The Rev. Canon Dr. William J. Danaher, Jr
The First Sunday of Advent
December 3, 2017
(This sermon has been transcribed from live video. Please click here to watch the video version.)
Last month, I took Claire to a doctor’s appointment, and I was going to wait for her while she saw the doctor. I walked into the waiting room, and I suddenly remembered this joke that Jerry Seinfeld once said. I looked at the people working behind the desk, and I thought these people need a joke. Those people operating the desk at a doctor’s office, they need a little humor in their life. I don’t know if you have that experience too when you see them, but they always seem to be ready for a joke. Maybe not, but I thought I would try one out anyways.
I was wearing my collar, and I said, “What’s the difference between hell and a doctor’s office waiting room?” And they said, “What is the difference between hell and a doctor’s office waiting room?” And I said, “Hell has newer magazines.” Which is my way of saying to you today that I am not really good at waiting. I am not a good waiter. I don’t like to wait for anything. I suffer when I am waiting out a decision. I suffer when I am waiting to hear a response from somebody. When I text somebody, I kind of hope and pray that their phone happens to be right in front of them and they can text me back. And if there’s any interruption, I start to draw lots of conclusions and scenarios as for the distance in between the texts that I sent and the texts that I received.
Waiting is painful. Waiting doesn’t seem like it does a lot of work. It feels like that odd space between where you are and where you want to be, that space in between, it’s no fun. But waiting is exactly what we were asked to do in Advent. Waiting is in some ways the kind of primary virtue that you and I are asked to build up in Advent. And that waiting is not just the waiting of anticipation for Christmas. The waiting in Advent is a kind of waiting for God to come a second time, just as God came the first time in the first Advent in Bethlehem 2000 years ago.
Advent is one of those places in which there’s a layering of time that there isn’t a movement from beginning to middle to end in Advent. Rather, time looks very differently in Advent. Time for Christians isn’t moving towards a telos, an end, as a philosopher would call it. And that’s a way of speaking not only about time but about the nature of life and the nature of our world. We are not moving naturally towards an end. We do not have the resources within us to reach the end. Rather, you and I need some kind of divine intervention. We need God to come in and reign again with power and glory. We need an adventum, which is the Latin word to arrive or to come, which is the root of the term Advent.
We believe as Christians that time has this layered element that the end will be like the beginning and the coming of Christ will be the time in which all things are changed, because on our own, we cannot achieve what we need to achieve. We cannot sustain ourselves. This world will wind down and self-destruct, left to its own devices. And Advent is the prayer, the waiting prayer that God would come again, that God would come again in glory to reconcile the world to God’s self, to bring us together in the moment of forgiveness and reconciliation, to gather all things together. That’s what it means to wait in Advent, not just anticipation for some good things you’re waiting for, but a kind of waiting for something you can’t even imagine happening.
What does waiting look like for you? When I was 13 years old, my father, who was this amazing horseback rider, bought this incredibly powerful but flawed horse. The name of the force was Mac. He was over 16 hands tall, and he was incredibly powerful, and he had the ability to jump anything we put in front of him. Mac had been owned by a blacksmith who had abused him, and so Mac was incredibly dangerous and mean. My father in his wisdom said to me, “I’d like you to start riding Mac.”
My father also traveled for work. The bus on the way home from school would stop at the stable where we kept Mac, and I would get off the bus and then go out to be with Mac. And the first day or two, I didn’t do anything. I didn’t go near the stall, because the beast terrified me. At one point, he had kicked out one of the bars of the stall so that there was this missing tooth kind of thing.
But then I got an idea. So I went one day, and I got some grain, and then I went over to where they kept the molasses. And I poured this beautiful liquid molasses all over the top of the grain, and then I opened the stall, and I got in and I closed it behind me. And then I held out the grain with the molasses. Mac came over and he ate the molasses, and I tried to put my hand on his nose, and he immediately just batted it away. A horse of that size, the nose was as hard as a fist, and as strong as you could believe. And so it hit my hand and I panicked, and got out of there as fast as I could.
But the next day I went, and I brought grain but no molasses, and he came up and I slowly put my hand on his neck, and then I slowly began to move it back and forth. And then the next day, I came in with the grain. He walked over to eat it, and then he slowly shifted weight on his hooves and leaned his neck into my hand, and I slowly moved my hand back and forth. And we became friends.
Over the next three years, I began to learn to ride by riding this incredibly impressive horse. I was never going to be much of a rider. I was too tall and too large to be able to really do competition. And believe it or not, Mac had it in him to be a competitor. He was an incredibly strong animal, an incredible athlete. But over those two years, we worked together, and I became stronger, and he became more gentle.
And then there was a time that came that comes in every kind of relationship where it was time for me to do the things that I loved, and I went off and did them. I pursued other sports, other pastimes. My father decided to give Mac away to a team that competed internationally. And wonder of wonders, they took Mac because he was such a specimen. And for a while he was being trained to compete even though he was older. Like many athletes, he had an injury. I expected Mac to be put down. I called the coach and I asked what would become of him now that he was injured. The coach said to me that he had become so gentle that they decided to use him as a school horse for the children to learn how to ride.
That to me was an experience of waiting. I had to wait for Mac to lean into my touch. The waiting that went on, actually started to turn over the course of our relationship until a moment where Mac was waiting for me. One time, I came around the corner of the stable to go to his stall. He had figured out how to poke his head through the opening that he had kicked open and was watching down the aisle of the stall, waiting for me. Waiting, you see, is a kind of relationship. It’s a deep relationship of attention and service. It’s the admission of our powerlessness, our inability to make things right on our own. It’s the willingness to trust that somehow, our hope will be fulfilled.
In his wonderful book published in 1943, Antoine de Saint-Exupery, The Little Prince, the climax of the story in some ways happens midway through when a fox comes up to the little prince and says that he must tame him. “What does it mean to tame?” the little prince asks, and the fox explains, “It means to have a ritual of waiting, so that you would be at a place every day at a certain time, and I would come to you, and as that moment in the day arrives, my heart would beat, and I would start to leap for joy at the chance to see you again.” And so, the fox and the little prince developed this ritual of waiting and ritual of meeting. Soon, the little prince writes, “The fox became more precious to him than any other fox in the world.” As they were parting, the fox says to the little prince, “Here is my secret. It is very simple. We see well only with the heart. The essential is invisible to the eyes.” Waiting, for Saint-Exupery, is a kind of waiting that learns to see through the eyes of the heart. What does waiting look like for you? In all of our readings for today, that waiting has a way of seeing through the eyes of the heart, runs through all of our readings like a red thread.
In our reading from Isaiah, there is this broken relationship in which the people of God realize that there is nothing that they can do to return to the Promised Land, and yet the end of the passage finishes with a prayer of waiting. “You are our Father. We are Your clay. You are our potter.” In other words, make of us what you will, we are waiting.
In our reading from the Gospel of Mark, which is this incredible moment in which Jesus speaks about the end times, and partly Jesus speaks about the end times because His world is ending. Jesus is on his way to the cross, so He’s giving everything to His disciples that He is experiencing and He is revealing all that there is to be revealed in human nature. And this is that the end of things is going to come and it will be unfortunate. But there is of course a moment of trust and hope in what Jesus says. “For the Son of Man will come and His angels will gather his elect from the ends of earth and from the ends of heaven. So, wait for Him. Do not lose hope. Carry on. Trust in God. Be watchful,” Jesus says, “For I will come.”
Finally, in our reading from 1 Corinthians, there is this incredible moment in which waiting and learning to see through the eyes of the heart is the experience of leaning in to the grace and peace that we have from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ so that we are not, Paul says, “Lacking any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Waiting, for Paul, means abiding in grace, and peace means holding on and having faith and leaning in. What is waiting for you?
In this season of Advent, at its earliest strata, there is of course the waiting of Mary, waiting for the child Jesus to be born. That early moment, that deeply embodied and particular moment, is meant to be an indicator of what it means to truly wait faithfully for Christ to be born. It’s meant to teach us how to wait today. With that in mind, I have before you a piece of art, that I think is remarkable, by Hilarie Mais.
Mais was born in Leeds and she now works out of Sydney. This piece she did in 1985, and she later won a major award for religion and art in 1994. This is called Waiting: the Sequel because she wasn’t quite happy with the first piece called Waiting. Here, you have this incredible lattice in which you can see the shape of a circle coming into being, but it hasn’t yet connected. You see, even though you’re standing still before the image of the sculpture, you see movement all around you as you look at it. This was Mais’ attempt to somehow articulate through the medium of abstract art her own waiting as she was pregnant with her child.
Waiting for her means standing still but also experiencing movement, literally like a baby who’s starting to move in your womb. Waiting for her means being able to see the shape emerging but not seeing the circle yet connecting and seeing in the midst of that movement God’s work. That is what waiting means for her. That is her attempt to tell us what waiting might mean for each of us no matter our gender.
What is waiting for you? What are you waiting for?