Waiting Patiently -- An Advent Lectionary Meditation
I waited an entire lifetime (fifty-two years) to watch the San Francisco Giants win the World Series. I was not yet born when a very young Willie Mays and his New York Giants teammates won the ’54 Series. I’d seen the Giants make it to the series a few times in my life, but never had I been able to watch them win it all. But, the day of reckoning did come, and my dreams were fulfilled. Yes, in early November of this year, a much underestimated team that relied on pitching due to a relatively weak offense patiently, but persistently, overcame the odds and won it all for the first time in fifty-six years. Being the fan of a team that more often than not rewards one’s patience with failure to succeed might lead one to switch teams (and truth be told, despite my lifelong love of the Giants, I have cheated on occasion and adopted a substitute team), but the promise lives on and we persevere (no one quite as long as Cub fans). And when the promise is fulfilled, we are truly filled with joy unspeakable!
The texts for the third Sunday of Advent have nothing to do with baseball, but they do remind us that patient waiting is required of us if we’re to see the reign of God come to full fruition. The prophet of old lays out a wondrous vision of a desert that comes alive with glorious beauty, as it tastes the benefits of water. The prophet adds another image, that of a highway, which is called the Holy Way, and this highway will be extraordinarily safe. It will be a highway for God’s people, and there will be no fear of danger nor of getting lost. And as the ransomed, the redeemed, walk upon it into Zion, they will be doing so singing songs of joy and gladness, with their sorrows fleeing away. What a grand vision of God’s reign. Of course, the prophet new that such a vision had yet to bear fruit. The people of God are living in exile, their hopes dim, but the promise is held out for them.
From the epistle of James we read words of caution – “Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord.” Like the farmer who patiently waits for the harvest, knowing that both the early and the late rains must come before there is to be a harvest. Yes, once again, water plays a significant role in the promised coming of the Lord. The early church leader tells the reader to strengthen their hearts, because the Lord is near. Don’t grumble against each other, lest you be liable for judgment. Indeed, the judge is at the door. But remember that the judges in this context need not be meting out punishment, but instead deciding how to distribute God’s bounty. So be patient, and if you need encouragement, then look to the example of the prophets who suffered patiently, even as they spoke in the name of the Lord.
If Isaiah lays out the vision and James cautions us to be patient in our anticipation of God’s reign, Matthew seems to think that the promise has been fulfilled. Once again John the Baptist appears in the story, as John often does during this season of patient waiting and preparation for the Coming of the Lord. But in this scene, John is in prison, his dream that God’s reign would come into being as a result of his preaching the baptism of repentance, came crashing down. He had hoped to see the dream fulfilled, and now he’s in prison. But according to Matthew, he hears word that the Messiah is doing some amazing things, so he sends his disciples to ask Jesus: Are you the one, or should we keep looking? Now, if you go back maybe eight chapters you’ll find John baptizing Jesus and proclaiming him to be the Messiah or something like that. So, why the confusion and the questions? In answer to John’s questions, Jesus reaches back to the words of Isaiah, and lays out the things he is doing, and suggests that they speak for themselves: The blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are clean (remember that in Isaiah 35 no one who is unclean is allowed on God’s Holy Way), the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor, yes the poor, have received the Good news. That, Jesus believes, is a sufficient answer, and the disciples of John return to their master.
As John’s disciples move out of earshot, Jesus turns to the crowd and says of the one who has been sent by God to prepare the way and to be God’s messenger, no one who has been born of a woman has risen higher than John, and yet the least in the kingdom is greater than he. Why? Because the least person in the kingdom has had the opportunity to see God’s reign in its fullness, something John did not get to experience. John is preparing the way, but like Moses another will take the people into the land of promise.
So we watch to see what God is up to, and we do so with patience, knowing the one who is coming is standing at the door. And with the ransomed and the redeemed of the Lord, we come into the Promised Land singing songs of joy!