Sunday, November 10, 2019

Sermon: "The Art of Waiting", Haggai 2:1-9/2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17 (November 10, 2019)


I’ve never been particularly fond of winter. Over the course of my life, my favorite season has shifted back and forth from fall to spring, and even summer’s gotten some appreciation in recent years. But never winter. I don’t like being cold; I don’t like the way dry skin feels 24 hours a day; I don’t like the early sunsets and short days. I’ve always disliked winter so much that even though my due date was in early January, I hunkered down and refused to be born until they took me out by force a month later. Very little has changed in my current opinion of the season.

So, as we approach mid-November and watch the temperature dipping lower and lower, I begin to play the waiting game. There’s not much I can do to avoid winter (unless I wanted to give up spring and fall, too, which I don’t) so I just have to make it through until the vernal equinox. But, I mean, that’s fine. This is kind of a “waiting” time of year, anyway; what with Advent quickly approaching, the countdown to my birthday, and my car taking forever to warm up, I’m used to it by now.

Waiting is, after all, a necessary part of life. I can’t think of a single time that something worth having was achieved immediately—there’s always some level of patience required. This isn’t just true in the internet age of “instant gratification”; it’s been the case throughout human history. And this is especially true for the people of God. The Bible is essentially a giant metaphorical waiting room filled to the brim with…well, people waiting: Abraham had to wait for the fulfillment of the Covenant. The Hebrew people had to wait to be delivered from slavery. Moses had to wait (unsuccessfully) to enter the Promised Land. The Israelites had to wait for their restoration after exile. The Jewish people had to wait for a Messiah. Early Christians had to wait for Christ’s return. And you may notice that none of these waits were what could be called “short” by any stretch of the imagination. The briefest timeline here was 40 years; the longest is going on 2000 years and still counting. From this perspective, having to wait four months for Spring isn’t quite as intolerable as it may initially have seemed…

With such prolific experiences as we’ve had over the centuries, you’d think that the people of God would be experts at waiting. But we aren’t always. Abraham, for example, was so impatient for an heir that he had a son through his wife’s handmaid “just in case”. The Hebrew people were so impatient to enter the Promised Land that they actually complained by saying that returning to slavery would be preferable to waiting in the wilderness. Many Jews were so impatient for a Messiah that they put all of their hopes on the first person claiming to be sent by God (and there were a lot of potential Messiahs in those days). When they were asked to wait, each person’s faith wavered. Their waiting was characterized by negativity and despair.

Can you relate? I can. All winter I find myself thinking things like, “This is the worst. I should start looking for a call in Florida or something. Maybe I should have stayed in Upstate New York—at least there, they have enough plows to deal with a big snowstorm. I’m leaving town with the next person to offer me a tropical cruise, even if it’s a telemarketer.” These things aren’t really true or rational, but they’re the sort of thing that goes through my head during these cold months, when the waiting is the hardest. All too often, when forced to wait, we wind up self-indulgently wallowing in our despair.

But what’s the alternative? If things are rotten, or at least not ideal, then what other attitude could we possibly adopt? Scripture consistently calls us to a different way of waiting, so let’s start by looking there. In Haggai, the prophet is speaking to a people newly returned from exile. They’d waited for years to return to their home and way of life, and now that they were back, they found themselves disappointed. Rebuilding takes time. The new temple that they were constructing wasn’t nearly as impressive as the old one had been. How were they supposed to return to their former power and glory if they didn’t have an equally awe-inspiring temple at their center? They’d just waited 70 years in exile, and they were in no mood to wait any longer. But the prophet had a message for them: “Be strong, all you people of the land. Work, for God is with you. Remember God’s promise when you came out of Egypt, and take heart.” Choose an alternative to despair, he seems to say.

Paul offers a similar message to the Thessalonians in his second letter to them. There was a lot of confusion in the early Christian community about what happens next. Like the post-exilic Israelites, they, too, had finally reached the end of a long wait—for the long-promised Messiah—and were anxious to keep the momentum going. Christ had said that he’d return, so where was he? He must have already come, and they’d just missed it! Surely they didn’t have to wait AGAIN??? To calm their anxiety, Paul tells them, “Don’t worry; when Christ returns, you’ll definitely know it. Meanwhile, remember the things that I told you, and hold on to the traditions that we taught you. With their help, you can get through this wait like you got through the last one.”

In these two passages, God’s messengers provide their audiences with exactly the tools they need to avoid waiting in despair. For starters, both tell the people to remember: Haggai reminds the Israelites of God’s promise back in Egypt, and Paul tells the Thessalonians to remember the things that he’d taught them. Remembering, and sharing those memories, helps us avoid false nostalgia—“things were better before”—and helps us stay connected to the truth that’s already been revealed to us. Waiting becomes easier when we can recall the promises of the good things that lie ahead.

For similar reasons, Paul also makes a point to emphasize the importance of tradition. Sometimes, remembering with our minds isn’t enough to draw us out of despair as we wait. Sometimes, we need to remember with our bodies, too. Each time we gather at the table to share in Communion, each time we pray the Lord’s Prayer together in community, each time we stand to pray or sing or proclaim our faith, our hands and lips and bodies are reinforcing the promises made by God to us, as well as those we’ve made to God. We’re reassured by the familiarity of these actions and the way they connect us to God and one another. In this way, traditions can also keep us from despair as we wait.

What else? Haggai advises the people to work as they wait. He’s not talking about busywork to distract them from their misery, but about the work to which God has already called them. There’s so much that God wants God’s people to do in the world, and if we neglect this work, not only does our inaction exacerbate our sense of helplessness, but it keeps us from making any progress towards the very thing that we’re waiting for! “Work, for I am with you,” says the Lord. God is with us as we work for the Kingdom, so that we might know that our waiting isn’t pointless or in vain, but in service to a much greater good.

Finally, both Haggai and Paul proclaim emphatically that the best antidote to waiting in despair is to choose hope instead. “There are good things coming,” they both insist, “so look towards those instead of fixating on the hard parts.” Haggai says that regardless of what the temple winds up looking like, this house will be filled with splendor and glory and that God will provide prosperity. Paul says that God provides “eternal comfort and good hope”, and he prays that the people might find this comfort and hope as they wait for Christ’s return. Clearly, hope is key to waiting well.

Memory, Tradition, Work, and Hope. According to scripture, these are the tools we should be using to avoid despair as we find ourselves waiting time and time again. And make no mistake; we’re still waiting today: waiting for justice, waiting for equality, waiting for peace, waiting for Christ’s return to herald the arrival of these things that humanity so desperately needs. So how will we choose to wait? Will we wait in despair, little by little abandoning our faith that Christ will ultimately triumph? Or will we remember God’s promises, fulfilled again and again without fail throughout all of human history? Will we hold fast to our traditions, keeping our past, present and future connected to God and to God’s desires for us? Will we work for God’s kingdom in every moment, knowing that each task we undertake to help others in Christ’s name brings us one step closer to that which we so eagerly await? Will we wait in hope, assured that no matter how difficult the waiting is, it will be worth it?

Maybe I should try reframing the way I wait for Spring. Maybe I should remember all the good parts about winter, like the beauty of the snow or the excitement of my birthday. Maybe I should find comfort in my winter traditions, like pulling out my comfy sweaters and stocking up on pumpkin spice coffee. Maybe I should do the work to prepare myself for the wait, like changing the tires on my car and making plans to visit family. Maybe I should find the hope in the season, like the light that always shines in the darkness and the child that will be born in the not-too-distant-future to deliver us from death and sin. Maybe I should work on the way that I wait. Maybe we all should. Amen.

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