We’re happy to announce another Mbird-friendly book out now: friend and Mbird contributor John Zahl‘s new sermon collection from Grace Church, Charleston, titled Sermons of Grace! We can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s available for purchase on Amazon here. The sermon below is the book’s opener and a great beginning to Advent, first given on Dec 1, 2013.

Prepare the way of the Lord… (Matthew 3:3)

CaptureJohn the Baptist’s words this morning are unequivocal: “Prepare ye the way of the Lord.” It is undeniable that “preparation” is one of the main themes of Advent.

The readings in Advent contain an eschatological emphasis, which means that they deal with the final events of history and the anticipation of that which has not yet happened. They prepare us for Christmas by positioning us to look ahead with anticipation. We await the breaking-in of God into our midst, and we savor the coming of Christ. The mood is one of excitement about something that is about to happen.

I spoke yesterday with a friend whose wife is about to have a baby. They’re due in just a few weeks. They have come through a long period of preparation, and now, in just days, their entire life together is going to change dramatically. As one person put it, you’ll love having a child so long as you’re “cool with everything changing.” I asked my buddy: “So what’s your state of mind, now that you are in the final countdown of the last few days?” His answer was perfect: “honestly, I’m just excited.”

So it’s appropriate then for me to ask you a question which is probably already present in your thinking, especially since Thanksgiving has been over for almost three days: “Are you ready for Christmas?” “Are you ready yet?”

In my experience, asking a person if they are “ready” (for anything) almost always brings anxiety to the surface. I experienced this somewhat tragically one Saturday evening as I was waiting in line for the procession into my ordination to the Deaconate. I mentioned to a fellow clergyman that my Rector had given me the honor of allowing me to be the preacher at all of the Sunday services the next day. To this, the clergy friend responded: “Ooh that’s great. You’re preaching at all three services tomorrow. Wow! Are you ready?”

I immediately felt my level of anxiety rise. I think I said, “pretty much,” but in truth, his asking me that one question completely undid my confidence. It drew to the surface a feeling of not being at all ready. It’s embarrassing to admit that as I knelt down to have the Bishop lay his hands on me, I was not exactly awash in feelings of holiness and gratitude. Instead, my mind kept flashing back to spiteful thoughts about the clergyman who had asked me that question.

The question of readiness has this vexing power. Not only does it undo us. It also causes in us this weird desire to kind of scramble, a sudden need to jump into whatever it is that is left undone. It inspires in us this need to tackle the remainder of whatever it is that we feel unprepared for, and it causes us to sense that our efforts will possibly not be enough. It causes us to sense either that there’s not enough time left, or that we are full of deep-seated impatience.

Advent is, in part, designed to do exactly that. It draws attention to our impatience. It forces us to reflect upon the fact that we’re not all that good at waiting. We would much rather pounce than pause. I suspect that many of you will now leave the service early, right after communion, just so that you can get an early start on the rest of your day.

Earlier this week I was reading an article by a psychiatrist who wrote extensively during the middle part of the 20th century, named Dr. Harry Tiebout. He specialized in the psychology of the mind in relationship to ideas of surrender. In a paper entitled, “The Act of Surrender in the Therapeutic Process,” he wrote at some length about the infantile origins of impatience in the human psyche. Listen to this quote:

[Another] significant aspect of the child’s original psyche is its tendency to do everything in a hurry. Observe youngsters on the beach: they run rather than walk. Observe them coming on a visit: the younger ones tear from the car while their elder siblings adopt a more leisurely pace. The three-year-olds, and more so the twos, cannot engage in play requiring long periods of concentration. Whatever they are doing must be done quickly. As the same children age, they gradually become able to stick to one activity for longer times… Thus at the start of life the psyche cannot accept frustrations, and functions at a tempo allegretto with a good deal of staccato and vivace thrown in.

Now the question is, ‘If the infantile psyche persists into adult life, how will its presence be manifested?’ In general, when infantile traits continue into adulthood, the person is spoken of as immature… It is youth that drives fast, thinks fast, feels fast, moves fast, acts hastily in most situations. There can be little question that one of the hallmarks of the immature is the proneness to be under inner pressure for accomplishment. Big plans, big schemes, big hopes abound, unfortunately not matched by an ability to produce.

As I read those words, I can’t help but think of my one-year-old daughter, Daphne. My inability to microwave instant oatmeal at a speed that is to her liking is often the cause of great alarm. But I too identify with the doctor’s description. I wonder if his words, written in 1953, accurately describe a bit of your personality. Do you know what it’s like to do things hastily in an attempt to achieve full realization of the big picture? Do you know what it’s like to try to claw your way back to the top of your to-do list with a kind of frenzied intensity?

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Well, we’re meant to consider these aspects of life during Advent. It is a time when we confront our feelings of un-readiness and impatience. It’s also a time when we look at all the ways in which life seems constantly to be frustrating our attempts at control. Let’s face it: having to wait for things is a huge part of life. And it is a part of life that, to us, feels wrong.

Is there something that you are being forced to wait for? A friend wrote the following comment on her Facebook page this past Friday: “Comcast’s Black Friday Special: Extra slow internet at your regular rate, all day long!” She certainly knows what it is like to wait.

Sure, there’s waiting for the internet to speed up. But there’s also waiting for an acceptance letter… waiting for school to be over… waiting to meet the right person… waiting for a baby to be born… there’s waiting for jobs… waiting for houses to sell… waiting for traffic… even (sometimes) waiting for loved ones to die.

Life is full of waiting, and ultimately, control is not the answer. After all, it’s acceptance of our lack of control that reminds us who we are, even who God has made us to be.

It is good for us to have to wait. Waiting is okay. It is underrated. It is not a sign of punishment or of failure or of wrongdoing.

I encountered this profoundly when I lived in New York City many years ago. I was part of a small Bible study. At the end of our time together each week, we would say a few prayers for each other. One of our members, Tom, offered the same prayer request every week. He said he hated his job, and he wanted us to pray that God would give him a new one. So we did this. Every week, one of us would remind God that Tom was miserable in his work, and then we would ask him to give Tom a new job. This went on for two years, until one day, a new guy joined our group.

When it came time for prayer requests, this friend, Dan, offered to pray. We explained how Tom hates his job and how every week we ask God to give Tom a new job…

Dan proceeded to pray a most audacious prayer. He said:

Dear Lord, we thank You for Tom’s current job. Help him to accept that this is the place You have currently chosen for him. Show him how he can be helpful there and, if it be Your will, provide him with a new opportunity when the time is right. Amen.

We were flabbergasted! But Dan was right on the money.

A few weeks later, Tom told us that he had received a frantic call from his boss one evening, that he desperately needed Tom’s help with a last-minute presentation. Tom showed up to bail his boss out, and the two worked late into the night together alone in the office. At the end of the evening, the man thanked him sincerely. Then he proceeded to open up to Tom about some personal concerns which had been eating away at him. Tom was able to empathize and listen. He had been given an opportunity to convey compassion to a guy who was in need of it. Tom felt in some weird way that this had been an answer to Dan’s prayer. What’s more, a few months later Tom was offered a new job, and he was able to move out of the stagnant situation.

If you are being made to wait in some aspect of your life right now, know this morning that God is in that place with you, like a quiet friend in a waiting room, patiently holding out with you, there to share with you in the excitement of what will finally arrive, and also to help you get through this time of passivity without tearing all of your hair out. For unlike you, He is good at waiting, and He is as patient as you need Him to be.

Ultimately, I believe that waiting and hoping are basically synonymous terms. Where there is waiting, there is hope. Amen.