An Impossible Wait

December 2, 2018

Series: December 2018

Category: Advent - Hope

Speaker: Rob McClellan

Luke 21:25-36

25"There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. 26People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27Then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in a cloud' with power and great glory. 28Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near."

29Then he told them a parable: "Look at the fig tree and all the trees; 30as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. 31So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. 32Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. 33Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

34"Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, 35like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth.36Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Humanity."  THIS IS HOLY WISDOM, HOLY WORD.  THANKS BE TO GOD.  AMEN.

  An Impossible Wait

          If you want to understand Advent, I commend to you the Mary Oliver poem, “Empty Branch in the Orchard.”  I have no earthly idea if Advent was in her mind when she wrote it, but it certainly makes sense in mine when I read it:

          “Empty Branch in the Orchard”

To have loved
is everything,
I loved, once,

a hummingbird
who came every afternoon–
the freedom-loving male–

who flew by himself
to sample
the sweets of the garden,

to sit
on a high, leafless branch
with his red throat gleaming.

And then, he came no more.
And I’m still waiting for him,
ten years later,

to come back,
and he will, or he will not.
There is a certain commitment

that each of us is given,
that has to do
with another world,

if there is one.
I remember you, hummingbird.
I think of you every day

even as I am still here,
soaked in color, waiting
year after honey-rich year.


          I offer that as an image for you this time of year as a welcome contrast to the imagery offered us by the world around.  Some will tell us it’s time to hurry, go out and get, so we can fill the empty places in our lives with things.  There’s no time to waste so we must get moving.

          By contrast, in the spiritual calendar it is Advent, which means it is time to slow down, to empty out, and to rest, to dwell on what matters.  Sometimes, it’s simply in the dwelling that you discover what matters.  Sister Joan Chittister writes, “Without Advent, moved only by the race to nowhere that exhausts the world around us, we could be so frantic with trying to consume and control this life that we fail to develop within ourselves a taste for the spirit that does not die and will not slip through our fingers like melted snow.”

          I love Oliver’s imagery because it points us to that spirit which does not die.  It recalls a love which once visited, a hummingbird in the garden, sucking the nectar of life and spreading life in the process, and all if it is wrapped in beauty.  That love sustains.  A bird is a symbol that is sometimes used this time of year to symbolize the divine coming into the world.  You heard it in the opening hymn, to which we’ll return, and you’ll see more and more birds showing up in our Advent decorations over the coming weeks.  In the poem, Oliver is awaiting the return of this bird of love.

Our Scripture passages are pregnant waiting, as Jeremiah points to a first coming of one who will execute justice on the land.  (It’s not simply a waiting of individual piety and personal deliverance).  Luke points to a second coming – this is what’s sometimes confusing about Advent in the church.  Many of the texts we read this time of year are not about the birth of Jesus, but the coming of one about whom Jesus often testifies.  Whether you believe that is what happened in the resurrection or it refers to someone and something else altogether, on some level we are waiting for this still.

          It’s an impossible wait.  It can feel like the child waiting for Christmas presents.  You may be familiar with Harvard-trained Neuroscientist from Maryanne Wolfe who is on the faculty at Tufts University.  She warns that we are losing our ability for the kind of sustained attention and reflective thought that essential to waiting well and living well.  She studies reading, and argues that our shift toward reading digitally has transformed our habits and our very brains.  We skim, we skip around, and in doing so we are losing the ability for sustained focus and contemplation.  She goes so far as to say it puts our democracy at risk because this kind of thoughtful consideration is crucial to a functioning democracy. 

          Have you noticed how people can hardly wait for anything without being glued to their phones?  I notice it in myself, and I’ve made a conscious return to reading books, paper books.  I was amazed how it actually took me a while before I could settle down long enough to enjoy sustained periods of reading.  My brain had indeed lost the pathways for doing so.   Yet, this is a pathway and practice that must be recovered, if we are to be able to answer the big questions.  There are big questions before us this season.  Chittister writes, “Advent asks the question, what is it for which you are spending your life?  What is the star you are following now?  And where is that star in its present radiance in your life leading you?  Is it a place that is really comprehensive enough to equal the breadth of the human soul?”  You don’t answer those questions in fragmented, distracted thought.  You do it through grounded being.

The moment is calling for us to be grounded beings.  Don’t you feel the chaos around us?  That’s hard enough.  When it gets within us, we become victims to it and are more likely to feed into it.  The path of Christ is to be substantial in the midst of the storms swirling all around.  Listen to what Jesus says:  “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves” (Lk. 21:25).  How will you be on the earth in this moment is the question (is always the question).  As Jesus says, “your redemption is drawing near,” (v. 27), can we see clearly enough to recognize it. 

If you are clear about what you are waiting for, you can endure a greater wait than you would otherwise imagine.  You see Oliver’s wait is impossible in another sense.  Do you remember how long the person in the poem is waiting for the hummingbird?  Ten years.  Now tell me this, how long do hummingbirds live?  Less than ten years.  It’s impossible, and yet she waits.  The very waiting, and the commitment to that for which she waits, has transformed what she believes is possible.  Advent done right doesn’t make us feel as though everything is impossible.  Advent done right totally changes our perspective on what is possible. 

That is the Christian in Advent, waiting for justice to be executed on the land.  Impossible, and yet we wait in a way that clarifies our role in the work of justice.  Waiting for redeeming love to rule the world.  Impossible, and yet we wait for it in a way that allows redeeming love to rule our lives and flow out from there.  What we are waiting for is impossible and yet we are still here, soaked in color, waiting year after honey-rich year.  Amen.