In West Side Story, Tony sings “Could be! Who knows? There's something due any day; I will know right away, Soon as it shows.
Who knows? It's only just out of reach, Down the block, on a beach, Under a tree. I got a feeling there's a miracle due, Gonna come true, Coming to me!
Could it be? Yes, it could. Something's coming, something good, If I can wait! Something's coming, I don't know what it is, But it is Gonna be great!”
If you're Tony, you are waiting for change. You don't know where or when or what it will look like, but it's going to be a miracle and it's gonna be great! That's active waiting.
If you're waiting for a specific known event though, like something on the calendar or a time period, that's passive waiting. You know when it will happen because it's on your calendar, and you know what because it's whatever you wrote on your calendar – dentist, oil change, mom's birthday, Christmas.
The difference between active and passive in this case isn't dependent on action so much as it is dependent on attitude. Notice how every situation can have aspects of both.
If you are waiting for a certain date to happen that might be passive waiting because the date will come no matter what you do. If on that date something special will happen that you expect and it will be good, then that same waiting becomes active waiting.
If you're waiting for a bus you are probably passively waiting. But if someone you love will be on that bus, you are actively waiting.
The seasons of the Church have two primary times when we wait. Lent and Advent. Both are periods of waiting. Because we have the perspective of history and faith we have turned both periods into active waiting. Lent seems passive because there is a stripping away of everything and at a glance there is nothing to look forward to. Our sense of expectation is not one of joy – except that the Christian church has taken that period of waiting and helps us point to the joy that Christians know, of Easter Sunday and Christ's resurrection. Advent is a period of waiting also that readily appears as active waiting. Advent from the word meaning “coming” describes that period of waiting before the birth of Christ, the Light of the World. We are actively waiting because we know what we are waiting for, we know the outcome and the joy and majesty that has come from the events we will witness. We are eager and expectant.
This time of year is a time of celebration for many of our world religions. Hindus, Jains and Sikhs have just celebrated Diwali, the five day festival of new beginnings, celebrating the triumph of light over darkness, and good over evil. Jews will celebrate the night that the oil lamps lasted for eight days during Hanukkah. Many of these holidays coincide with the times of harvest, the days becoming longer, and for Christians the coming of The Light of Christ.
So why would we read a text that sounds so apocalyptic for the start of Advent? Haven't we talked about that enough in the whole of our lives this year?
It turns out that there are many apocalyptic texts in the Bible, several of which we have already talked about this year. Typically these texts follow a kind of formula. Commentator Christopher Hutson puts it this way: “The basic message of apocalyptic visions is this: The rebellion against the reign of God is strong, as the wicked oppress the righteous. Things will get worse before they get better. But hang on just a little longer, because just when you are sure you cannot endure, God will intervene to turn the world right side up.”1 Mark chapter 12 is a retelling of Jesus' teaching on the temple mount; Mark chapter14 begins the passion narrative. In-between those two stories we find chapter 13, predicting the destruction of the temple, talking to Peter, James, John, and Andrew about the end of the age, and a series of warnings about the false indicators of the end of the age. Our text for today is the second half of the warnings portion where Jesus begins to describe the actual signs they will witness.
First, borrowing text that the disciples and 1st Century readers will know from Daniel, Joel, Ezekiel and Isaiah, the description of cosmic disturbances here is typical of explanations of the unexplainable. Daniel foretold the coming of the Son of Man and each of these other prophets foretold divine judgment and God's intervention.
Second, an agricultural sign that readers would have been readily familiar with and understand is the fig tree. The inclusion here is to describe that while what is coming is unknown, we have the same hope that nature provides for us in her rhythms of planting, tending, growing and producing fruit. The fig tree teaches us that there is a sign of what is to come even at the beginning of it's cycle, when we see even a small shoot. “as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near.” Just as we can rely on signs of a new beginning in nature, we can rely on a new beginning for ourselves also. Anyone who lives close to the land will understand the reliance on and surety of seasons. They may not be the same from year to year but they come. There is always a new beginning right around the corner.
And third, the parable about the homeowner going on a journey and leaving others in charge. We see several similar words used in this paragraph. Take heed, watch, keep awake and keep watch. They all refer to some aspect of not being asleep. Watch and keeping watch refers to a night guard. Be vigilant, not asleep, notice things, pay attention. Keep awake refers to losing sleep. Lose the part of you that is disinterested, is bored, has grown accustomed to, is distracted, has tuned out, or doesn't care.
The call in today's text, and for the season of Advent is to wait actively not just for Christmas but for Christ. An active advent for us this year includes reminding ourselves that Jesus has already come and God is right here all around us, while at the same time, we are in-between times. Jesus has already come, but the full realization of what that means has not yet happened. We show our eager waiting by shopping for gifts in a new way – how was this made, who made it, what is my money supporting; decorating in earth-responsible ways – will this product just add to the trash, is it recyclable, is there a sustainable way these things can be made. Cooking and baking in generous ways – who else can I feed with this food, do I have any isolated friends or neighbors, can I spread joy to anyone with this food and these treats. Find ways to be together without gathering, wash our hands, use sanitizer, wear a mask. Find places and moments where we can see the light of the world already peeking through. Find ways to be the light when we see the darkness of suffering and hopelessness. And importantly, discover where we need light in our own places of darkness.
What is asleep in us right now? What are we eager for? What are we passively waiting for – what can we do to help it become active waiting? Welcome to the season of Advent. Welcome to the season of hope.
1 Feasting on the Word, preaching series, Christopher R. Hutson, p.24
"Wait - What?!"
Reverend Debra McGuire
November 29, 2020