Waiting and Working
Do you guys know any firefighters? I’ve known a few, over the years. And they all have one thing in common, at least all the firefighters that I’ve known. Do you know what that is? Every firefighter I’ve ever met has been totally ripped. They are, to a person, extremely burly. There’s a reason there are firefighter calendars, and not zookeeper calendars. And I think I know why firefighters are so well-muscled – because they spend a lot of time waiting. And they know how to wait well.
It doesn’t matter how busy an area is, most of a firefighter’s job involves waiting for something to happen. But that doesn’t mean that firefighting is just lounging around, playing cards or practicing their sliding on the fire pole. Because firefighters know that waiting well isn’t a passive activity. When firefighters are waiting, they’re also getting ready. They work out so that they’ll be ready to do everything they’re asked to do when the time comes. They turnout their pants over their shoes so all they have to do is step in and pull up and they’re ready to go. Firefighters run drills, they practice getting in and out of all their gear, and they help teach others how to get ready. In October, we had firefighters here at our preschool, teaching and demonstrating what to do if you’re ever caught in a fire.
The long and the short of it though, is that firefighters know that the secret to waiting well is working hard. If you want to be ready when the time comes, you don’t sit around the firehouse playing cards. You train, you practice, you learn how to be ready, and you teach others.
Advent is about waiting. It is a time of expectant hope. We set aside these four weeks before Christmas as a time to prepare ourselves for the Lord, and watch and wait for coming Messiah. We need this time, now more than ever, to make some space in our lives to nurture hope.
And in our passage for today, Jesus is talking about waiting. Not just waiting patiently, or hopefully, but how to wait well for the coming Kingdom. On the first Sunday of Advent, we always have these eschatological texts, Bible passages that talk about the future coming of God’s kingdom. They are a reminder for us that in Advent we’re not just waiting for Christmas. We’re waiting for the fulfillment of Christ’s proclaimed kingdom. Thus in Advent there is a sort of dual hope that we hold on to. We are waiting to celebrate the birth of the Christ-child, to remember that the Almighty came down to us in a little baby. And we are waiting for the Kingdom of God to be unleashed upon this world. Both of these hopes are reflected in the Isaiah passage that we read for today, “O that you would open up the heavens and come down!”
Jesus gives us a series of parables, with a sort of mixed collection of metaphors, that all have this same theme running through them.
There’s the image of slaves waiting for their master to come home from a wedding banquet. In another, a thief comes to break in to a house. In a third, a slave has been put in charge of other slaves while his master is away. In all of them, Jesus implies that waiting is not a passive activity. Keep awake, he tells us. Blessed is the slave who is at work when his master arrives.
Each of these parables/metaphors tell us that waiting is hard work. Just like a firefighter, waiting for us doesn’t mean that we get to sit back and do nothing. While we wait for the coming of the Lord, we’re called to get ready, to keep watch, and to work hard.
Getting ready means opening ourselves to the possibility of God’s coming into the world. And first and foremost, this means making ourselves right with God. You might have noticed that our paraments and my stole have changed color this week. Purple is the color of the Advent season, just as purple is the color of Lent. They share the color purple because in liturgical tradition purple is the color of penitence. In Lent, we repent and remember Jesus 40 days in the wilderness. In Advent, we confess and repent to prepare ourselves for God’s coming into the world. Confession, admitting our faults and promising to do better is part of the work of making ready our hearts for God to enter in. Getting ready means taking some time to stop and think about whether or not we are right with God. And then, taking steps to pursue right relationship. We get ready by turning ourselves to God. The best thing we can do to prepare ourselves for the Lord’s coming is to make sure that we are living our life the right way, in right relationship with God.
Keeping watch means staying hopeful and expectant. Always be ready for God to do something in your life. At our old daycare in Philly, the older toddler section looked right into the entryway, with just a baby gate as the door. The kids in that room could see when anyone came in or out. When you went to drop your kid off, nobody was paying attention. If you were there in the middle of the day, they were probably busy doing something else. But come pick-up time, you can bet that they were keeping watch. The moment you walked through that door, six three year olds were rushing to the gate, trying to figure out who it is. Are they here to pick me up? Is it time for me to go home? That’s keeping watch. It doesn’t matter what they’re doing, whether they’re playing trucks or blocks or doctor. Every single one of them has an eye on the horizon, because they know that good news is on the way. This is the kind of expectancy that Jesus wants us to have. Wherever we are, whatever we’re doing, we should have one eye on the horizon, hoping, and expecting for God to show up. Because God promises to come unexpectedly, like a thief in the night, and if we’re not looking, we’ll miss it.
And finally, to get ready, we keep that eye on the horizon, but we keep our hand to the plow. As Jesus said, “Blessed is the slave who is working when his master returns” While we are waiting, we are also working towards that kingdom in the present world. If we want to be a part of God’s redemption when it comes, then we need to find ways to be a part of God’s redemption as it is happening in and around us. If we want to be ready for that time when God will bring good news to the poor, liberate the captive, and let the oppressed go free, then we should
Like the firefighter who works out to get ready for a fire, we should be working out our generosity, our humility, our kindness, and our willingness to sacrifice for people in need.
Spencer Hall is my favorite football writer right now. And he wrote an article at the beginning of football season talking about a particular football play called Mesh. And I’ve been thinking about it all year. Mesh isn’t exactly a play, it’s a concept, and when run well it is just about unstoppable. It comes out of Hal Mumme’s old Kentucky Air Raid offense, but it’s in just about every playbook now (including the Eagles). Hal Mumme, the originator, even told a story about a high school that only ran that one play, and didn’t do to bad, either.
But the trick to that play, and to any play in football, and really a whole lot of life, too, is practice. If mesh is well executed, it’s just about unstoppable. If it’s not, well, it’s not. And the way you get to the point where you can execute a play well is that you work at it. You run it over and over and over again, so that when the time comes, you can run it flawlessly. Friends, this is the last piece of getting ready for advent. While we’re waiting for God’s kingdom to come, practice exhibiting that Kingdom to the world.
So practice generosity, this year. Practice kindness. Practice caring for your neighbor. Practice proclaiming the good news. Practice fighting for justice, peace, and liberation. Practice loving people who are unlovable. Caring about people who are forgotten, putting others first. Practice living as if the Kingdom of God is here right now, so that when our Jesus comes into the world, he will find us hard at work when he arrives.
This advent, do what you can to be ready for God’s arrival. Make yourself right with God, keep and eye on the horizon, and keep your hand to the plow, always exhibiting the Kingdom of God, so that when it comes, you’re ready.
It’s hard work. But that’s what waiting well is all about.