This is the time of waiting. It doesn’t look like it if you look around you though.
We must be one of the most impatient cultures yet to grace the face of the earth, which is why I’m convinced we need to recover some sense of Advent as a counter-cultural act. This is the time of waiting, of hoping and of preparation.
We’re an instant society. My British culture loves to queue and gets very upset if someone doesn’t do it properly. We would happily form a queue as the world burned around us, or so the stereotype goes. We’re actually terrible at that: go and look at the average queue and you’ll find a bunch of people looking at their phones. They couldn’t wait, they needed to be entertained by their dopamine dispenser they keep in their pockets.
I’m as bad. In a queue, on the train, wherever it may be I can’t simply wait for a few minutes alone with my thoughts and the creativity-inspiring boredom. And I’m a writer, there’s a story that lives in my head that I can jump straight back into if need be (maybe I’ll write it one day!). Yet somehow the thought of simply waiting in the company of our own souls for a few minutes is existentially terrifying to most of us. We wouldn’t admit it, but we can’t do it.
We live in what the media theorist Douglas Rushkoff called ‘present shock’, everything happens now. Everything in a world of social media and 24-hour news is happening at once. There’s always a new thing. We can’t sit and wait because something is always happening.
Even in the church we expect people to deal with pain or trauma, or repentance or sanctification, very fast. We are products of our culture, there’s little sense that maybe we just need to wait some months, or some years, for the Lord’s patient tender care. I’m not advocating ignoring problems when we can intervene, but we have to learn to wait.
It might help us if we preached some Advent texts, like Isaiah’s oracles of judgement, or even just the parts of the Nativity story we avoid, like Simeon and Anna. These two older saints who are waiting for the restoration of Israel and have been all of their lives. They are greatly blessed to see a glimpse and then happily die. For centuries before them many waited faithfully and did not see fulfilment.
We are two millennia into church history, I think we can relate.
We’re waiting for something, for the fulfilment of God’s promises, for good things we want that are godly but haven’t happened, for bad things that are happening to us to stop. Even if our waiting is just the big broad human condition of waiting for the Enemy’s fingers to be broken and his hands to be wrenched off our world—for justice to reign and evil to end, we’re all waiting.
Maybe you’re just caught up with that sense of inconsolable longing for something that you can’t quite put your finger on, something that reality never manages to live up to. It feels like an unappeasable desire for the unreachable, a human foible to want something that you can’t describe and certainly can’t claim, a reaching for something more. Have you felt it? It gnaws at the soul. It’s called Sehnsucht, or just being human, to be human is to be waiting.
We drown out the sound of our longing with the buzz of our phones.
But what are we longing for? For the Lord God to come with a trumpet sound, from the east like the Sun. For the one who rules the earth to say finally, “this far and no further.” For a new heavens and a new earth. For a city, vast and teeming with life, from which flows a river that a single tree stands on both sides of and yields fruit in every month of the year. Fruit that looks like bread and wine, life and wisdom.
We’re longing for the day when we cry our last tear as we sob them out held in Yahweh’s arms, and then tear the final root of hell from our hearts and dump it in the fire. We’re longing for the day when the exhausting burdens we all carry unnoticed are prised out of our hands by the kindly grip of a rider on a blood-drenched horse, and then we skip wide-eyed across the threshold into our new forever home: a city that’s a temple that’s a throne room. Heaven meets earth, and they get married. The Lamb meets the Bride, and we marry.
That’s what we’re all waiting for—the desire of every nation, the joy of every longing heart, as Come Thou Long Expected Jesus has it. This desire sits in our hearts, but we have to wait. We have to wait.
Advent is for learning how.
So what we do? This is a lifetime’s work. A few points from me won’t help, we learn to wait by waiting. Find those in your churches who have learned this grace from hard won trails, the long term involuntarily single person, the celibate person, the infertile couple, those trapped in employment that they hate, the abandoned—and I’m sure many more besides. They may not want to bare their pain to your church, but learn from them. Expect them to understand this better than you. Realise that those whose waiting is not existential don’t have the same level of insight here.
And start to talk about it. Don’t end everything on ‘let’s be joyful’—though joy is good and a gift. Start to grapple corporately with waiting. Learn to rejoice in a minor key. Become a refuge for the hurting. Laugh and cry. Weep with those who weep, rejoice with those who rejoice.
You may be doing all of this already, many churches will be, but see it as learning how to wait.
Because he is coming back, and then friends—everything will be made new.
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