November 30, 2014

We Can’t Wait.


Text: Isaiah 64:1: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down…”

never took the marshmallow test. I’m pretty sure, if I had taken it, I would have failed. You know the one I mean. It’s the test in which a child about five years old is brought into a room with a chair and a table, and the experimenter comes in and places a marshmallow on the table in front of them. Then the experimenter explains that he is going to leave for fifteen minutes, and tells the child that if she can wait to eat the marshmallow until the experimenter comes back, she can have two marshmallows instead of just the one.

It turns out that a small group of kids ends up eating the marshmallow pretty much as soon as the experimenter leaves the room. Most kids at least try to hold off eating the marshmallow. But only about thirty percent of the kids made it through to the end and got the second marshmallow.

Probably you’ve heard about this simple little experiment. Except that it turns out not to be so simple. The people who designed this experiment were originally intersted in how age differences in children shaped delayed gratification. Not surprisingly they found that the six-year-olds were better at this than the four-year-olds.

But years after this experiment those scientists began learning other things about those children, as they grew to become young adults. It turned out that if you were in the thirty percent of the kids who managed to wait to eat the marshmallow to the end, you were more likely to have a high SAT score. You were more likely to have a low body-mass index—which means you had lower risks for things like diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease. And the adults those children became are better at resisting distractions.

Like I said, I’m pretty sure I would have flunked the marshmallow test. But in my defense I’ve always wondered: how much did they know about the individual state of each of those kids before they did the experiment? Had they had breakfast that day? Had their dad yelled at them, or some bully on the playground made fun of them, or had the bus driver come a little too early that day and made them worry about making it to school?

There’s an awful lot that can go into our ability, in any given situation, to be patient—or to want to hurry up. There’s a lot that can make it hard for us to wait. There’s a lot that can make us impatient—justifiably impatient.

We’re in Advent. Happy Advent. Happy New Year in the calendar of the church. We all know that Advent is about waiting. It’s about anticipation. It is about looking forward to what is about to come, about pointing ourselves in expectation toward the return of Jesus. As a professor of mine used to say, Advent is like sitting out on the hillside facing the east in the darkness just before sunrise. We grope our way to get there. We sort of know which direction to look in. And we sit there pretty certain that the sun will rise—but the longer we wait, the easier it becomes to think that maybe it won’t happen.

But this Advent seems different. We don’t come into this season of expectation easily. We’ve had a tough day before we got here. We’ve been bullied on the playground. We are stressed.

Our message is a message about the power of love and the work of reconciliation, about the fundamental equality of all people and the love God has for us in willingly coming to live among us, and to die as one of us, to reclaim us. Advent is meant to be a time for us to look forward to the victory of that message.

But all around us it seems as though our message is losing ground. There are people being slaughtered for not believing in the right God, and what is worse there are people doing the slaughtering in the name of something they call God—which tarnishes all people of faith. The gap separating the rich from the poor in the world is growing wider and wider, and the result is vast tides of humanity simply trying to get to places where they will have a better chance for a good life—to America, or to Europe. Our climate is changing, perhaps catastophically, and it is harder and harder to deny that we are the reason. And our one country, our one system of laws, our one hope for order and peace and the rule of law is seen very, very differently in communities of different races. People of color in the United States are saying that they live in fear of the police, and the evidence is plain that they have a reason for what they feel.

This is what we bring into Advent. And the message we’re supposed to hear today is a message about waiting, about anticipation. But we can’t wait. We need God to show up, and we want it to happen very, very soon. I remember hearing sermons as a child in which I was taught that Advent was a blessing, because it was there to remind me that I needed time to prepare before Christ returned in glory. God knew I wasn’t ready for that yet, and I probably wasn’t the only one.

But ready or not, I am tired of waiting. And I am in pretty good company. Earlier this fall the Archbishop of Canterbury sat for an interview with the BBC in front of a live audience, and the reporter asked him whether or not he ever doubts in the existence of God. The Archbishop of Canterbury! And this is what he said: “Yes, I do, in lots of different ways, really... The other day I was praying over something while I was running and I ended up saying to God, ‘this is all very well, but isn’t it about time you did something, if you’re there,’ which is not probably what the Archbishop of Canterbury should say.”

O, that you would rend the heavens and come down, right now, and sort all this mess of ours out!

Right after the archbishop said those words there was a tiny Twitter scandal in England over the audacity of a doubting bishop. But very soon the response to his words was one of admiration and alliance. Lots and lots of people have that impatience with God, that same sense that there is an awful lot going very badly here that causes us to question whether God cares about us at all. And sometimes I’m one of them, too.

•  •  •

How do we get to Advent from there? And how do we get through Advent when what we most feel is a deep, agitating impatience?

The reality is that God is faithful even when we are not, and the sorry but serious reality is that much of our present state, the inequality, the racism, the tribal intolerance, the murderous hatred, is not so much the fault of God’s lack of interest as our lack of faith. Sixty years ago, in the wake of the Holocaust, Rabbi Heschel observed that the question of the twentieth century was not whether humankind could believe in God, but whether God could believe in us. Things have not changed much since then.

Heschel’s quote helps us see the idea of Advent through the right end of the telescope. It is not that God is waiting for a moment of acute crisis to reenter the picture of human history with a bunch of technicolor special effects. God is already here. God came in Jesus Christ, and God remains with the church through the work and witness of God’s own abiding presence, the Holy Spirit.

It is God who is waiting on us to wake up and get engaged. It is God who is waiting on us to enter the picture. It is God who is waiting on us to act in faith, and in faithful witness to the claims Jesus made a teacher and prophet, and the cause for which he died for all people.

God is not waiting on the sidelines for us to work things round to some basic state of order until reentering the picture. God is already here, waiting for us to finally offer ourselves as partners in working together for true justice and true peace, for finally bringing in fully the rule of love that will require something from everyone, and offer the possibility of full human potential to all.

Old Bishop Irenaeus was right: The Glory of God is human life fully lived. That is why we say of Christ that he was the image of God’s glory. And it is why God calls on us to take up our part in this work, even when it feels impossible, to be the agents of change, to be the makers of reconcilation and forgiveness. We can’t wait. Advent is here. Let’s get to it. Amen.