What Are We Waiting For?
December 8, 2019
Reverend Timothy Hart-Andersen
Every spring we plant our garden, trusting it will produce flowers and vegetables. It’s like an annual backyard summertime Advent. We plant. We tend the garden. We wait.
Learning to wait is an invaluable skill, because life – even in our fast-paced world – requires a lot of waiting. But Advent – especially in these challenging times – calls for something beyond passive waiting. We listen for a new word in the familiar story of this season. We till the soil of our hearts by hearing the prophets voice anew. We plant new possibilities in a world that seems closed off to hope.
The reality is, though, sometimes we can be disappointed.
This past summer we planted cosmos. The Internet said the flowers are “ridiculously easy to grow.” It sounded like our kind of flower. We carefully fertilized the soil before planting the tiny seeds. We kept the ground moist. We pulled up the weeds trying to interfere. And our efforts paid off. Soon tiny cosmos shoots emerged and began to grow rapidly. We were so pleased.
“Cosmos grow 16 inches to five feet,” the seed packet said. The 16 inches came and went. Then three feet, four and five. And they kept growing, but did not flower. Six feet, seven, eight. We began to wonder if we had planted Jack’s bean stalks. And still no bloom. By now it was three months since we had planted. Our expectations were crumbling.
We staked the towering cosmos so they wouldn’t come crashing down on the raspberries next door. And waited some more. It was becoming a cosmos forest, obscuring our view and blocking our path through the garden. Finally, at about nine feet, the first cosmos flower opened. A handful of others bloomed, but by then fall had come and there would be no more. At the first snow we finally hewed down the massive cosmos stalks and folded them into the compost, sad that our high hopes had not been realized.
Advent can be like that. But it’s even worse when your livelihood depends on a good harvest. Remember the unrelenting rain this past summer and early fall? This was a tough year for Minnesota farmers. They know there’s risk every time they put a crop in the ground, and even with the modern technology of today’s agriculture, an awful lot depends on the weather. Waiting for the sun’s heat to warm the earth. Waiting for the rain to fall. Waiting for the rain to stop. Waiting for the fields to dry.
One farmer near Stephen, Minnesota, was interviewed by MPR early this fall as she looked out her kitchen window at the soggy sugar beets. “The stress is unbearable at times,” she said. “You know, not sleeping, maybe nauseous…You get that pit in your stomach sometimes. You think, ‘Are we going to be able to do this?’” (MPR News, October 17, 2019)
That’s what many of the Advents in our life can feel like. Will our dreams ever be fulfilled? Will the treatment actually work? Will my application be approved? Will hopes for our children be fulfilled? Will my broken heart ever heal?
What are we waiting for this Advent?
In Spanish, the verb “to wait” is esperar. It’s a great verb for Advent because it also means to expect. When we say of a pregnant woman that “she’s expecting,” we use the word that way: she’s waiting, waiting with a certain clarity and unavoidable patience. Significant things are already happening – life is already stirring, but out of sight. In Advent, with Mary, we’re all expecting.
Esperar is a useful little Advent verb. In addition to meaning to wait and to expect, it also means to hope. That takes Mary’s expecting and expands it beyond the coming birth to the life of the child. She will sing of her hopes that through her child God will “scatter the proud in the thoughts of their hearts, bring down the mighty from their thrones, lift up the lowly, fill the hungry with good things, and send the rich away empty.”
Waiting inspires the imagination for what might come. To wait, to expect, is to have hope in the future.
What are we waiting for in this season of our lives? Things may not turn out as we had hoped. Our expectations may not be fulfilled exactly in the way we want.
That’s what happens in the parable Isaiah tells. It’s a story not unlike our gardening experience with the cosmos flowers. The prophet opens with a song to his beloved who has a vineyard on a hill with fertile soil. He prepares the earth, removes the stones, plants the best vines, anticipates a bountiful harvest, and builds all that will be needed to make and store the wine.
Then he does what everyone who plants in the earth does: he waits, counting on the seeds and soil, the sun and rain to go work. With patience, he holds high hopes for a good harvest. But the vines do not produce the grapes he expects. Instead they yield “wild grapes” – literally stinking fruit in the Hebrew Isaiah uses.
Having told this story, the prophet then shifts his perspective and begins to speak as if he were the owner of the vineyard, “What else could I have done for my vineyard?” he asks. “Why did it not yield good grapes? Was it something I did, or was it the vines themselves?”
With our backyard cosmos we learned that we had worked the wrong fertilizer into the soil – the fertilizer that makes things grow tall but not the fertilizer that makes flowers bloom. Next year. But, unlike us, the owner of the vineyard had done everything right. He asks those listening to him to judge between him and the vineyard. Whose fault it is that the vines did not produce as he had hoped?
He lets them reach their own conclusion, but he clearly has reached his. He declares he will tear down the walls of the vineyard and no longer prune or tend it. He will let bramble rise up and choke the life out of the vines. He will command the clouds to drop no more rain.
And then the prophet changes perspective one more time, and pulls back the curtain to reveal the meaning of the parable:
“For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are God’s pleasant planting; God expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!” (Isaiah 5:7)
Like any gardener or keeper of a vineyard, God had begun the season with great expectations. We feel that way every Advent. We long for incarnation to make a lasting difference and produce fruit that will turn the world and our own lives toward the light of God’s love and justice.
But instead of justice, the prophet says of ancient Israel, there is bloodshed. He could just as well have been talking of our time, with its culture of violence and fear. Instead of right relationships, Isaiah says in 8th century BCE, there are unanswered cries for help. That sounds like what we hear in our time, from children detained at the border, from those struggling with addiction in rural America, from a society growing weary of incessant animosity.
In Advent we learn that we are the garden and the seed is planted within us. And the gardener is disappointed. It’s an unsatisfying Advent, where things don’t work out as expected. God hoped for better from us. We hoped for more, as well.
But even when Advent longing goes unfulfilled, God does not give up. Love doesn’t work like that. The light does not go out. Incarnation happens again and again and again, as if God keeps trying to get our attention – as if God keeps coming into the world in a way we couldn’t have expected or imagined.
For Wednesday Worship: Silence and Song during Advent, from 6 to 6:00, we transform Westminster Hall into a candlelit place of quiet prayer. We arrange the chairs so the congregation faces the windows looking out onto the city. We gather around candles flickering on a large mirror on the floor.
Together we face the night, with hopeful anticipation of the dawn.
The heart of the Wednesday evening service is The Great Silence. We sit quietly for six or seven minutes, letting the stillness unclutter our hearts. It’s like a tiny Advent in the middle of each week.
This past Wednesday during that quiet stretch I felt a profound yearning welling up from deep within. It came from a place of utter exhaustion with the way things are in the world. It opened me to a secret grief that had lain hidden for too long – sorrow at what we have done to the earth, and to each other. It expressed itself physically, as if the collective yearning of Advents ancient and forgotten, and those freshly conceived, had entered my bones, my body.
It was a fleeting, mystical experience, and it startled me. I opened my eyes expecting something to have happened, but nothing seemed to have changed. The candles still flickered, their light reflecting off the mirror and windows in response to the city night outside. Those gathered around me were keeping prayerful vigil through the silence, waiting together.
And I found myself wondering if what had changed was not something visible, but, rather, maybe something had happened within. Like what happens to a seed in the soil, when sunlight and water and nutrients in the earth begin to work with it. Like a bulb sleeping underground through the winter, waiting for the warmth of spring to come. What starts there, invisibly, will later produce good fruit. Maybe even a flower.
What are we waiting for this Advent?
While we wait together, let’s do the interior heart-work that will help our hope yield a fruitful harvest, when the time is right, for a hungry world.
Thanks be to God.
Pastoral Prayer ~10:30 am Worship
God of Advent, who has come, who is coming, and who will come again, we give you thanks for entering into a world in need your incarnate love, for showing us a way of humility and gentleness, vulnerability and trust, surprise and promise.
God of all goodness, Creator of wonder and light, we thank you for prophets, the truth-tellers who spoke your word for all God’s people and who speak to us today, who challenge our way of thinking and our comfort of being. We know our world does not look so different from the days of the ancient prophets- there are still those who are bent and broken, despised and in despair. The powerful predict their own warnings, thoughts and ways that are not yours. The volume of the empty truth all around us can be tempting to trust. We who believe follow a spirit of wisdom of a different kind, and hold fast to a time when wolves will be quieted and children will play without fear.
In the hushed anticipation of your coming, O God, kindle in us the desire to remain awake; that we might be ready for your coming, and eager to pray. With alertness, turn our attention and our hearts to those who walk in wilderness and dry lands, while we move easily through landscapes of abundant luxuries we take for granted. All around us are parched places, systems of racism, oppression, silence, and injustice. Lands are ravaged because of our choices. May we be your instruments of peace and change.
Our souls magnify you, O God, not because all is right in our communities and relations, but because you call us to be part of the hope of your new heaven and new earth breaking through. We can sense something beginning among us and through us, but our patient Advent posture is not one of passivity, rather we must persist in looking for the good that is all around us. Help us to respond in equal measure with kindness when feel overwhelmed by hatred and harm.
We pray for those who feel only reminders of loss in this season of marketed merriment and joy- loss of employment, a loved one, or of independence; of a pregnancy, of a treatment option, of a dream of a different future. For those facing new diagnoses, surgery or recovery, for those who sit at bedside and pray without ceasing, for those mired in the logistics of care- may your mercy and comfort fall upon them. May your own humanity remind them of your connection to the unknown depths of their emotions. We remember those carrying new grief this morning. Help them to draw near to your love for them and to the support they have in this community.
In the weeks ahead, whatever our perspective the Christmas coming, may we remember the birth of Jesus for us, as we share in the song of the company of angels, the gladness of the shepherds, and worship of the wise travelers. May we be filled with the Holy Spirit and so that we can exclaim what is true, give voice to hope against hope, and proclaim visions of love and peace and justice.
And may we share again in the prayer that calls us into the coming of your kingdom, together saying, Our Father…