Texts: Isaiah 64:1-9 ; Psalm 80:1-7,17-19 ; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9 ; Mark 13:24-37
There’s a terribly sexist joke in Japan that says women are like Christmas cakes. The first thought you may be having is, “what’s a Christmas cake?” The second thought is probably, “how are women like Christmas cakes?” The answer I was taught by my unmarried Japanese teacher when I was in 9th grade is that “they’re no good after the 25th.” Birthday that is. Women are no good after their 25th birthday, my teacher explained, and an unmarried twenty-six year old looked forward to dismal prospects for marriage.
I studied Japanese for five years in junior high and high school. It was so central to my high school experience that when I began looking for colleges one of my main criteria was the strength of their Japanese program. I had plans. I was going to double major, in Japanese and either political science or economics. That would prepare me for a career in either politics or business. I was sure my gifts and talents would serve me well in either.
These days my Japanese is just strong enough to remember the words for “fire engine” (shobojidosha), “box lunch” (obento) and to ask permission to go to the restroom (otearai e ittemo idesuka?). I remember a spastic Japanese cartoon character named Doraemon, and the one Japanese joke I’ve already shared with you. As it turned out, I took one semester of Japanese in college before I realized that I had no idea what I was going to do with my life and scrapped Japan studies altogether.
That joke about the Christmas cake came back to haunt me though. I turned 35 a couple months ago, and I can share with you now – now that it’s over – that I was not in a good place on the eve of my birthday. My life as it is looks nothing like the life I imagined for myself when I was graduating from college and setting off into the real world. Back then I was sure I knew what lay before me. Maybe not the details, but surely the general outline. I was going to work a year or two before going back to graduate school. I was going to be a clinical psychologist, working with adolescents. I was going to meet and marry the man of my dreams, and we would have three children – adopted siblings from outside the United States. And the magical deadline I’d set for achieving all this? Thirty-five, of course.
Fourteen years later, on the eve of my birthday, I took stock of my life: saddled with the debt of two graduate degrees, unmarried and childless. I wasn’t just a Christmas cake. I was a Christmas cake ten years gone.
Today we begin a new year in the life of the church, a new year that begins with a period of watching and waiting. Advent, which comes from the Latin word adventus, or “coming,” points our attention toward something that is not yet here. Something expected, but not yet arrived. All our readings this morning rotate around this central theme. The prophet Isaiah says, “from ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him” (Isa 64:4). The psalmist waits for salvation, vindication, singing, “stir up your might, and come to save us! Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved” (Ps 80:2b-3). The apostle Paul encourages us, “you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 1:7). And from Mark we hear the words of Jesus himself, the one we are waiting for, who says,
But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, for the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not now when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake – for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.
Watch and wait, but for what? What are we supposed to be looking for? Because Advent leads to Christmas, we are tempted to think that we’re waiting for baby Jesus. In fact, we use language to that effect fairly frequently during Advent, asking God to be born again among us at Christmas time. But that is in the past. God has been born among us already. God has taken on humanity, in all its pain and all its glory. We are not, actually, waiting for Christmas. We are waiting for the return of Christ the king. We are waiting for the reign of God.
In this way, the church’s calendar plays games with us. We ended the year last Sunday with a celebration of Christ the King, the reign of God in which those who are hungry and thirsty and naked and in prison are finally given what they need. Then we immediately turn around and begin a new year declaring that we don’t know the day or the hour when that world will arrive. We are reminded of what we really already know, that we are living somewhere between the already and the not yet.
God – who created the world and each of us in it with the kind of loving attention an artist pays to her craft, like a potter gives to her creations – has already become incarnate in Christ Jesus, has already slipped the tomb, has already left the house. God has already imbued the world with the power and guidance of the Holy Spirit, has already sent us our advocate. We may have finally left the long season of green vestments and paraments, but we are still living in the time after Pentecost.
But clearly we are also living in a world that is not yet what it is supposed to be. The horror of what happened this week in Mumbai, India and the violent unrest that has taken hold in Bangkok, Thailand are cold reminders that we are not yet living in the reign of God. Even our preparations for Christmas make it clear that our vision of that future reign and God’s vision are worlds apart – take, for example, the death of Jdimytai Damour, the seasonal worker who was trampled to death at a Wal-Mart on Long Island on Friday as shoppers tore the doors off the building to be the first inside, hoping to grab this year’s most wanted gifts before they were all gone.
Faced with the evidence, it is plain to see that we are caught between the already and indisputable love of God, and the not yet realized consequences of that love – the peaceable kingdom, the reign of God. In this context we are not so different from the people of Israel who cried out along with the prophet Isaiah for God to “tear open the heavens and come down” (Isa 64:1).
We aren’t good at watching and waiting though, are we? We immediately form pictures in our heads of how we think it should be. We are so uncomfortable with the ambiguity and uncertainty of the future that we fill it with dreams, projections of ourselves and our plans for the world. We hate the waiting, the not knowing. Every few years someone claims to know the exact date and time of the end of the world, and we roll our eyes, but we love a countdown clock. How many days until the new president takes office? How many years before Prince Charming show up? How long until Christmas?
I can tell you how long until Christmas: twenty-five days, counting today. Twenty-five days to do whatever you think needs to be done in order to celebrate whatever Christmas means to you and yours. But if you’re waiting for the advent of something altogether different – regime change of the ultimate kind, a new world order, the reign of God – I don’t know. About the day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor God’s Beloved. That hour lies in the hands of the Creator.
In the season ahead we will consider how to use this time of waiting. We will hear the stories of those who have waited before us – the wooly prophet crying out in the wilderness and the young girl wh
o shared God’s vision for a world of peace and plenty. We will gather once again at Christmas time, not because we’re waiting for God to be born in the barn at Bethlehem – which has already happened – but to be reminded of how God continues to be born in the world, hidden in fragile gifts like Miles Falkner who joins the family of faith through baptism today.
What will the future look like? How long do we have to wait to find out? “Only God knows.” Advent means living in the tension, neither giving up hope nor pretending to be in control. The God who has acted in history is acting now and is calling a new creation into being. Along the way we may be required to let go of our pictures of what the future will hold, to revise our dreams, to expand our boundaries, to share each others’ cares and concerns, to work for peace. God may use us, God will use us. It’s coming.
Watch and wait.