Though I feel sure it will shock and surprise many of you, despite my innate refinement, I was not born or raised in an urbane place like Houston. I am from the northern tip of the Arkansas delta, a rural place marked mostly by agriculture, and even more so in the 1970s and 80s than today. In high school, I served as the courier for my father’s small town law practice, and among my daily rounds I always spent time transacting business for the firm at Security Bank in Paragould. Security Bank provided loans to farmers, of course, and one late spring afternoon I found myself waiting in the lobby across from a farmer with whose family my family went to church. The farmer knew me, and I was the other person in the lobby for him to talk to, so he began to tell me about his crop. I don’t recall whether there’d been too much rain or not enough, or whether we’d had one of our periodic droughts or a late spring frost. All I remember is that disaster loomed. The farmer’s crop, he said, was about to fail even before it had started to grow. Even so, the farmer was not on the edge of despair or panic. I got the sense that he had been in this very situation before, and perhaps often. He had about him a centeredness and a calm. And yet, paradoxically, he also quivered like a coiled spring. The farmer said to me that, if the bank would partner with him, he could replant soybeans and still make a crop. And clearly he was ready to do so at whatever moment grace was extended. He waited, but his waiting was an expectant, energetic one, ready to cooperate with his fellow man, the elements, and (knowing he was a churchman) his God to midwife the fruit of the earth for another season.
And so, here we are in the middle of Advent, that season of waiting. It behooves us to ask three questions, I think: 1.) In what kind of world do we wait, 2.) upon what are we waiting, and 3.) what should the character of our waiting be?
To the first question, the evidence with which the world outside these walls bombards us these days includes 24/7 Christmas tunes on the radio; television commercials of surprise gifts (preferably expensive cars with gigantic red bows); Hallmark movies; and Precious Moments, doe-eyed nativity scenes, all designed to put artificial Cheshire cat grins on our faces. But we know deep down, if we are willing to admit it, that these are Potemkin villages of Christmas cheer. They are a thin façade that masks that world as we know it. It is a world writ large, like the world of that Paragould farmer thirty years ago, in which disaster looms, and the season of Advent bravely acknowledges that. Tish Harrison Warren offers, “To practice Advent is to lean into an almost cosmic ache: our deep, wordless desire for things to be made right and the incompleteness we find in the meantime. We dwell in a world still racked with conflict, violence, suffering, darkness. Advent holds space for our grief, and it reminds us that all of us, in one way or another, are not only wounded by the evil in the world but are also wielders of it, contributing our own moments of unkindness or impatience or selfishness… The believer and atheist alike can agree that there is an undeniable brokenness to the world, a sickness that needs remedy. Whether we assign blame to human sinfulness, a political party, corporate greed, ignorance, tribalism or nationalism (or some of each), we can admit that things are not as they should be — or at least, not as we wish they were.”[i]
If that is the world in which we wait during Advent, then what are we waiting for? Yes, the babe in the manger, but is the purpose of the nativity really a gauzy, eggnog-laden warmth? No, not ultimately. Both the remembrance of the first Advent and the anticipation of the second, when Jesus will return (we believe in hope) to make all things new[ii] mean that light will ultimately shine in every darkness: In the world’s darkness, and in the darkness that sometimes encroaches in your own heart and in mine. And that light will not be a candle’s flicker in the night. It will be a quasar, a light that both blinds us and grants us new sight. It will be a light that redeems all that is wounded and broken in this world, both the things done to us and the things we have done. That’s not sweet nostalgia; that’s world-transforming, shadow-fleeing, light up the heavens power. That’s what we’re waiting for. (Isn’t that what you are waiting for, even if you’ve rarely acknowledge it?)
And so then, how should we wait? Do we retreat into our bunkers in the midst of threat and pain? Do we resign ourselves to the meantime, and sit numbly by while hoping for the coming of the Lord? Do we give in to the darkness and allow it to roam our hearts, causing us to further contribute to the world’s pain with our own words and actions?
St. James today gives us the image of the farmer, who knows from long years the vicissitudes of the field. The farmer is patient, because he knows first hand the contingencies he faces. At any moment, there may be disaster. But his patience is not fatalistic or resigned. He is never complacent. Rather, the farmer quivers to act, always ready to plow, always ready to sow at the first glimmer of sunlight or first drop of life-giving rain. The farmer’s waiting is expectant, ready at every moment to spring into action, cooperate with God’s grace, and contribute to a fruitful crop.
Jesus himself today tells us what this kind of Advent waiting looks like for the rest of us. John the Baptist’s disciples come to Jesus and ask, in essence, “How should we wait?” And Jesus says, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”
In the meantime between the first and second Advent, as we who are the Body of Christ get ready to celebrate once again the birth of the Christ child in the manger and in our own hearts, and as we await the coming again of Christ in glory, we are to wait upon Jesus in exactly this way. Our waiting is an expectant one, an active one, a cooperative one, a waiting that quivers like a coiled spring, ready to respond to grace whenever we see it: to ourselves do no less in a darkened world than be the nascent light—the candle in the darkness—that gives sight to the blind, voice to the voiceless, and good news to all those for whom the news of late has been disaster. That is who we are to be; that is how we are to wait.
Some of you know that in the Thompson household we have a new beagle puppy. If you’ve ever wished to see incarnate joy in the world, get a beagle puppy. There is nothing better. When I come home and she sees me, either from her crate or at the top of the stairs, her waiting upon my approach is profound. She, too, quivers like a coiled spring. She waits upon my step or my word, ready to give actuality to the potential energy coursing through her little hound dog body. And when I take that step or say that word, the release of joy in her almost knocks me down.
That, too, is not a bad parable for Advent. In place of our culture’s superficial Christmas cheer that seeks to anesthetize us to the world’s pain, our waiting—our quivering Advent waiting—is to be that of a deep joy that doesn’t deny pain and sorrow but knows that they do not have the final word. It is a waiting that plows the ground, that plants the seed, that trusts in God’s good grace, and that prepares the world for the day when Christ will come in light and power and joy will be complete.
What are you waiting on, and how will you wait?
[ii] Revelation 21:5