Hurry Up and Wait: Begin at the End
As many of you have heard, starting next month I’ll be working on a research project supported by a grant that I received from the Louisville Institute that allows pastors to dig a little deeper in whatever areas of ministry interest them. You’ll be hearing lots more about my research in the coming months, since I hope to have you all be one of my churches that participates in my research, but I can tell you that it’s an expansion of the work that I already did in my Doctor of Ministry project. I’ll be continuing to look at how congregations do outreach work, and how I can help congregations become more deeply invested in outreach ministries.
When I was working on my Doctor of Ministry project, the steps I needed to complete in order to finish my degree were all outlined very carefully and specifically from the kind of paper I had to print on, to the font, to the margins, to the forms I had to have people sign to participate in my research. It was all spelled out – what to do to complete my work. But one of the first things I had to complete was a research proposal. I had to put together a 15 page proposal that stated my question – what was it my research was hoping to answer; and then talked about why, theologically speaking, I thought it was an important question to ask; and then stated my research process – how I intended to go about answering the question; and then my proposal also had to include the results I expected to get and why those results would be important. In other words, before I even did any research, I had to write out what I expected the results and significance of my research to be. It felt really strange to me at first. But it’s really how most research in any field is done. You start with a hypothesis – the answer you think you are going to get. And then you see if you can prove, or end up disproving your answer. But you start with where you think you’re going to end up. Otherwise, research would just be so open ended that it would be mostly useless. If you weren’t looking for a particular answer, but just exploring, it would be hard to make anything constructive out of what you experienced, even if you took in a lot of data. Ok, sometimes, discoveries are made accidentally, unintentionally. But most of the time, research provides results because researchers started out visualizing the ending they were trying to reach.
People like to say that “it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey.” And in many ways, I believe this is true. But usually this is true because we still have a destination in mind. The journey is fantastic because we know where we’re heading. If you don’t know where you’re going, trying to enjoy the journey is a bit more stressful! So with some things, we begin by figuring out where it is we’re hoping to end up.
That’s a bit of the strategy with the lectionary readings for Advent. Remember, the lectionary is the scheduled set of readings for the church year – they go in a three year-cycle, each year focusing on one of the synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, with the gospel of John sprinkled throughout. The new lectionary year begins on the First Sunday of Advent each year – that’s the beginning of the church year. Which means, as I mentioned last week, today is the beginning of a new church year. This is Year B, focusing on Mark. And every lectionary year, the first text for the first Sunday of Advent expresses similar themes: texts that sound an awful lot like they’re about the end of the world. Isn’t that sort of a strange place to start if our goal is to prepare for the birth of the Christ child?
In Mark’s gospel, we find ourselves near the end of the book, with Jesus talking about the Son of Man coming to gather people to him. Jesus says we’ll know that he is near just like we know summer is near – reading the signs around us. And yet, at the same time, Jesus says, we don’t know the day or hour this will take place. No one does, he says, not even Jesus. So the best strategy: “Beware, keep alert. Keep awake.” When I read these words, they sound both exhausting and anxiety-producing. How can we live on the edge all the time? It reminds me of the color-coded terror-alert system we had in place for a decade following 9/11, that never fell below yellow – an elevated level of alert – for the entire time the system was in place. How useful is an anxious system of constant alert, where anxiety becomes the normal level? Surely, this is not what Jesus means. This is not the destination of Advent we’re trying to reach, right? What is it that we’re longing for?
So often, and especially in this season, I think children lead us. Now, I think children are excited and anxious for Christmas to come, but I also know that young children have a very skewed concept of time. Take my nephew Sam. He’s a little wiser now at the ripe old age of 7 and a half. But for a while, anything in the past happened ʺa couple weeks ago.” Things that happened ʺwhen he was littleʺ could be things that were when he was an infant, two years old, or earlier this year. Or Sam would talk about growing up – he defined this as the time when his feet would finally touch the floor when he sits on a chair. And when he started kindergarten, Sam was perplexed over what had happened to his friend from pres-school, Alex – who is the same age as Sam – since he hadn’t seen him a while. Sam mused: I think Alex must be a teenager now! Sam is indeed excited for Christmas to come, as he is excited for most joyful things to take place in his happy life. But Sam isn’t rushing time by. Instead, I would say he is ready. He is ready for the excitement he knows is on the way. A day, a week, a month – they can all seem long or short to Sam depending on his mood. But he isn’t in a hurry. He is just happy, and ready for Christmas when it comes, and although he’s getting older and wiser, I hope he can savor that sweet state of joyful, hopeful expectation for a few more years.
Joyful, hopeful expectation – that’s what I think God wants for us. Joyfully, hopefully we long for God’s will, God’s hopes, God’s dreams, God’s realm to be made complete in us and in our world. We remain alert, excited, hopeful, on the watch for signs of God’s kingdom moving among us and in us, and maybe even with our help. I know I’ll probably drive many of you a little crazy with singing more Advent Hymns during Advent than Christmas Carols. But the funny thing about Advent hymns is that they usually do a really great job of reminding us what exactly we’re getting ready for. Most Advent hymns don’t talk about baby Jesus and a manger scene. They talk, instead, about the savior we long for, and why the world stands in need of Christ’s coming in the first place. Take “O Come O Come Emmanuel.” The first verse talks about captive Israel, mourning, lonely, in exile, waiting for God to appear. And then the refrain, “Rejoice, Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.” Advent hymns are carols that tell us our destination and tell us how much we need to reach that destination, and then sing with eager longing for the journey that will help us arrive at that destination.
That’s what Advent is. Advent is preparation with a destination in mind. We know what happens on Christmas. Jesus is born. But why is that so important to us? What are we longing for? I wonder how often we’re hurrying by the days of Advent, the days meant to prepare for Christmas, and we don’t even really think about what we’re hurrying to or why. And then when Christmas Day comes and goes, even as we’re really just starting the true season of Christmas, we already feel like we’ve missed something.
Our task in Advent isn’t to rush the days by to Christmas, and it isn’t to drag our feet in an effort to slow down time. Our task is to figure out what we’re preparing for, so we can be ready. We are called as people of faith to be ready for God however God shows up on earth, wherever and whenever. It seems to happen in the most surprising ways. But always, God comes to us, God who is with us in the flesh, Emmanuel. And so knowing we’re heading toward God, joyfully, hopefully, eagerly, wakefully, we wait. Amen.