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“The Night is Dark and Full of Terrors”: The Second Sunday of Advent

Sunday, December 6, 2020:
Isaiah 40:1-11
2 Peter 3:8-15a
Mark 1:1-8

“Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, ‘Here is your God!’” This is how the prophet describes what it’s like to see God save the people after a time of exile, disorientation, and yes, waiting. It’s like imagining yourself in the desert, and you climb the highest peak, and once you’re up there you’re able to see everything that there is to see; the whole horizon. And the coming of God is like the rising of the sun breaking over the ground in the distance. It’s the passing from night into the first rays of the morning. To witness this sight you need to make that climb, though most of all, you just need to wait for the sun itself, easier said than done. As one sect in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series informs just about everyone they meet: “the night is dark and full of terrors.”

And so our readings today continue with this Advent theme of watchful waiting. Waiting for God to comfort the dread that comes when we realize our frailty. Watching for God’s intervention when all signs seem to point to God having forgotten, or at least is moving incredibly slowly. (What Peter here reinterprets as God providing more time for amendment of life; it’s mercy not delay.) And the elusive figure of John the Baptist forming an alternative community of repentance that is fit to greet the finally-coming king. Everyone here is waiting in one way or another.

How are you doing with waiting these days? What sorts of experiences of waiting have you had recently? Don’t we get a glimpse into people’s character when we watch how the conduct themselves while they wait? There’s patient and orderly waiting. There’s also impatient waiting. And worse, anxious, aggressive , and destructive waiting. There was a recent article in The Atlantic: “The Pandemic Could End Waiting in Line,” because “waiting in line is unsafe.” I read, too, about a food bank in Phoenix, Arizona, where, just before Thanksgiving, people lined up in their cars for two miles. And closer to home, remember just a couple months ago we heard about people lining up to get tested for the coronavirus at 2:30 in the morning, at a testing site that opened five hours later, and had reached its daily capacity by the time 7:30 AM rolled around. I remember in March my shock at seeing a line snaking around the perimeter of the Superstore, as people stocked up on toilet paper. (The irony being that congregating was just increasing their chances of contracting the virus.) Or I can remember way, way before all this, back in 2002 Krispy Kreme opened up in Kitchener, and I heard stories of people waiting in line for hours to be amongst the first to purchase a donut. That store went out of business within three years. (So I’ll add another variety of waiting: misguided, sugary, short-term excitement waiting.)

So how is Advent different from all of that other waiting? I think the key may lie in how the object of our waiting is no less than the creator of all, the ground of our being, and the re-creation of the heavens and the earth. On one hand the act of waiting can be similar — monotonous, worrying, and unsatisfactory. But the goal of our waiting, the aim of our desire, takes us beyond ourselves and the selfishness and destructiveness that characterizes so much human behaviour that arises in situations of anxiety. The writer of the epistle asks us: “what sort of persons ought you to be?” Because of what I said a moment ago: our characters are revealed at certain times, like when we’re forced to wait; when we’re anxious; when we’re stressed. In those situations, what sort of person are you? What sort of person are you when in a line that’s not moving? What sort of person when forced to wait in a situation that’s uncomfortable (like about a job application, or test results)? What sort of person these last eight months? I shared a few weeks ago about the employee at Zehrs who mentioned to me that theft and verbal abuse got ramped up about a month or two ago.

And imagine if things were even worse than they were now: what sort of person would we be if we were in line at a food bank that stretched for two miles? What sort of person would we be if environmental devastation led to a situation where we lined up for hours to receive rice, or bread, or clean water, or air?

So this week as we continue in this Advent season do give some thought to our experience of waiting, and how we’ve responded to this challenge. And take seriously the things that are not right in our world; the disruptions that bring about our waiting, and anxiousness, and dis-ease. But take seriously, too, the object of our hope. The God who proclaims comfort to the people; the rays of light peeking out over the horizon after a long and dangerous night. And let that hope shape your waiting, and shape who you are in that space.

“Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.”

© 2020 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter