by Bill Davis
As we walk together through this season of Advent, I’ve been mindful of the meaning of Advent in fresh ways. As you may know, “Advent” is from the Latin word meaning “coming,” and it reflects that season of preparation for our celebration of when Christ came in the incarnation and also as we await his second coming. But if there’s someone coming, then by definition that means they’re not yet here. So Advent is as much a reminder and season of waiting. Waiting… anticipating… pondering… expecting… hoping… all are at the heart of Advent.
Good anticipation is indeed great joy. The abundance of joyful anticipation is an appropriate cause of great celebration in Advent. I think it’s one reason why Christmas is the source of some of the very best music, best rejoicing, best food, best festivities on the calendar (even the secular culture will sing “it’s the most wonderful time of the year!”). But even in the anticipation, there is impatience that begets the beginning of some lament. Kids (or kids-at-heart) who have trouble waiting for Christmas morning, parents awaiting grown children to return for a visit, grandchildren awaiting a special visit from grandparents… all can feel “how much longer?!” even though they have a clear target on the calendar or the clock.
But what about when the anticipation is of unknown duration? Longing for a marriage to be reconciled but no clear roadmap, caring for a loved one with significant but indefinite needs, and enduring unemployment, health crisis, or other hardship with not only an uncertain timeline but an uncertain outcome are all the sort of waiting none of us sign up for. Each of those scenarios have a joyful, desirable, hoped-for outcome, but the waiting is the type that’s laden with lament.
We’ve been especially helped so far in this Advent season by the first two sermons in The Adventure of Christmas series - first by Will Peycke, who helped us connect to some of the lament in the stories of waiting, and then by Gami Ortiz, who pointed us to God’s presence when our own stories are impacted by such unplanned upheaval. Those sermons have set me pondering in real ways the unfathomable waiting that surrounds God’s people (both then and now). It seems impossible to connect with 400 years of "silent" waiting between the last prophet’s word from Malachi to the appearance by Gabriel to Zechariah foretelling the birth of his son John and of the Messiah for whom John would make the people ready. But then there’s a waiting and lament in Zechariah and Elizabeth’s story of childlessness some can connect to intimately, and with which anyone can identify who has had a prayer unanswered so long they’ve perhaps just given up daring to pray it.
That long-waiting, sometimes hope-abandoned experience puts us in very good biblical company. The lament of Psalm 13, “How long, O Lord?” rings throughout the pages of scripture and often the pages of our own story. This past week, as we elders recently took an annual ½ day to pray and reflect together, one of the scriptures that surfaced was Job 23:8-9 (emphasis mine):
Behold, I go forward, but he is not there,
and backward, but I do not perceive him;
on the left hand when he is working, I do not behold him;
he turns to the right hand, but I do not see him.
One of the biggest errors of lament is false conclusions. My lack of "perception" does not equate to God’s lack of acting. Job reminds us that when I “do not behold him,” still “he is working.”
Not unlike the timeline before Gabriel’s announcements, there was another period of waiting and lament for hundreds of years recorded in history: that of God’s people being enslaved in Egypt. Exodus 2:23-25 is a look behind the scenes during their “not perceiving” to see God at work:
During those many days the king of Egypt died, and the people of Israel groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help. Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God. And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. God saw the people of Israel—and God knew.
If you’re experiencing an “anticipation of unknown duration” this Advent, even perhaps one laden with lament, I pray you’ll be reminded of who God is and what he does.
But, if your heart can lean into cynicism like mine can, or if you’re weary enough as Zechariah and Elizabeth might have been after likely abandoning a seemingly-hopeless prayer, you might be tempted to see the above attributes of God as insufficient. “OK, so he knows… he still seems absent, and I ‘do not perceive’ him.” But of course that’s far from an exhaustive list of God’s character and work. There’s also this attribute:
God is precise.
For God there is no gap between his seeing and knowing and his acting. God does not, like we, need to have any lag between his being aware and his knowing what to do. There is nothing for him to figure out. He needs no time to plan or wait for resources. He has no dependence on someone else’s course or counsel. For him, to know what to do is to do it perfectly in action and in time. Further, there is no distraction to take him off course.
Contrast this to ourselves. On any given Saturday-chores list, Sarah and I divvy up the tasks and have the plan for the day. But if you check in with Sarah mid-day, you’d find her with well-founded skepticism of whether I’m going to get my list done, as I’m known for letting myself be distracted with some bunny trail or unspoken bootleg goal I decided was more important in the moment.
Never so with God. Consider Psalm 18:30:
This God—his way is perfect;
the word of the Lord proves true;
he is a shield for all those who take refuge in him.
So, why do I use the word “precise” instead of “perfect”? (And, yes, both apply fully.) Because when we are in the waiting, especially the unknown waiting, we need to be reminded that God’s timing will be precise. “Eventually” is not a word rightly associated with God. Advent—the anticipated awaiting for the Messiah—was precise.
But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. (Galatians 4:4-5)
“The fullness of time” means “at precisely the exact, right time”... God sent his Son—the Son whom the angel(s) separately instructed both Mary and Joseph to name Jesus, “for he will save his people from their sins.”
So, this Advent season, please ponder the precision of Christmas. If God can (and did!) so precisely orchestrate the entire timeline of creation to incarnation, can (and will) he not also be sovereign over your own waiting season as well?
Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus! O Come, O Come, Emmanuel!