Henri Nouwen, a Catholic priest and acclaimed author of dozens of books on the Bible and spirituality, said this about waiting for God,
“Is God present or is God absent? Maybe we can say now that in the center of our sadness for God’s absence we can find the first signs of [God’s] presence. And that in the middle of our longings we discover the footprints of the one who has created them. It is in the faithful waiting for the loved one that we know how much he has filled our lives already. Just as the love of a mother for her son can grow while she is waiting for his return, and just as lovers can rediscover each other during long periods of absence, so also our intimate relationship with God can become deeper and more mature while we wait patiently in expectation for [God’s] return.”
― Henri J.M. Nouwen, Out of Solitude: Three Meditations on the Christian Life
Saint Tom Petty said this about waiting, “The waiting is the hardest part.”
Nouwen explains how the spiritual practice and lived reality of waiting for God’s presence can help us to deepen our love of God and grow in yearning for the things that matter to God: justice, peace, abundant life. That may be true, but that doesn’t change Tom Petty’s assertion that “The waiting is the hardest part.”
A colleague of mine was visiting a parishioner who would have to miss a few weeks of church during Advent due to illness. The two were talking about how it feels to wait for God in Advent, what they are waiting for God to do, and similar themes related to the church season. In the middle of the conversation the parishioner said to the pastor, “To be honest, I am sick of waiting. Every year we get to Advent and we are told that it is time to wait for God to come and set all the wrongs right, but nothing seems to change.”
It is true. I want to say that every year we get closer to the second coming of Christ, things will get a little bit better, but that’s just not true. Just look at what is going on in our world right now:
Last week Darren Wilson was not indicted for fatally shooting Michael Brown. In Ferguson, MO and throughout the country riots are breaking out as racial tensions rise to a fervor. Issues of race and justice in this country do not seem to be anywhere close to being resolved.
In the past month a Palestinian terrorist drove his car into a crowd of civilians, killing a mother and her 3-month old baby. Another man walked into a synagogue and used a butcher knife to kill 5 worshipers. In response to these acts of violence and others, the Israeli government has demolished the homes of the surviving and innocent family members of the terrorists. Violence is met with more violence in Israel and no peace results from it.
Syria’s civil war has claimed the lives of over 200,000 people and produced over 9.5 million refugees.
Human trafficking remains a worldwide epidemic even in the 21st century.
Thousands have been killed by ISIS and many thousands displaced.
In Trenton, our neighborhoods have grown more dangerous and our schools are in worse shape than they had been in the past.
I agree with the author of our reading from Isaiah in that “We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.” (Isaiah 64:6b) It feels like our sin and brokenness carries us helplessly away. There doesn’t seem to be anything that we can do about it.
Today’s Gospel reading opens with Jesus saying, “After that suffering…” Earlier in the chapter, Jesus describes a prophecy in which war rages throughout Jerusalem, earthquakes and famine plague the land, and the dwelling place of God, the Temple, is completely destroyed. The scene Jesus describes should look and feel very familiar to us today. They conjure up images of despair, hopelessness, and perhaps most troubling, the absence of God.
Jesus, however, gives us the promise that he will come again. In fact, he promises that it is precisely in those moments of great despair and darkness that he is near. We may not know exactly when or how it will happen, but we must “keep awake” remembering the promise that Christ will return. He says to his followers, “It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his [or her] work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch.” We are left alone and it appears that the master of our world is gone. When will he return? We are left wondering this in the evening, at midnight, at cockcrow, and at dawn.
This parable reflects the final day of Jesus’ own life. Evening, midnight, cockcrow, and dawn.
We read about the events leading to his crucifixion beginning in the evening, “When it was evening, he came with the twelve. And when they had taken their places and were eating, Jesus said, ‘Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me.’” (Mark 14:17-18). Here Jesus knows that his betrayal is at hand and he waits for it to happen.
Midnight: Jesus and his disciples are at Gethsemane after their Passover meal. Jesus is praying and he asks his disciples to stay awake with him and for the third time he finds the disciples asleep (Mark 14:32-42). They are exhausted from all the waiting and “did not know what to say to Jesus (v. 40).”
Cockcrow: Jesus is questioned by the religious leaders and condemned to death (14:53-65). Meanwhile, Peter, Jesus’ friend and follower, denies knowing Jesus three times. He had claimed that he would stick by Jesus no matter what, but while waiting for Jesus’ trial to finish, he lost his nerve and abandoned his friend (Mark 14:66-72).
Dawn: Jesus is questioned by Pilate and then handed over to be crucified (Mark 15:1-25).
Jesus’ own death is a testament to our experience of death in the midst of our lives and our world. We see our sin and brokenness at work very clearly in the events surrounding Jesus’ death. We see ourselves reflected in the last moments of Jesus as members of the body of Christ and we see ourselves reflected in the lives of the disciples who are scared, lost, or afraid.
Where are we in the midst of our waiting? Which part of the last day do we identify with?
Is it evening? Are we like Jesus at the Passover table awaiting our betrayal or the beginning of our emotional pains? Are we waiting for a surgery of which we or our loved one might not make it out alive? Are we waiting to see if our estranged loved one will return our phone call this time?
Is it midnight? Are we like Jesus hoping to have the support of our friends who just can’t seem to stick around? Are we like the disciples, too tired and too confused to keep awake? Are we looking for friends and family to help us, but are let down over and over again? Are we doing our best to “keep awake” but the stress of our jobs, the demands of our families, and the chaos of our lives has worn us out into collapse?
Is it cockcrow? Are we like Jesus bearing the weight of condemnation? Are we like Peter too scared to be brave and do what is right? Are we or do we mourn with the people who are suffering in prison and the ones who are abused by those who are supposed to protect them?
Is it dawn? Are we like Jesus who is in the throes of his suffering? Do we feel physical, emotional, and spiritual pain right now?
Somewhere in our lives we identify with the suffering of the body of Christ- whether we are at the beginning of the evening or the conclusion of the dawn. We may be anxious about what lies ahead in terms of our health, our relationships, and our world. We or our loved ones may be making the hard decision as to whether to spend the remainder of our money on food or heat. We may be currently experiencing the physical hurts from sickness or abuse. We may be currently experiencing the emotional hurts of cruel words spoken or not spoken to us by a lover, a family member, a friend, or an enemy. We may be feeling the spiritual hurts of unanswered prayers or feelings of guilt.
As we patiently or anxiously wait for God to act it seems like the world around us is getting darker and darker. In fact, for the last three hours of Jesus’ life we read that “darkness came over the whole land…” (Mark 15:33) before he finally died. Jesus earlier told his disciples that “after that suffering…” the sun, moon, and stars would all fail to give their light. All the lights of the world have been snuffed out. Even in the midst of this hopelessness- when our lives and our world seem to be spinning out of control- even when the very Son of God is murdered- Christ promises to us that “the Son of Man [will come]… with great power and glory.” Christ will not leave us alone in that great despair. Though heaven and earth should pass away, this promise of Christ will not.
Certainly Henri Nouwen is right about absence making the heart grow fonder (a clichéification of the quote I began with). Our hurt and despair helps us realize how much we need God in this world. Tom Petty was certainly right in acknowledging that “The waiting is the hardest part.” It is very difficult to wait for God to set things right when the world looks and feels so wrong. But neither quote speaks to the assurance that we have in Christ’s promise to set things right. It will happen. We saw the world get as dark as it possibly could when Jesus Christ, the Son of God and a good man, was murdered by the people he loved. The world tried to snuff out the light of the world, but three days later, he rose again. The darkness could not overcome the light.
We earnestly await that light. While we do it we can voice our fears and our anger to or at God. The author of Isaiah certainly had no problem doing that demanding that God would “tear open the heavens and come down (Isaiah 64:1a).” We can see God’s presence in unexpected ways and praise God for those blessings. We can be empowered by the promise of Christ’s love and justice and share that same love and justice with the world as Paul urges the Corinthians.
Whatever our response is to the difficulty involved in waiting, just know that we do not wait in vain. We gather together every week to remind each other of that in Word, Sacrament, song, and confession. We are keeping each other awake and aware of that promise. Christ is coming even when darkness is all around us. Even if the light of the sun, the moon, and the stars were to fade, the light of Christ will not.