We spend so much of life waiting. As children, we could hardly wait for birthdays, free days and holidays; we could hardly wait to grow up. Now, as adults, we wait for buses and trains; we wait in doctors’ offices and government agencies; we wait for our turn on the golf course or the tennis court; we wait to get into a theater. Some people even wait to die. At times we wait for something to happen; at other times we wait for something to stop happening. In either case, waiting for the future to unfold is a common human experience.
Advent is a time of waiting. But waiting for what? Surely, it is not simply a time of waiting for the birth of Christ, for that event has already taken place. Nor is it really a time of waiting for the end of the world, as some have claimed. Today’s readings tell us that Advent is a time of waiting for the appearance of the reign of God. Because this reign dawned for us with the birth of Christ, we look forward to the feast of Christmas and celebrate its importance. Because this reign issues in a new world of grace, we reflect on the end of the old world. The reign of God constantly unfolds before us, so we are always looking for its further appearance—hoping for a time of reconciliation and genuine peace, a time of mutual respect and cooperation. Advent is the time of waiting for this new world to appear.
We long for such a new world, because we can no longer tolerate the one in which we live. The present world is one of violence and hatred, of dishonesty and greed; a world that seems to prey on the most vulnerable. From the midst of such pain, Isaiah invites us to cry out to God in complaint: Why have you not protected us? Why have you allowed things to get so bad?
Though we today seldom use formal lament in our public prayer, the ancient Israelites frequently complained to God. And why not complain? To whom else, if not to God, should we turn when we are oppressed, overburdened and feel hopeless? Who better than God can remedy the personal and social ills that we must endure? Religious souls lament the apparent absence of God in the workings of the world. Tender hearts lament the fate of those who have been afflicted or marginalized in society. Broken spirits lament the suffering that touches every life. Through the ages believers have cried out: where is God? Or directing their complaint to God have demanded: how long, O Lord? The readings for this First Sunday of Advent direct us to acknowledge the difficulties that face us in life. Advent is a time to lament these difficulties.
Though the readings direct us to acknowledge our pain, they do not allow us to become fixated in it. Instead we are invited to turn our gaze to the hope of a brighter future. The images of God employed in these readings encourage us to do so. The very character of these images enables us to move from our initial complaint to expressions of confidence. Isaiah addresses God both as father, who has given us life and who cares for us, and as artisan, who has fashioned us as works of art. The psalmist depicts God as a shepherd who is attentive to the sheep, as a vinedresser who works diligently for the health and productivity of the vines, as an imperial ruler and a military captain, both of whom are committed to the welfare of their people. These images are meant to assure us of God’s solicitous concern. Our waiting for a new world may be tedious and sometimes even discouraging, but we should not be disheartened, for God is there for us.
When will the revelation of Jesus Christ appear; when will this new world arrive? When will the Day of the Lord dawn? We do not know for sure, so we must wait with patient expectation; we must wait in joyful hope that it will come soon. And what should we do while we wait? In the Gospel story the servants do not wait idly. They assume responsibility for the work of the household. Today we are responsible for the natural world in which we live, for the society of which we are a part and for the work of the church. As overwhelming as this task may seem, Paul reminds us that we have all the gifts and talents that we need to live faithfully in this world: “You are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Pregnant with expectation, we are admonished to prepare for the day of fulfillment. We wait for that day in partnership with others who wait. This means that in our waiting we are vigilant for justice, compassionate toward those who lament and, yes, forgiving of those who wrong us. We live between the time of Christ’s first coming and the time of final fulfillment, an in-between time of ambiguity and hope. We believe that we have a future worth waiting for, worth working toward. Relying on God’s promises to us, we firmly believe that “there’s a new world coming, and it’s just around the bend; there’s a new day coming, this one’s coming to an end!”