What comes to mind when you hear the word "waiting?" When I ask this question, lots of people make a wrinkled up face or roll their eyes which I think proves my suspicion. We think of waiting as being a negative experience, of being stuck in time, or living in suspended animation with doubt, questions or uncertainty as our companions. Yet, our lives a made up of lots of waiting events- starting with our waiting to be born- the only waiting we can't remember. We wait for all kinds of things- the mail, test results, for our ride to come. At the grocery store we like to hear that there is a new line open with "No Waiting." Entire industries exist to minimize the experience of our "wait time." Perhaps one of least favorite waiting experience happens when we make a phone call and are placed "on hold." Just thinking about that can make us groan. After awhile a voice is heard, but it is not a live person, but a recording that sounds something like this-"Please continue to hold. Your call is IMPORTANT to us. Someone will be with you shortly." And then we wait some more. Eventually, this waiting with no belief becomes our reality. If I stay on that phone long enough, when a real live person actually answers, I am usually caught off guard- I got used to waiting.
Before we hear John in the wilderness announcing it is time to prepare the way, the people of Israel have been waiting. Theirs is a history of waiting- generations being born and dying waiting for the promise of Messiah. Unending waiting had become their reality. Then one day, Zechariah enters the temple, there to offer the sacrifice and prayers on behalf of the people. In the holy space where one ought to expect the divine presence. But in this reality of waiting, and faithfully going through all of the motions, appears the angel with news that God has heard his prayer. This reality is shaken. And Zechariah answers as one who has been living "on hold" and has been caught off guard. He is stunned and he questions. Unable to speak words of belief, he is struck mute and spends all of Elizabeth's pregnancy in silence. What happened in that new time of waiting?
I suggest that he had time to ponder God's words, to pray and to listen. And in this time Zechariah makes the shift from waiting in doubt to the certainty of anticipation. So much so that by the time he can again speak, the words come spilling forth, unable to be contained- the words of hope and anticipation we sang in our hymn this day- "Blessed be the Lord God of Israel who has come to the people and set them free. Who has raised up for us a mighty Savior, born of the house of his servant David." Through the prophets of old we heard a promise and now that promise is coming true! What our ancestor Abraham was promised in the covenant is happening! God showing mercy, bringing light into the darkness, to those in the shadows, guiding feet into the way of peace-prayer and prophecy are becoming new reality! And he proclaims that John will now be the one who initiates these preparations for the Lord, and brings word of forgiveness of sins and repentance .
Zechariah has made the shift from waiting to anticipating. But those who hear his song, are still waiting. They walk away scratching their heads and wondering what it all means and when. And another thirty plus years will pass before we stand in the story as we do today to hear John proclaim it is time to prepare the way for the Lord.
In our world view we see waiting as passive, negative. But in the Gospel, waiting is active. Preparing the way, filling valleys, making mountains and hills lower, smoothing out rough ways. Not just sitting still, but removing obstacles. It is a different kind of waiting. Perhaps instead of saying we are in a season of waiting, we should proclaim we are anticipating. The difference being that anticipation is rooted in hope, is invested and lives in certainty. The reason for our certainty is that we can hear of God's ongoing activity in our history, of the fulfillment of prophecy and can live not as people "on hold" but as a people certain that God HAS answered. We are in the middle of God's salvation history. Or as one writer suggests perhaps more accurately we are in the middle of the drama of God's stirring up. This stirring unfolding kingdom and salvation. PLAYING NOW.
And we have a role in this drama- we are on the stage carrying out God's drama. We can see in our lives the forgiveness we have received, the times when our ways have been made straight, when we have seen that light in the darkness.
Then we can think of others around us- those who are in need of this message- we don't have to look far. Down the street, in our newspaper, or on TV, we don't have to struggle to see those in need. We who anticipate also are called to participate. When we wonder how there will be peace in our world, when those in darkness can find that ray of light, when those who face obstacles can overcome them, perhaps we should hear the word of the poet June Jordan, writing about South African apartheid- "We are the ones we have been waiting for." We are the ones who continue the work of meeting people in their wildernesses as messengers.
I once heard a sermon by one of the professors at seminary who talked about this notion of God's work in the world. He said something like this-" When you are on the way to do the thing you think you are supposed to do, are called to do, someone will cross your path and in that moment real ministry will happen." People will enter our midst and how we respond prepares God's way- even one more step. I want to share a story with you about how I saw this at work recently. I accompanied our confirmation students, their parents, and members of the Community Outreach Ministry to serve dinner at the Crispus Attucks Center on a Saturday night here in the city. We were there primarily to bring and serve food to those in need.
There were more people than usual- over 150 people in the line. We served the food, but also tried to say "hello" to those coming through. Some said "hi" back, others ignored us, some wanted to tell us what they wanted to eat. One man came through the line looking especially downhearted. One of group became aware of this and caught his eye, and said, " Hi! How are you tonite?" His face crinkled into a smile and he said, "Great!" How could this person who in all likelihood had no permanent home, for whom this meal may be the only one today, be great? When we asked why he was great, here is what he said, " Because you asked me how I am, and I thought no one cared."
We went to serve food but God had more in mind. A moment of proclaiming God's love and care. And in that moment, valleys were made less deep, mountains less tall, and rough ways a little less challenging. We celebrate Christ's birth into our midst- a new reality of salvation happening here. We both recall this birth and look forward to the future fulfillment. May we do so not as people who are just waiting but as people stirred up and bursting with anticipation to share.