I’m not sure if it was fifteen or sixteen Novembers ago that Ginger came home with an idea for Advent. She had been on staff at First Congregational Church in Winchester for a short time and, since I was trying to finish my master’s degree in English and teach fulltime, I had not gone to church with her much. I walked down the hill on Sunday morning to the Episcopal Church in Charlestown for early mass and then came home to read. One other thing: I had shoulder length hair (which I would still have if it hadn’t decided to fall out) and a beard.
Ginger wanted to find a way to make the passages from the prophets come to life, so she asked if I would come in from the back of the church singing “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord” from Godspell and then say, “I am the prophet Isaiah (or whoever the prophet was that week) and this is the word of the Lord,” read the scripture passage, and then sing my way out. Until that first Sunday, no one in Winchester knew who I was. For the rest of the time we were a part of that congregation, I came down the aisle every Sunday in Advent, and there were a couple of folks who never called me anything but Isaiah.
When we moved to Marshfield, the prophet came with us. Today marked the beginning of my sixth Advent season by the sea. Today I was Jeremiah, who said:
Watch for this: “The time is coming”—God’s Decree—“when I will keep the promise I made to the families of Israel and Judah. When that time comes, I will make a fresh and true shoot sprout from the David-Tree. He will run this country honestly and fairly. He will set things right. That’s when Judah will be secure and Jerusalem live in safety. The motto for the city will be, ‘God Has Set Things Right for Us.’” (Jeremiah 33:14-16, The Message)
The message of the prophets that holds most true down the years proclaims waiting is central to our theology and our faith: “The time is coming when I will keep my promise,” says God.
This is the word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.
However it was that the people interpreted what the prophets had to say in those days, from my perch it seems most of the prophets lived and died without seeing those promises kept. I don’t mean God wasn’t faithful or present, or that the prophets died feeling bitter and cheated. I do mean Jeremiah never saw Jesus; neither did Isaiah or Malachi or anyone else with a book named after them in the Old Testament. And they found hope and meaning in knowing that the time was coming based on the ways God was faithful to them in the days they did live.
Time is a funny thing. The lectionary readings stack prophet, psalmist, letter writer, and evangelist one on top of the other as if their words are concurrent, which – to us – they are even as they span centuries. We can study and even appreciate history, but we don’t know how to think in centuries because our clocks are too small. Life, as we know it, ticks away like this wonderful poem from Barbara Crooker I found this week on The Writer’s Almanac: In the Middle.
In the Middle
of a life that’s as complicated as everyone else’s,
struggling for balance, juggling time.
The mantle clock that was my grandfather’s
has stopped at 9:20; we haven’t had time
to get it repaired. The brass pendulum is still,
the chimes don’t ring. One day you look out the window,
green summer, the next, and the leaves have already fallen,
and a grey sky lowers the horizon. Our children almost grown,
our parents gone, it happened so fast. Each day, we must learn
again how to love, between morning’s quick coffee
and evening’s slow return. Steam from a pot of soup rises,
mixing with the yeasty smell of baking bread. Our bodies
twine, and the big black dog pushes his great head between;
his tail is a metronome, 3/4 time. We’ll never get there,
Time is always ahead of us, running down the beach, urging
us on faster, faster, but sometimes we take off our watches,
sometimes we lie in the hammock, caught between the mesh
of rope and the net of stars, suspended, tangled up
in love, running out of time.
We live in the creative tension between daily pressures and prophecy, between hurry up and wait.
I’m not sure God has ever moved as quickly as we would like. God seems to relish the unfolding of the story as much as the revelation, the journey over the arrival. In Eden, God came in the late afternoon to walk with those created in God’s image. I wonder how many afternoons passed before one of them asked, “Shouldn’t we be doing something?”
“Let’s just walk,” was the reply, “I like it when we walk together.”
A more time efficient deity would have incarnated fully grown, rather than showing up as a baby in a poor, insignificant family and probably would have done it several centuries earlier. But time has never been of the essence to God, if it means the point is to get the job done. The essence of time is room to grow, to listen, to become, to create, none of which happens quickly.
I still love to read the Nativity story from Luke 2 in the King James Version. Better yet, I like to hear Linus recite it in A Charlie Brown Christmas:
And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, (because he was of the house and lineage of David) to be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.
I realize I’m playing with words here, but it strikes me that the closing sentence describes the heart of our waiting: for the days to be accomplished for us to be delivered – from the Hurry Up, from the Not Enough, from the Way Too Much, from the Hurts Too Bad. Mary was delivered and took the tiny child, wrapped him in swaddling clothes (I figure those must fee pretty good), laid him in the manger, and began waiting for him to grow up.
We, too, are delivered, even as we wait for deliverance. Our days stack up like rocks for an altar, calling us to look into the guts of our lives for God’s presence rather than staring up at the sky for some sort of grand gesture. As one of my favorite songs, written from the depths of the Not Yet, says:
I sing because I’m happy
I sing because I’m free
his eye is on the sparrow
and I know he watches me