“How are you waiting? Are you waiting like I sometimes wait in a line in the supermarket: bored and frustrated, because it feels like there’s nothing you can do to help the line move faster, to get you where you really need to be? Or are you waiting like John the Baptist in the wilderness? Are you waiting by proclaiming, out loud, those changes that you long to see in the world? Are you living in ways that make the future that you hope for a little more possible? Are you waiting like a pregnant woman in labor— expanding with every breath, doing your very best to bring something new into the world?”
Sermon Preached: Sunday, Dec. 11, 2022 at Trinity on the Green
“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” May I speak in the name of God, who is to us Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Sometimes scripture can surprise you, with what memories or associations the words bring up. This week’s gospel passage is about John the Baptist, a familiar character from our gospel last week, who sends a hopeful message to Jesus in order to ask: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” These passages are about those people and prophets who were eagerly awaiting the Messiah. We haven’t gotten to Mary yet. In our liturgical cycle of readings we haven’t yet arrived at the Annunciation, or her pregnancy, or the manger, or all those other stories that we associate with Advent and Christmas– even if these events have already happened chronologically. And yet, as I read these words that John sends to Jesus, the very first thing that came to my mind– and then stayed there at the front of my mind whenever I returned to this passage– was memories of a certain week, a little over six months ago, when I became a mother.
“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” These words remind me of what it felt like to sit on the floor of my daughter’s nursery, two nights before she was born. I had just spent the entire day in the most productive way. I baked a cake for a planned celebration at staff meeting the next day, and cleaned our apartment from top to bottom– I’m talking vacuuming, dusting the baseboards, sanitizing the kitchen: that kind of cleaning. I guess some part of me knew that she was coming early, even though her due date was still almost two weeks away. A friend stopped by for dinner, and while we ate I noticed a dull ache in my lower back. When the friend had left, and the house was quiet, and the sky was dark, my husband and I sat on the floor of our daughter’s room and wondered. Is this it? Is this the moment that we’ve been waiting for? Is this it?
Well, sometime in the middle of the night I decided that yes, this was “it”– I’ll spare you the details of what ended up being a long and healthy labor, and instead invite you to really lean into, and stay with that feeling of waiting and anticipation. Stay with me in that moment on the rug in our daughter’s room, and imagine a time when you have felt the same. Is this it? Is the world as I knew it really about to change, completely? Is this the day, or are we to wait for another?
Advent is a season of waiting. As I reflect on what waiting looks like, both in the story of John the Baptist and in my own story of giving birth, I begin to wonder if we sometimes have the wrong impression about waiting. Waiting is so often seen as a passive thing. When I think of waiting, I think of long lines at the grocery store. I think of uncomfortably silent waiting rooms. I think of sitting and doing nothing; a moment frozen in time.
And yet, when I think of John the Baptist and giving birth to my daughter, these are instances in which waiting is anything but passive. In these situations, waiting is a fully engaged action. In these situations, waiting is a verb.
For John the Baptist, this waiting involved going out into the wilderness and proclaiming that the kingdom of heaven had come near. For John, waiting meant imploring people to “bear fruit worthy of repentance;” it meant making changes in his own lifetime, even when he wasn’t sure if or when or how the Messiah would come. For John, waiting involved getting in enough “good trouble” that he was thrown into prison, the place where we find John in our gospel passage today.
Similarly, the kind of waiting that a pregnant person experiences is a very active kind of waiting. It begins months and months before birth, when the so-called “nesting” impulse sets in. It begins with clearing out your home, making space for a new human being to enter your world. It begins with acquiring the crib and the changing table, picking out the colors and the pictures on the wall that symbolize all your hopes for this new life you are creating. And let’s not forget labor itself: labor is the most active form of “waiting” that I can think of. You are waiting for your child to come, and all the while your body is aching, expanding, making room for things that you previously thought were impossible. With each contraction you wonder, “is this the one that will get the baby out, or am I to wait for another?!” You see how that line from the gospel keeps coming up in surprising ways.
In the season of Advent we are invited to reflect on waiting. We are invited to imagine what it was like for faithful people to await the coming of Jesus Christ—not knowing what the Messiah would look like. And we are also invited to become aware of those things that we are still waiting for today. What are you waiting for? What are you praying for? What are you longing for, to use the words of Peter’s sermon, delivered by Luk, two weeks ago.
I think we could answer this question in many different ways. For example, we might start with those things we are waiting for on a personal level. Perhaps you are waiting for a new job, or a promotion. Perhaps you are waiting for that Christmas vacation. Perhaps you are waiting for recognition, at work or from loved ones at home. Perhaps you are waiting for a move; for retirement; for inspiration; for a way to give back to your community.
We can also consider things that we are waiting for, as a collective—as a community. I am waiting for more people to come back to church, which is to say, I am waiting for people to find more places where they can meaningfully connect with others and with God. I am waiting for an end to gun violence. I am waiting for an end to war, in Ukraine and in other places around the world. I am waiting for a world that is less reliant on fossil fuels so that I can rest assured that there will be a world for my daughter to grow up in. I am waiting for people to work together across lines of partisan difference. I am waiting for people to be kind. I am waiting for people to truly love their neighbors as they love themselves. I am waiting. We are waiting.
The question “what are you waiting for?” is one that I’ve heard during Advent before, and it’s an important question to ask. It’s a question that invites us to consider how the world could be a different place— a better place. It’s a question that helps us imagine what the kingdom of Heaven might look like here, on Earth.
In light of our gospel passage today, I think there’s a second a question we might also be asking. If the first question is: what are you waiting for; the second question is: how are you waiting? How are you waiting? Are you waiting like I sometimes wait in a line in the supermarket: bored and frustrated, because it feels like there’s nothing you can do to help the line move faster, to get you where you really need to be? OR, are you waiting like John the Baptist in the wilderness? Are you waiting by proclaiming, out loud, those changes that you long to see in the world? Are you living in ways that make the future that you hope for a little more possible? Are you waiting like a pregnant woman in labor— expanding with every breath, doing your very best to bring something new into the world?
Waiting is a verb. All too often we think of it as a passive verb. And yet at its best, waiting is an active verb. It inspires action. It draws us towards the future. It compels us to be more engaged, rather than disengaged.
I think this is why Jesus praises John so highly, in today’s gospel passage. He praises John because John has been waiting for the Messiah with his hands and his feet. He has been proclaiming the future that he longs for. He has been preparing the way of the Lord. “Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist,” Jesus says.
John’s active waiting is praised in contrast to the spectators who come out to see John in the wilderness. “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at?” Jesus asks them. “A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes?” These spectators are waiting for a miracle: for the Messiah to appear in their midst. They are waiting for it, but they aren’t working for it. By contrast, John’s waiting is fully engaged; his whole life is oriented towards the coming of Jesus, and the kingdom that Jesus proclaims. Meanwhile the crowds are waiting passively. They’ll wander out into the wilderness to do a bit of fact checking, to see if the latest prophet is worth his salt. But otherwise, they live as if everything were “business as usual.” No need to change their behavior yet, it seems; not until they know for sure that the Messiah is here.
Remember those things that we are waiting for; those things that we named earlier— and remember those things left unnamed, those longings too deep for words. What would it look like for us to wait for those things to happen like John waited for the Messiah? What would it look like if we, too, waited with our hands and our feet? If we made it our priority to be a part of the change that we want to see in our lives and in the world around us? What would it look like if we proclaimed the Gospel as if it was unfolding already, and as if we were a part of that good news?
I am sorry for all the ways that the idea of a Savior, the long-awaited one, has caused Christians to hold back. I am sorry for the ways that we have interpreted our faith to mean that God is all powerful, as if we were powerless. In truth, I believe that God longs to work together with us to bring about the kingdom of Heaven here on Earth. I believe that Jesus praised John the Baptist because John knew that we have a role to play– in being God’s hands and feet in the world, and amplifying the voice of God’s love and justice.
This season, I implore you to wait like John. Wait as if change will only happen if we are a part of it. Wait like Mary: who, when she was waiting for the Lord, most certainly had an active role to play in bringing him into the world. Wait like Mary, who also proclaims in the Magnificat (that beautiful text that we heard sung today), that God has “cast down the mighty from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;” God has “filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has has sent away empty.” Mary proclaims these things as if they have already happened. Because she knows that she is a part of the good news that is unfolding before her eyes.
Wait with your hands and your feet this Advent. Wait with the expectation that each one of us has to be a part of the change that we long to see. And proclaim in word and deed: the kingdom of Heaven has come near. Amen.