Here’s a news item you might have missed. “The folks at Star Provisions in Midtown are eagerly praying for the return of Jesus. Sometime on Wednesday, a thief…swiped the Christ Child from a manger scene set up in the store. “Merry Christmas,” said a disgusted Dana Kirkpatrick, floor manager at Star Provisions. “It’s wrong on so many levels.” The shop was pretty busy on Wednesday so employees have no idea who robbed the cradle. “This is a hand-carved set from Germany. It’s kind of pricey,” said Tim Gaddis, the store’s cheese monger. A former Gilmer County law enforcement officer, we asked how he’d go about investigating the crime if he still wore a badge. “I’d talk to everybody who was working that day, review security tapes,” he said. “Fingerprints would be pointless.” Were he to apprehend the culprit, the thief could expect another come-to-Jesus moment. “You steal baby Jesus, you’re going to jail,” Gaddis said.” “Star Provisions is not offering a reward – it just seemed too untoward (perhaps too King Herod-like?) to put a price on Jesus’ head. Gaddis figures the thief knows who he or she is, and hopes to appeal to the better angels of that person’s nature. “Jesus could return quietly in a brown paper bag,” he said. “We just want it back.” So, I wonder who the Jesus thief is? A kid pulling a prank? A non-Christian tired of all the baby-Jesus hullabaloo? A Christian pastor tired of all the baby-Jesus hullabaloo? Or maybe—and this is my theory—maybe it was a member of the Liturgical Police…because a member of the Liturgical Police would know—as every Christian should know—that the baby Jesus doesn’t come until Christmas Eve night! (And, no. I did NOT take that baby Jesus.) We don’t like waiting on the baby Jesus, do we?
We don’t like singing Advent hymns or hearing strange Scripture texts or looking at an almost-complete nativity. No, now that Thanksgiving is over, we’re ready for the baby Jesus! We want him and we want him now!
In this age of instant everything, we’ve nearly lost the experience of waiting. Like the guy in the 4G phone ad says to the guy with the 3G phone: “That was so 27 seconds ago!” We want everything now and, with few exceptions, we can get everything now. But Advent –the season that begins today– is about waiting. The baby Jesus is about waiting. And those who want to experience Christmas meaningfully, can do so only after waiting for it.
The author of today’s Scripture lesson knows something about waiting. The Prophet wrote in the 6th century BCE, after Israel had been taken into exile. The people had been torn away from their homes, torn away from their land, torn away from their Temple.
That part about being torn away from their Temple doesn’t have much meaning for us; we know we can experience God anywhere. But for 6th century Israelites, God literally lived in the Temple. So when the Temple was destroyed, and when they were forceably removed to a foreign land, the people began to wonder about God. Did God still exist? Were they still God’s people? If they were still God’s people, why were they still in exile? If God still loved them, why were they still suffering?
The prophet’s lament begins with memories of how God had, in the past, swooped in and saved the people. O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence…to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations—like the one that had conquered Israel—might tremble at your presence.
The people are in trouble. They’re in exile…they’re away from everything that’s familiar, everything that’s comfortable. They’ve heard stories about how God acted in the past. They want God to do the same right now. They’d give anything for God to tear open the heavens and come riding in on a white horse to save them…right now.
Do you ever want God to swoop in and save you? Do you ever long for God to tear open the heavens and whup up on your problems and set everything in your world right again? If so, then you know something about how the author of these words was feeling.
Even in the midst of his angst, though, even in the midst of his suffering and his longing for God to tear open the heavens and swoop in and save him, still the prophet proclaims: “4From 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.” Yes. Sometimes we just have to wait for God. The pain will stop, the suffering will end, everything will go back to normal—or at least to a place of comfort—if we just wait on God. Yes. Just wait on God.
You know what I love? Cheesy holiday movies. I saw one Thanksgiving Night. I don’t remember the name of it…but that’s okay. You’ll know the plot by heart, anyway.
A successful corporate attorney trying her best to make partner by the end of the year, tells all her underlings to cancel their Thanksgiving plans; they’ll be working all day to prepare for a court case the day after Thanksgiving. They’re trying to win a case for an unsavoury mining conglomerate that wants to replace a town’s only park with an unhealthy mine. In her drivenness to win the case, the attorney, Claudia, also cancels Thanksgiving plans with her sister and her sister’s family…not the first time she’s done so.
The day before Thanksgiving, Claudia shares a ride in the company car with a woman named Gina. Gina asks Claudia if she’s happy with her life. Claudia insists she is. She doesn’t need family, she doesn’t need anything she doesn’t already have…except full partnership in the law firm….which she’ll get if she wins the case for the mining company.
About that time, the car hits a bump and Claudia hits her head. When she gets out of the car, she finds herself at a house, with a husband and two children. See? You already know where this is going. In a play on Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” Claudia has the chance to live for a few weeks as if she had chosen a different life…not the life of climbing the corporate ladder, but the life of family connections and friends.
While living her alternate reality, Claudia crosses paths with Gina a couple of times. Each time she begs to be taken back to her “real life.” Each time Gina says, “You’re not ready yet.”
Then, as the court battle with the mining conglomerate looms, Claudia gets in the taxi to go defend the townspeople’s case. Who’s her cabbie? Gina…who tells Claudia she’s now ready to return to her real life. Of course, now Claudia doesn’t want to go. She wants to stay and help defeat the evil mining conglomerate. But with another bump of the head, she ends up back at her old law firm. You know what happens…She goes to court, loses the case—and her job—then celebrates by going to the coffee shop where she meets the man who was her husband in the alternate life and who now will be her beau for real. The end.
Okay. Got the plot? Seen it a thousand times? Here’s why I’m telling you this story… because it’s all about waiting. The first hours and days in her new life, Claudia wants out of there as fast as she can be removed. This is not what she wanted. Ever! But then hubby and the two kids start to grow on her…and after a couple of weeks she discovers that she loves them. And, yes, that she needs them.
It’s only when Claudia makes the discovery that she needs others in her life that she is at last ready to re-enter her “real life.” With that first bump of her head, Claudia easily could have been returned to her life immediately. It’s TV, right? But if she had been, she wouldn’t have experienced the change that was necessary for her “real life” to have the deeper meaner it needed. By the movie’s end, you know Claudia has changed enough that she’s going to make better, more whole-making decisions than she had in the past…all because she waited. The experience of waiting taught her what only waiting could. By inhabiting that place of discomfort, that place of longing to be anywhere except where she was, Claudia learned enough and was changed enough to begin living her life more deeply than she ever had.
So, I guess we could look at the absence of that baby Jesus in Midtown, not as a robbery, but as a gift. What kind of Christmas would we have if we didn’t have to wait on the baby Jesus? What lessons might we miss if we skipped over the waiting process?
There is one person in our community right now who is an expert on waiting, Emily Adams, who is in her 9th month of pregnancy. I sent Emily an email this week, asking, first, if she might delay her son’s birth until December 24 or 25. That would be so cool liturgically, don’t you think? Apparently, Emily wasn’t in a liturgical mood when I made the suggestion.
Then I asked her if she’d share something about her own experience of waiting. She wrote: “When waiting for something I really want, my first impulse is to focus on the feeling of unhappiness that I don’t have what I want yet. I can’t wait to meet Ian and sometimes find myself feeling negative about the fact that I’m still waiting. But I’m trying to train myself to take a deep breath, open my eyes, and see the wonderful things I can experience only because I am waiting. In this case, all of the bed rest and time off of work has meant that I’ve gotten lots of extra time to be with Ben and really savor each moment of our time together before our family dynamic changes. Waiting for one thing has given me the space to mindfully appreciate what I already have in my life. And for that I am eternally grateful.”
What might we learn from waiting for our baby, the baby Jesus? What might these days of longing and anticipation teach us, how might inhabiting this place of discomfort change us? How might we use these next 28 days to prepare—really prepare—for the coming of God-with-us? I don’t know. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan © 2011