(Today I was going to write a post about Advent and waiting, but when I looked back through the archives I realised I’d already written it. So here it is: a slightly edited version of a post first published in December 2013.)
Once when I was a kid my parents bought a new sofa and armchair for the lounge. I remember hearing them say that they had saved up for years to buy it. I don’t know whether it was a couple of years or significantly longer than that, but the period was measured not in weeks or even in months, but in years.
This was only thirty-something years ago. How times have changed. The pendulum has swung so far in the other direction that many young people today think nothing of taking on sometimes eye-watering amounts of debt in order to have something they want now! Whether it’s a car, a house, an exotic holiday, a fancy wedding, or the latest super-sized HD television… Easy credit has largely done away with the notion of having to wait for what you want, or even what you need.
This is the culture in which we, in the over-indulged, supremely pampered West, now live. Two words sum it up well: instant gratification.
And here we are at the beginning of Advent. Advent is deeply counter-cultural, because it is about waiting.
At the time of the gospels, the Jewish people were waiting for a king. After centuries of oppression, exile, and finally occupation and subjugation, they were hoping against hope that the promised messiah would come to deliver them from their enemies and vindicate them before the nations. Most of them quietly got on with their day-to-day lives – working, raising children, doing their best to live in simple obedience to Yahweh’s commands – all the while hoping and praying that God would finally and decisively intervene on their behalf.
And intervene He did. While many looked for a warrior on a white horse, God stooped down and stepped from eternity into time in a most surprising form: he became a baby. And this baby didn’t grow up to be a conquering hero in the expected military mould. Instead, he showed the world the true face of God, while at the same modelling true human faithfulness to God. In return for which he was despised and vilified by the religious power-brokers and crushed under the merciless wheels of empire. Thus did God inaugurate His eternal kingdom.
We now live in the light of that messiah, believing in our hearts and testifying with our lives that he has indeed delivered his people from death to life and is already at work to restore and redeem the whole of creation. This is a very real and present truth.
And yet we also wait. On the one hand, we are called to be carriers of his glorious light into a dark world, to be those who bring hope and life now. On the other hand, creation continues to groan as it awaits the day when all things will finally be put right. Poverty, injustice, corruption, broken relationships, sickness, violence, wars and rumours of wars, death – these are all around us, every day. We do what little we can to share and embody God’s redeeming love for a lost and suffering world now; but we also dare to believe that a day is coming when every tear will be wiped away, every wrong will be righted, and all will see the glory of the risen King, who looks not like a victorious prize-fighter but like a lamb who was slain. We are a people who live in between the already and the not yet.
I’m also struck by how many of the traditional virtues are considered superfluous in an age where there is no longer a place for waiting. Think about it – patience, longsuffering, perseverance, faithfulness, commitment: all these are in some way about recognising and, in a sense, accepting that we cannot have it all now, while nevertheless holding onto the hope that a brighter day is coming. In a world that doesn’t want to think about the future but would rather focus on eating, drinking and being merry in the present, it’s no big surprise that these virtues (some of which are included the Apostle Paul’s list of the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5) are considered somewhat quaint and old-fashioned.
I like how American theologian Stanley Hauerwas puts it:
God has made us a people of promise in a world of impatience.
Living in tension is never easy. We’re called to embody God’s kingdom today, but we’re also called to wait for the full unveiling of God’s kingdom on a day yet to come. And we’re called to embody God’s covenant faithfulness, which stands against the world’s ever-accelerating rush to fulfilment and gratification now.
And so this is my prayer for Advent: that God may fill us with the wonder of His coming two thousand years ago, the reality of His presence and His redeeming work in the world today, and the promised fulfilment of His glorious eternal kingdom.