Sunday, December 05, 2010

The Waiting Game

I want to share with you a small picture... something I observed last week that taught me something about the process of waiting.

Last Sunday at church, we had a minor prop malfunction, as it came time to light the first candle on the advent wreath. The safety matches wouldn't strike up and in the end, the only way to get the candle to light was to take the taper up to the altar and use an already lit candle to ignite it. Then it was a case of precariously wandering back to the wreath and lighting the candle.

Fire is a very powerful element - difficult to control and a force that in full flow, consumes all in it's path. However, when fire is made up of just a single flame... it is easily snuffed out, it is vulnerable.

So as I observed the taper going back down the chancel - it's flame dimming and flickering, constantly flirting with the threat of being extinguished; I couldn't help thinking it was a picture that perfectly summarised the meaning of Advent.

Advent is all about waiting.

Advent is about waiting for a number of things - it is about waiting to celebrate the birth of Christ on Earth, some 2 millennia ago. It is about waiting to celebrate the Christmas in our present day, a time when we give and receive gifts... and are reunited with friends, family and people who are near and dear to us; when we give thanks for all the gifts and relationships we have been blessed with. Finally, advent is about reflecting on the wait for Christ to return at the Second Coming (something that is a central tenet of Christian belief... and is in various forms of the Creed, but is often overlooked... or even seen as a fringe fundamentalist belief by some even within the Church).

What is it about waiting? It invokes emotions from deep within us... right across the scale. In Britain we've even turned the process of waiting diligently into an art form. I don't think anybody else in the world queues in orderly fashion, quite like the British.

What we are waiting for... often affects our anticipation, our experience and how we wait. For those who are waiting for something negative, the waiting process often incorporates feelings of dread, panic, anger, nervousness or anxiety; whilst those who are waiting for a good thing will often experience longing, doubt, impatience or frustration.

The point I'm trying to illustrate is that whatever we are waiting for, there is something we universally share as a collective... waiting is uncomfortable.

This is especially the case when we are waiting on the promises of God because by their very nature they are invisible and immeasurable... we often can't see them until they are realised. This is something that is echoed throughout scripture. How many times in the psalms do we hear the anguish filled question: "How long?" Or for just how many years did the Israelite slaves languish in suffering and misery waiting for deliverance from their Egyptian oppressors? Even when the time scale of certain events were known (such as the prophecy concerning Babylonian exile), the feelings of doubt or hopelessness must have been immense.

The problem with waiting upon the divine, is that it is out of our reach and beyond our control; we have to wait until the divine promise comes to us.

Think back to my anecdote about the advent wreath. The taper could not be lit at source by the matches provided. It had to be taken to the altar (the place that is symbolic of the divine), lit there and then there came a tense wait as the flickering taper returned to light the candle.

That's what waiting on God is like. You can't even begin to receive the promises of God until you abandon your ineffective matches and take your taper to the one who can ignite it with hope. Even then when the hope is kindled... there is often an even more anxious wait as time passes by as the fragile flame gradually journeys towards us.

There's a verse in the Old Testament that has had a strong impact on me in the past... and to my mind sums up perfectly the agony that accompanies waiting:
Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.
Proverbs 13:12
Waiting is by definition the process of enduring while your hopes and dreams are deferred. Realization of those hopes and dreams then, is the fulfilment... the tree of life that comes as a reward for our patience and long-suffering.

In The Lord of the Rings, the kingdom of Gondor has been awaiting a king for a very long time... in fact so long has the wait been that some (including it's corrupted steward, Denethor), have even dismissed the need for a king. With the forces of darkness gathering around the city of Minas Tirith, Gandalf resolves to do something about the situation and persuades Pippin to light the beacon of the city in the hope that Gondor's allies will rally to her defence. Even when this happens, it takes time for the successive beacons to get their message to Rohan... and it takes even more time for Aragorn and Theoden to muster their respective forces, save the city and restore the throne to Aragorn.

Western Christians in the modern age live in a time where many in the world around us have similarly grown either doubtful, sceptical or resentful of the idea of a God who is king.

Christianity started out as a single flame... Jesus. Revival begins by putting down our useless matches and going back to that one, original sacred flame. I believe as Christians we can set the world ablaze in two ways; if we do it in our own strength we will misrepresent the Gospel... burning and consuming those we meet. Yet if we take God's flame it will enrich the lives of others... only consuming that which separates them from him.

Finally I want to offer a word of encouragement to all who are waiting, but can see no end to their wait.  Perhaps you are waiting for the end of some difficult circumstances... or perhaps something you feel long promised by God, has not materialised after an extremely long wait. I shall leave you with this final passage which I feel is appropriate in advent... for it reminds us that in every given circumstance (his birth, our lives, and his return), the promise and the presence of Jesus... is not far away:
Look, I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to each person according to what they have done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.
Revelation 22:12-13

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