Speaker: Cynthia Lapp
What are you waiting for? This is the question we will be asking together this Advent and Christmas season. (A bunch of other Mennonites across the country are also asking this question.) What are we waiting for? On the one hand, it is simple, we are waiting for Christmas. Of course. On the other hand, we might roll this phrase around in our brains and mouths a bit to see what else we can come up with.
Our texts today were written before there was a Christmas to wait for, before the celebration of Jesus’ birth was observed, before there was advent and commercialism and carols and Hallmark movies. So what does it mean to wait? What are we waiting for?
The StoltzfLapp family experienced various approaches to waiting on Friday. We were in Pittsburgh at a museum. The five of us have different habits at museums. Some of us take time to read the descriptions and engage fully with the art. Others move more quickly through the rooms in order to see each and every piece of art.
By the end of the hour we were separated. Two StoltzfLapps waited together for a while, call it waiting in place, to see if the two who were lost would show up. Another StoltzfLapp spent time waiting by searching the museum for the two who seemed to be lost. Cell phones were called to no avail. In the end, three StoltzfLapps continued exploring the museum, at its secondary location, hoping that the two lost StoltzfLapps would turn up, somewhere, sometime. And indeed they did turn up, not knowing they were lost at all.
Perhaps this is a parallel to Jesus’ parables in Luke about things that are lost. But because I have been pondering “waiting” in preparation for advent, the experience made me reflect on the various approaches to waiting. Do we wait, standing still, in the same place and hope for the best? Do we wait actively, trying to make something happen? Do we go about our business unaware that there is any waiting going on?
What are we waiting for?
Matthew and Isaiah (read at the advent candle lighting) seem to offer two very different visions of what we are waiting for. Isaiah describes a beautiful vision of the “last days.” People come from many nations, gathering together on God’s holy mountain. God will be the judge and the people will be committed to peace, to finding new ways to get along with each other. They will destroy their weapons and turn them into farming tools. There will be no more war, not even training for war.
What a beautiful picture. I can’t wait til that happens. It is something that I wait for with longing. And because I wait with longing, I also look for ways to live into that vision of peace. I am not content to wait in place for that far off day. When I think of this Isaiah vision, I am the StoltzfLapp that actively looks while waiting, that tries to be part of helping that vision come true. Here at Hyattsville Mennonite, we are known as a congregation that welcomes all, that works together to live into Isaiah’s vision, however imperfectly we do that. As a congregation, we are usually active waiters.
In contrast, Matthew, in chapter 24, describes what happens during the waiting, as the “last days” come upon us. I find it helpful to remember with scholar Ronald Allen that “Matthew has an end-time (apocalyptic) orientation, believing that history is divided into two ages — a present, evil age that God will soon replace with a new age (often called the realm/reign of God or the realm of heaven).” (http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3089) And though Matthew points often toward these “end times” (chapters 24-25 are full of parables and descriptions) readers are also reminded that no one knows when the waiting will be over, when these end times will arrive.
The current, predominant, understanding of these few verses from Matthew 24 has been influenced by dispensationalism of the 19th and 20th centuries. You don’t want to be the one “left behind” in the field, or at the mill grinding grain. Being “left behind” means that God has deserted you and you will be subjected to a thousand years of miserable, violent existence under dictators and authoritarian rulers. This elaborated interpretation seems to be common among evangelicals. These few verses from Matthew have been embellished and made into songs, books, and movies all the better to scare people into becoming “believers.”
As Anabaptists we tend to lean less on believing and lean more into actively living the way of Jesus. Perhaps this makes us slightly less susceptible to the fear being peddled through this“left behind” stuff. If Matthew is oriented toward the future end-times, Anabaptists tend to be oriented to the present, living life right now.
Anyway, what if being left behind is a good thing? Matthew’s use of the story of Noah and family gives us a hint that being left might be desired. Noah builds the ark to preserve and save the animals and his family. The intention is to remain, to be left behind and not be swept away by the threatening flood waters. Matthew describes two people in the field, one is taken and the other is left to continue working. Two people grinding meal, one disappears and one remains to prepare food for dinner. The ones who are left behind go about their lives. What happens to those who disappear?
I thought about this as I waited in the ICE office six weeks ago with Veronica and her family. The small waiting room on the 4th floor is no longer adequate for the many people ICE has on its detain and deport list. Now everyone waits on the first floor, in the main lobby, until the line forms. Then they wait on line to be checked in. Then they sit and wait for their name to be called.Then they wait some more to receive word about their status.
It could almost be a version of Isaiah’s vision, with people coming from every nation, as they ascend the steep steps to the high hill. Except this peaceful gathering of families is not held in the temple of YHWH but in the fortress of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
This is a place of waiting, and at the ICE office, one is on alert, watching and wondering. One hopes and prays not to be swept away but to be left behind, to continue working, living with and caring for loved ones. That day six weeks ago, Veronica and her family rejoiced because she was given six more months to take care of her special needs kids, to support her veteran husband who lives with ongoing trauma from his military service. Being left behind is the result we wait and pray for when we go to the ICE office.
We might ask the question of God, What are you waiting for? If we have an end times orientation like Matthew, we might be ready for God to come and take care of this mess once and for all. Call it “the Noah solution.” The current environmental/climate crisis may seem like God’s answer. I can get pretty cynical about the ways that “end times Christians” believe that the climate crisis is God’s judgement, and the only solution is to sit back and watch it happen. In that context, asking God “what are you waiting for?” sounds like an invitation to more destruction.
What are you waiting for?
As troublesome as Matthew and his apocalyptic visions are, Matthew also writes, “No one knows that day and hour. The Promised One is coming at the time you least expect.” That somehow is a comfort to me rather than a threat. It says that, like the StoltzfLapps, there are different ways to wait. The profit-making scare mongers hope we will choose one way, to live in fear while we buy their end times books and movies. But living in fear doesn’t bring God closer and it doesn’t bring us closer to each other. Fear may paralyze us or cause us to scramble greedily since all we can see is scarcity. If we live in fear, we may even believe there is not enough God to go around.
There are other ways to wait. We do not need to wait in fear. Just between the texts today, Romans, Isaiah and Matthew, there are a variety of understandings. The biblical text does not speak in one voice about how to wait or about what it will be like at the end. Perhaps it will not be a tragic end but a new beginning.
I choose to believe, or live into, or wait with, the idea of “parousia.” I learned this Greek word from my children, who learned it at Christian Family Montessori School. Parousia is when God will be all in all, when all will be whole and at peace. This is what I wait for. I wonder if this is what God waits for as well. When we stop being afraid and we turn toward each other; when we stop living in fear of disappearing and commit ourselves to finding ways to stay put, to be left behind; when we reach out to those who live in real fear and danger; when we walk in light, toward light – This is an active waiting that invites all of us, with God, to long for Isaiah’s vision, to work toward Isaiah’s vision, to become part of Isaiah’s vision.
Come, let us walk – and wait – in the light of God.