] is hard for us because we tend to wait for something very concrete, for something that we wish to have. Much of our waiting is filled with wishes; “I wish that I would have a job. I wish that the weather would be better. I wish that the pain would go.” We are full of wishes, and our waiting easily gets entangled in those wishes. For this reason, a lot of our waiting is not open-ended. Instead, our waiting is a way of controlling the future. We want the future to go in a very specific direction, and if this does not happen we are disappointed and can even slip into despair. That is why we have such a hard time waiting: we want to do the things that will make the desired events to take place. Here we can see how wishes tend to be connected with fears. But Mary wasn’t filled with wishes. [She] was filled with hope. Hope is something very different. Hope is trusting that something will be fulfilled, but fulfilled according to the promises and not just according to our wishes.”

We see this hope in Mary’s words…

“He has looked…The Mighty One has done… He has shown… He has scattered… He has pulled… He has filled… He has come!” Each of these phrases are composed in the aorist tense in the Greek. That Mary’s words are framed in this way is stunning when we contemplate how these statements are constructed in light of our study on “waiting.” Remember—Herod is still in power at this point… and for Mary, the Jewish people, and even Jesus, will be for some time. Yet, Mary states it in such a way that it’s not only that God will do that… but He is doing it in that moment… and even has been doing it all along.

Because of this, we must, as Nouwen insists give up “control over our future and let God define our life, trusting God molds us according to [His] love and not according to our fear.”

Mary was not passively wishing… she was actively waiting… waiting knowing that she didn’t know exactly how it would turn out… but that God was doing something good. Mary was not wishing for the end “out there” in some distant land known as the future… Mary recognized that the “good” is formed in the midst of our desert of wait.

Yet, even then… Jesus surprises us… as He surprised Mary. Yes, He does bring a “revolution”—but it is so much better than what she could have even imagined. They thought “if Herod’s rule would just be toppled… if we could just be free of Rome…” Thank God that He didn’t “advent” according to their wishes, but instead His promises. Thank God that He didn’t “advent” in response to their fears, but instead His faithful love.

I believe that God wants to exceed what we are “wishing” for. Man… I misinterpreted my parent “being on hold” as ignoring my needs. The reality is—we have a Heavenly parent who has not placed you or I on hold—God has not ignored our needs… and He is not silent. Even now, good is being formed for His glory and your good. And at the right moment, despite what your Advent is… Christmas will come!

Christ is coming! He will not fail you! So let us join with one another, as Mary and Elizabeth joined in community, and wait for God.

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