Teaching Segment notes by Nick Schuurman
December 8, 2013
The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. For no word from God will ever fail.” – Luke 1:35-37
“People who wait have received a promise that allows them to wait. They have received something that is at work in them, like a seed that has started to grow. This is very important. We can only really wait if what we are waiting for has already begun in us. So waiting is never a movement from nothing to something. It is a movement from something to something more.”
– Henri Nouwen, Waiting for God
Growing up, I remember gathering for candlelit Christmas Eve services with our church. Every year, we’d dim the lights, and the Sunday school kids would put on a play, and everyone would sing these wonderful songs like the ones we’ve sung, and there would be food, and it was all really beautiful.
And I remember how someone would come up to the front and read the story of Christ’s birth from one of the Gospels, and we’d all listen, and then the pastor would come and give a message, and we’d all talk for a short while and then go home.
And it was always over as quickly as it started. An hour and then we’d be off doing something else.
A lot of us, I think, are used to that sort of abbreviated, half-hour version of the Christmas story, where everything is done and over before the last set of commercials air.
Historical accounts, to be fair, require a measure of brevity, and these, while certainly in many ways distinct, are by no means an exception. We’d run out of books, I suppose, if we took notes of every detail, so we stick with the synopses. Thinking about all of this, though, I began to wonder if maybe we’ve missed just how much time is bound up in these chapters.
Mary and Joseph’s journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, after all, was over 100 kilometers, and, even with the help of a donkey (which they may or may not have had with them), that takes a while.
Despite the miracle of her conception, Mary presumably carried her child inside of her, like every other mother, for nine long months.
The wise men, whoever they were and wherever they came from, likely traveled more than 1000 kilometers to get to Israel, and they probably came to see the little family in a house, not on that night by the manger, one or two years after Jesus was born.
When Mary, Joseph and Jesus fled to Egypt (a trip that measured yet another 150 kilometers), they stayed there for one or two years, waiting until Herod had died and it was safe to return to Nazareth.
Between the last book of the Old Testament and these earliest events described in the Gospels, there were some 400 years of waiting for the Messiah to come, and before that the people of God had been waiting for thousands of years for salvation to come and God to bring rescue to creation.
And so we have this story that takes maybe ten minutes to read, but actually describes weeks and months and years worth of time, and within that, weeks and months and years worth of waiting.
And if you are like me, you hate the waiting. I hate having things unresolved and unfinished.
If we’re honest with the text, though, and honest with ourselves, we’ll realize that we spend most of our lives in these in-between kind of places, where we are still waiting for the story to end, for everything to get sorted out. We live in tension, with contradictions, and questions, and pain, and conflict and doubt and loss and guilt.
And sometimes waiting is really, really hard.
Part of the gift of Advent, then, I think, is this reminder that we can live with peace in the tension of the in-between, that we can push forward in the incompleteness of our present situation, trusting that God is at work beyond what we can see. There is a substance and a movement in our waiting, a sense of hope which, if we allow it, will begin to fill the parts of our lives that are still broken, and still unresolved.
God knows we can’t do it on our own. What allowed Mary, Joseph, Elizabeth, Zechariah, Simeon and Anna all to wait, beyond the community they shared with each other, were these points of promise in which God shows up and tells them, “don’t freak out, I’m going to do this thing, and it’s going to be OK.”
If anything’s going to keep us going in our waiting, I imagine, it will be the same thing, those points in our lives where, by whatever means it came to us, we heard that voice saying, “don’t freak out, I’m going to do this thing, and it’s going to be OK.”