The sermon for week December 04, 2011
December 4, 2011
WAITING, Isaiah 40:1-11, II Peter 3:8-15a
Frederick Buechner, a Presbyterian minister and author whose many books have served as an inspiration for generations of seekers and Christians, wrote of the few steps the pastor takes from his or her seat to the pulpit, and how, if only for a second, the congregation waits in anticipation, that in the sermon that morning, the pastor will speak a word that brings healing or hope or inspiration.
One of my favorite preachers was Dr. William Keutcher who served the Covenant Baptist Church of Detroit and who a well was at one time president of my home denomination, The American Baptist Churches. His sermons were always well crafted but what struck me the most were his pauses within the sermon. He would preach a paragraph or two, then pause, simply wait until the silence was heard before continuing. Those pauses would sometimes give me chills. They were so empty, so filled with stillness, that when the next word was spoken, our minds had caught up and we were ready to hear the next word.
What I have come to realize is that in that walk from the chair to the pulpit by the pastor and in those pauses, laden with silence in Dr. Keutcher’s sermons, is where we spend most of our time. We wait. The story of our lives is the story of waiting, and how we wait determines the caliber of our lives. We will be known by how well we learned to wait.
What did we do with those seconds in between, which in the end turn out to be most of our lifetime? In a way, that is what all of life is, a time of waiting, a period between times, a time between the beginning and the end, a time between a promise made and its fulfillment, but a fulfillment most of us, if not all of us, are never likely to see, for as someone said, “We all die in the middle of our lives.”
So, how well do we do? My answer, at least for myself, is not very well at all. Early this past week I was on my way to church, already knowing this would be the theme of my sermon, and I was stopped by a train, and I waited and I waited, and the train seemed to grow longer and move slower the longer I waited. I looked for an escape but I knew there was none. I could feel my temperature rising and my eyes searching for a diversion, and my free foot tapping the floor, and then like a reprimand, my mind blared out its condemnation saying to me, “and you think you are qualified to preach on the subject you are right now failing railroad car by railroad car as they pass by.”
And my conscience was right, and that is generally the way it is, we fail, but rather than being condemned for our impatience, nervousness, frustration and even anger for not having now what must be waited for, the Scripture comes along and says, “Comfort comfort, my people.” Comfort them in their waiting, is God’s directive to the prophet Isaiah for the people of Israel waiting in exile.
A few weeks ago I visited a member of another church I had served. His wife had called and asked that if I could, would I please stop by and visit with her husband. Both of them had warmly received me when I first went to their church and her husband had been a faithful member of a men’s Bible Study that I led. I enjoyed them immensely. Of course, I wanted to see him. Bob is ninety-four years old; he has cancer and is dying. He is waiting for death.
We sat together in his study. We visited for about a half an hour. I was struck by his calm repose. He has no anxiousness. He is not afraid. He waits, not knowing the particulars, but trusting that the love that has guided him through life is worthy of the same trust at the end of his life.
This is the significance of our waiting, that we may learn to trust that the One who gave us life is able to bring all life to its completeness. It is living in the moment, whatever that reality is, but in the midst of it finding a hope that is greater than your reasons for despair, and a love that is greater than your fears, the waiting in the end, incidental to the glory that is to be revealed.
This is not to minimize our trails. It is not to take away from our concerns for our loved ones or lessen the hardships we experience, but it is in the midst of life’s mysteries, finding a faith that is not cowered by doubt and nurtures an inner hope that will not let us go and the inner conviction, we are not alone, and as surely as one day the lion will lie down with the lamb, so one day, all will be well, and all will be known as it is known by God, and God will be all in all. These are the lessons of waiting.
So, God says to Isaiah, “Get up to a high mountain,” and say to a people disassociated from their homeland, a people in turmoil, “Behold, your God.”
“He will feed his flock like a shepherd,
he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom
and gently lead the mother sheep.” (40:11) Words of comfort spoken by the prophet Isaiah to a people in exile, a people waiting. “Soon and very soon,” begins the gospel hymn, perhaps not as we count days, but as we know through love where one day can be as a thousand, or a thousand may be as one day. (II Peter 3:8)
So we wait, letting that love take root, and the Lord, God’s Self, waits, as Peter says, not wanting any to perish, but all to know and participate in the same reality of love first birthed for us in Bethlehem, in a manger, in a stable, in a tiny baby lying in the manger, the realization to be in all our waiting in this season of waiting called Advent. The birth of that baby, for Christians, offers the assurance that that same love is the love we see on the cross which we commemorate in the sacrament of communion, and is the Love of Easter morning in which we proclaim, “Christ lives, and so shall we,” and is the love that in the end reclaims the earth and all people not just for a moment, but beyond the moments, the eternal.
So we wait, but not the way I did, anxiously waiting for the train to pass by, twiddling my fingers and doing nothing. No, our waiting is of a different kind and we see it every year in our own lives, and the lives of our families and in the life of our churches when we come around to this season of the year.
How are you suppose to live in the daily moments that become a lifetime? How are you suppose to live between the beginning and end of things? How do you live between the dream and its fulfillment, the promise and the not yet? How do you wait in the tiny spaces characterized in the preachers walk from the chair to the pulpit and in those long pauses of the sermon, and in all those moments, seasons, years that become a lifetime of praying, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven? How do you await, in the language of the church, the coming of the Lord?
The answer is, you put up a Christmas tree. The answer is you put candles in the window to light the way home in the dark. The answer is you buy presents for those you love, you let your heart be more charitable, you pause and listen to the high school choir singing in the mall, you bake cookies for your teacher, and all alone, on a starry night, you step outside, you look up to the heavens and in your own way, with your own words, you praise God. This is the season of Advent, and its greatest lesson, is teaching us how to wait - you wait with anticipation, you wait with building excitement, you wait with glee and joy, and if you have trouble learning, you watch the children and they will teach you what it means to wait with a joy that bubbles over and cannot be contained.
And, if you are a church, if you are this church, here is what you do. You let a bit of that Christmas Spirit influence your vision as you consider the future of this church. You let this season teach you how to wait for your new pastor. You wait with mounting anticipation. You wait with an increasing sense of promise and hope, and all the other things you do during Advent and at Christmas.
And, in the end you exclaim with Isaiah, “They who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” (Is. 40:31).
I find it most profound that on this Sunday, the second Sunday of Advent, a season that teaches us that waiting is to be done with expectation and hope and anticipation in all seasons of life, you will elect this morning the members of the Search Committee whose task it will be to present a candidate who will serve as the next pastor of this church.
What a statement about the future! What an affirmation of God’s promises. What a gift to this congregation. What joy, what hope, what optimism should be in your vote this morning, and always you will remember, especially on that day when the pastor is called and for the first time he or she takes his or her steps from the chair to the pulpit, it all began in a season of waiting, on a Sunday in Advent, a season of hope and promise and good tidings, lessons learned while we waited.