Preached December 9, 2007, at Garden of Grace United Church of Christ in Columbia, S.C.
Readings: Isaiah 11:1-10, Matthew 3:1-12
I sat down to write a sermon this week. I started on Monday. I got an idea. I wrote some stuff down. I got another idea. I wrote some more stuff down. Then, I got stuck. So I waited. And I waited. And I waited some more. It was Wednesday by now. Not yet the point where panic sets in, but pretty close. The wait continued as Thursday rolled around.
This is not typical for me. Usually, sermons are not so hard to write. They come pretty easily most of the time. But, this week God decided to mess with me. I was trying to write a sermon about waiting and I had to wait for it to come. The waiting produced many emotions frustration, consternation, anticipation, desperation, but most of all mental constipation. The ideas just wouldn’t flow.
The words of that great 20th century theologian Thomas Petty came to my mind: “The waiting is the hardest part.” Some who feel they have plumbed the depths of Mr. Petty’s theology feel free to call him by the more familiar name of Tom Petty, but I prefer to show respect for such a great theological mind.
Mr. Petty’s advice to those in the midst of waiting is wise: “You take it on faith, you take it to the heart – the waiting is the hardest part.”
I had to sit in the tension of wanting a sermon and not having one. The reality of waiting in anticipation for the not yet the hasn’t happened yet the close but no cigar. I had to take it on faith that a sermon would appear just in time.
Then I waited some more. That was followed by more waiting. Then I wrote some more. Then I deleted some more. Then I waited some more. I was beginning to feel like Estragon and Vladimir, waiting for Godot who never quite arrives.
Finally, I said to God, “What are you waiting for? Saturday? Sunday morning? I’m in a bad state here all this waiting, all this anticipating, it’s making me crazy!”
Then I realized that I was right smack in the middle of Advent waiting. It’s not like waiting in line to buy Christmas presents or waiting on the curb for the bus it’s a deeper kind of waiting. It’s an expectant waiting. You know something great is coming (well, you hope it’s great anyway), but it’s just not here yet. It’s like Christmas morning before your parents wake up when all you can do is stare wide eyed at the brightly colored packages under the tree. Then your parents get up but they’ve got to have coffee and breakfast before those packages can be opened. It’s the kind of waiting that overwhelms you you’re consumed by it. You are so looking forward to the amazing thing that is about to happen that you can barely stand yourself.
There’s one thing I did not do during this Advent waiting. I didn’t sit back and expect a sermon to just drop into my lap. I kept writing even if I had to throw it out later. I kept thinking and I definitely kept praying. This is the heart of Advent waiting it is active, not passive. As we await the coming of Christ into our world, we must be alert, we must be awake, and we must be active. This is exactly the message of John the Baptist. He was active before Christ arrived on the scene. He was telling people, “Change your life. God’s kingdom is here!”
Just sitting around passively waiting for things to get better won’t change your life. We can only change our lives by taking action by moving forward. John has good news Christ has come to change us to ignite the kingdom life within us, to ignite the fire and the Holy Spirit within us and to change us from the inside out. Christ has come to burn away all the false things in our lives that we use as crutches to avoid changing our lives. Christ has come to ask, “What are you waiting for? God’s kingdom is here! Stop waiting and start living!”
But, we keep on waiting. It’s hard for us to stop waiting. Waiting can become comfortable. We’re a society used to waiting. It’s such a mainstay in our lives we even have whole rooms set aside for it called “waiting rooms.” There are even some people who have turned it into a profession and have become “waiters.”
What are you waiting for? The right job? The right partner? The right amount of money? The right time? The right opportunity? We all do it. We all use waiting as an excuse to stay stuck.
“When I win the lottery, I’ll do what I really want to do.” “When I meet the right person, I’ll finally be happy.” “When I get the right job, I’ll finally be fulfilled.” “When I find the right church, I’ll consider giving a tithe now and then.”
In John chapter 5, we read about a pool in Jerusalem where the waters swirled and whoever got into the pool first after the waters rolled was healed. There was a crippled man who had been lying by that pool for 38 years. Jesus asks him, “Do you want to get well?” He tells Jesus he does, but since he’s disabled, someone always beats him into the pool.
I heard Joyce Meyer preach on this text recently and she nailed it this guy has been waiting 38 years for healing, lying by the pool day in and day out. Joyce said that if it had been her, in 38 years she would have found a way to wiggle her way to the pool. She said either she’d be healed or she’d drown but she wouldn’t just lie there for 38 years. Perhaps that’s why Jesus had to ask this poor man if he really wanted to get well. He had been waiting 38 years for somebody to do something for him instead of taking the initiative himself. Essentially, Jesus was asking him, “What are you waiting for?”
We’re just like that man by the pool waiting for healing, waiting for life to start, waiting for the good times to come, waiting for life to get easier and more fun. All the while, others step over us into the pool and are healed. Those who were healed stopped waiting and started living. The kingdom of God was ignited in their hearts and they were changed from the inside out.
Don’t get me wrong – sometimes waiting is profitable and often healing. When we’re sick, we wait to get better. Often in life, as in comedy, timing is everything and we must wait before we take action. Waiting can be a good thing. But, waiting becomes a crutch when we use it as an excuse to not change our lives.
Changing our lives is hard work. It means we have to get out of our comfort zones. It means we have to give up the excuse of waiting and actually do something. Given a choice, we often choose lying by the pool for a few more years. That seems easier – but as Mr. Petty tells us, it’s really the waiting that’s the hardest part. Accepting Jesus’ renewal of our Spirit and becoming active in our own lives really is the easier choice because when we take that leap of faith, a net always appears for us. God is always there ready to take us to the next level.
As we enter into this Advent waiting, what can we do to not only change our lives but the world around us? Isaiah has some hints. In our tradition this passage is read as a proclamation of the coming Christ and the leadership skills he will display in the world. The Christ is someone who judges by what is right – someone who makes decisions that brings justice to the poor. A mere breath from his lips will topple the wicked. This is someone who speaks and evil yields – not with war and devastation, but with reconciliation and repentance.
We have many who claim to be leaders like Christ, but are they really? They are not fulfilling Isaiah’s resume of a Christ-like leader. We have leaders who deny health care to young children, who send other people’s children to war, who work for the good of rich corporations instead of the corporate good of the poor and needy. That’s not how Isaiah describes Christ-like leadership.
So you may think, “Well, of course it’s not preacher, there was only one Christ who could fulfill all those requirements.” Why? Why does there only have to be one who can lead like that? If we are to be followers of Christ who emulate the one who redeems us, why can’t we too be leaders like Christ? What are we waiting for? Obviously, a Christ-like leader has not arisen among us in this day and age at a national level. Yet we wait for one – hoping against hope that they come along soon. What are we waiting for?
When Jesus walked the earth his disciples kept asking what the realm of God was like. He kept giving them strange answers – it was like a mustard seed, or a lost coin. Well, I liken the Realm of God to a shampoo commercial. The Realm of God comes when you tell two people and they tell two people and so on and so on and so on. But, do you see where it starts? It starts with you. You have to be the one out there proclaiming God’s realm. You have to be the one out there exhibiting Christ’s leadership skills in the world. What are you waiting for?
So, now you’re saying, well, preacher, that’s all well and good, but I’m not the Messiah. Christ was unique – he was special. I can’t do that because I’m not like Christ.
Hear me clearly – you are just like Christ. You are human – and you are divine. Each one of us has the potential to be a leader like Isaiah talks about. We all have that divine spark that Christ had. We all have the ability to do justice for those who need it. What we don’t have, often, is the will.
We look out into the world and we feel crushed by the overwhelming despair. The wars, the famines, the genocides – the plain old meanness that the world seems consumed by – they get us down. We think it’s easier to wait – to wait for someone to come along and tidy it up. We hope that someone is Christ – coming back in his cloud of glory – to be a real rain to wash all the scum off the streets.
There’s a song from my Southern Baptist days that I always loved.
I serve a risen Savior – He’s in the world today – I know that he is living – whatever others may say. I see His hand of mercy. I hear his voice of cheer, and just the time I need him, he’s always near. He lives, He lives, Christ Jesus lives today.
Do we believe that? Does Christ Jesus live today – or are you still waiting for him to arrive? If Christ is truly alive today, it’s up to us to bring his presence to the world. We so often believe that acting in the world is hard, but as Mr. Petty so rightly points out – the waiting is the hardest part! We despair during the wait. Our expectancy grows unbearable. What will happen? When will it happen? When will it change? Why hasn’t it changed yet? Who will save us?
You answer that question every time you look in the mirror. Change begins within each of us because Christ has come to ignite the kingdom life within us, to ignite the fire and the Holy Spirit within us and to change us from the inside out. When the kingdom life is ignited in us, God teaches us how to be leaders in this world – right where we are.
What are some of these leadership skills? Isaiah says spirit-filled leaders don’t judge by appearances. That means we give the same respect to a homeless person as we do the CEO of our company. That means no matter what a person looks like – thin, fat, bald, ugly, beautiful – we don’t judge them by that appearance – we treat them all alike. We treat everyone equally, whether they are someone who can help us or harm us.
What else? A spirit-filled leader doesn’t decide on the basis of hearsay. That means we don’t decide how we feel about someone or some issue based on the gossip we’ve heard about it. We only make decisions when we learn about the facts of someone or some situation directly.
The spirit-filled leader will also base their decisions on what is best for those at the lowest rung of society – or those who are the neediest in their own lives. A spirit-filled leader is always looking for ways to fill the needs of those around them – making sure that the least of these are well cared for.
A spirit-filled leader is also one who watches what they say so their words will bring peace to any situation. Instead of gossiping or speaking badly about someone, they speak well of others, they build up others and they always look for ways to settle arguments instead of perpetuating or causing them. This is how we “topple the wicked” with a mere word.
What happens when we lead like this in our own lives?
The wolf romps with the lamb – that co-worker who has been gunning for your job or looking for ways to make your life harder at work suddenly becomes easier to work with.
The calf and lion eat at the same trough – the family member that always roars at you for this or that slight suddenly becomes loving and cooperative.
The cow and the bear graze in the same pasture – that grouchy person in your life suddenly becomes a ray of sunshine.
When we change our lives – when we become Christ-like in how we deal with all people and all situations in our lives, “Neither animal nor human will hurt or kill – the whole earth will be brimming with knowing God-alive, a living knowledge of God ocean-deep, ocean-wide.”
Don’t you want that in your life?
What are you waiting for?
Whosoever founder and Editor Emeritus Rev. Candace Chellew is the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians. She earned her masters of theological studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, was ordained in December 2003, and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. She serves as the spiritual director of Jubilee! Circle in Columbia, S.C., and blogs at Motley Mystic.