Sunday, November 27, 2022

Awaiting, We Wait on the Lord

Today we lit the first candle of Advent: Wait.

In the following weeks we’ll see Anticipate, and Prepare, and Celebrate.

Looking back, there are many seasons in life that closely mirror these four themes. They are seasons that hold hesitancy, with maybe a splash of pessimism and a heavy dose of realism. We all wait for something. Often not letting hope get the better of us. We don’t want to be disappointed, after all. But then we are given a glimpse of what’s ahead, and our hearts shift towards anticipation. There is something worth hoping for. And yet, we don’t want to get ahead of ourselves, so our expectation remains passive and hesitant. Then, all at once, things begin to move. The patterns shift and things start falling into place. It’s time to prepare. To ready the stage for what is coming next. We are still waiting, but now it is active, and full of palatable hope. There is an assurance that all this waiting has been worthwhile and valuable. Then one day, we realize we have cause to celebrate. The thing we have been waiting for has arrived!

As humans, we are prone to such fickle emotions. If only we could sustain this joy infinitely. Instead, our celebrations often peter out and we find ourselves back at square one much sooner than we’d wish.

Were it not for divine intervention, we would get nowhere with this model of expectation.

And so, God placed eternity in our hearts. A seed of longing that pulls (and sometimes drags) us on this life journey from Waiting to Celebration. During Advent we are invited to literally “act” out our hope, recalling time and again the seasons of lack against the Lord’s abundant faithfulness.

Last year, Tish Harrison Warren wrote, “Advent is a season of hope, and part of practicing hope is noticing where we need it.”

Where do we need hope? What lament are we trying to name?

Those are personal questions. And yet, at Advent they are universal and timeless questions. In Advent, we feel the yearnings of the ancient Israelites alongside our own.

The Advent narrative has its origins way back in the Garden of Eden, however within the geographical timeline of the Biblical history, what springs to mind is the gap between Malachi and Matthew (and Luke, our main Nativity narrator). A single, thin piece of paper separates these two books in most of our Bibles, and yet the calendars tell us about 400 years passed between Malachi’s final prophecy and Zechariah’s priestly obligations recorded in Luke.

In her book, The First Advent in Palestine, Kelley Nikondeha offers a unique, trauma-informed perspective on these so called “silent years.” Drawing from the Apocrypha (books outside of the accepted canon of Scripture), Nikondeha recalls the story of the Maccabees she read about in her mother’s Catholic Bible. If you are familiar with the Jewish holiday, Hanukkah, then you’ve probably heard of the Maccabees (“Hammers”) —the guerilla-style fighters who claimed back the temple from the Seleucid Empire.

Even as a student of history, I had forgotten when these events took place along the Biblical timeline. They land smack dab in the middle of the 400 “years of silence.” Only, Israel wasn’t just sitting around peacefully. These were centuries wrought by captivity and pain. Long before the Roman problem we meet in the Gospels, the people of Israel suffered under a long line of empires. So, it seems only natural that “messiah” types would arise to help save the day. The Maccabees definitely fit the bill. They had a miraculous victory and an even more miraculous re-lighting of the temple’s eternal flame (modern day menorah). And yet, their liberation was short lived. Their triumph had come through violence and despite their success in re-kindling the temple light, the Maccabees did not choose to inaugurate God’s peace. Before long, Israel was under the thump of another empire yet again.

Many faith traditions do not have the story of the Maccabees in their canon of Scripture. We may never know this side of heaven why God allowed some stories to be removed and others retained. But the story of the Maccabees shows us that waiting on God should not be passive. We are not called to take up weapons and “hammer” upon our earthly enemies, but there is a much better set of spiritual armor (Ephesians 6:10-18) available to us. Because while we wait, and watch, and work, we do indeed battle darkness.

Nikondeha says,
“The stories told around and about the birth of Jesus set our sights on a deep theology for troubled times, then and now. Advent pays attention to the people, places and politics of generations awaiting God’s arrival. To approach Advent in its fullness, we approach it from an uncommon entry point: the darkness of suffering, the struggle of a long waiting.

Confronting the hard landscapes of the past allows us to understand the terrain God entered one starry night. The first Advent began in darkness and danger. . .  Advent came to a traumatized landscape and people.”
(p. 6)
While God did not send another prophet after Malachi for 400 years, and the Maccabees personally felt that God had no guiding words for them, He was by no means silent. He was upholding His people as they suffered long, with hope and small flickerings of light.

“What does it mean to say, ‘God is with us?’” Nikondeha asks. “It's harder—and more hopeful—than strands of twinkling lights. When we engage the darkness before God's arrival, we come closer not only to the first Advent but also to each one since. In Advent, we learn that God is always coming to our troubled times” (p.23).

So, we end with a different look of the word, Wait. This Advent, as we await whatever we are waiting for, let us remember to wait on the Lord. For, if He is with us, then He surely knows the landscape of our troubles, and holds it all in His hands.

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