It’s been a long time since Pat and I had little children around our house at Christmas time. At our age, we tend to forget how difficult it is for them to wait until Christmas morning. Beginning before Thanksgiving Day, images of Santa Claus and presents begin to appear everywhere these young eyes look. The decorations heighten their anxiety as they begin to appear in stores, on lampposts, on the neighbor’s house. Santa Claus seems to be here, there and everywhere…but telling a three year old…there are only three more weeks until the big day…might as well tell him there are three more years.
There’s an art to waiting. An art that makes it worth the wait. Children get it. We have forgotten it.
Psychologists have long recognized the importance of waiting, what they call delayed gratification. Years ago, psychologist Walter Mischel conducted an experiment on a group of four-year olds. Each child was offered a marshmallow, and was told that they could have it now, or if they could wait several minutes, they could have two. Some children were unable to wait and they grabbed a marshmallow, giving up an opportunity to have two. Others waited and were rewarded.
As the children became adults, the researcher discovered that those who didn’t eat their marshmallows that day were generally more self-motivated, successful in school and considered emotionally intelligent. On the other hand those who simply couldn’t wait generally had low self-esteem and had suffered in school, branded by both their teachers and parents as being stubborn, envious and easily frustrated.
The wait matters. But it’s more than delaying our gratification. It’s also about the joy of anticipation, the sensation of our participation in the path, the journey from now until the promise is rewarded. Its about knowing there is something worth waiting for.
Advent is about waiting…knowing that we are not waiting simply for a second marshmallow but for the day Christians set aside to celebrate the birth of Jesus. Advent is a spiritual season of preparation before Christmas celebrated by many Christians. In Western Christianity, the season of Advent begins on the fourth Sunday prior to Christmas Day, or the Sunday closest to November 30, and lasts through Christmas Eve.
Advent is the wait. The wait can be itself the goal, using it deliberately as a time of contemplation, of spiritual growth. It is simpler perhaps to think of what the wait means to a child. We help our children through their long wait by taking them to see the lights, the Christmas Tree at the Capitol, watching “Charlie Brown’s Christmas” or reading “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” and giving them a role in the Christmas play. We use Advent calendars to teach the importance of the wait.
But what about us adults? How do we regain the spirit of the wait, the joy of anticipation? After we leave our childhood and become adults, it’s easy to lose the spirit as we become overwhelmed with all the culture says must be done before Christmas Day.
This year I encourage you to think about the wait. What does waiting mean to those who know that at the end of the wait is a day we set aside to celebrate the birth of Jesus? Let me suggest it means thinking about the great significance “waiting” has in all of our lives. Waiting for the birth of Jesus, for the promise of peace and justice and joy can mean different things to different people.
For example…as Christmas approaches this year…we are awaiting the birth of another grandchild. Before or very soon after Christmas Day…perhaps on that day…little August McDaniel Jacobsen will join the family.
But while we wait for that joyous day…our brother-in-law Bob and Pat’s sister Margaret are also waiting…waiting to learn whether chemotherapy will shrink the tumor in Bob’s throat to a size that will permit doctors to save his life with surgery. Waiting for joyous news, all of us and preparing spiritually.
Advent is a time for us to reflect theologically on where God is during those times in our lives when we wait. It’s a time to think even more deeply about the times in the lives of others…those who experience the injustices of life that the birth of Jesus is intended to overcome and our Christian role in ending the injustices.
It is a time when we prepare for the birth of him whom the prophet Isaiah calls “the Prince of Peace.” So we wait for the peace God promised through the Christ child even as some of our neighbors wait to be deployed to fight a war that has lasted more than a decade and others await the return of loved ones from that war. Waiting.
There are those who are waiting the joyous day of their marriage while others are waiting to see whether a troubled marriage can be saved. Still others are waiting for a time when the law will permit them to marry. Waiting for justice.
Where is God during the wait? Where is God as families await the return of a loved one from prison…where is God as families await the day when an addicted member of the family finds recovery or a homeless family member a home…or one denied adequate healthcare finds it? Where is God when hungry children await a meal or when neglected children languish in foster care or juvenile detention facilities? Where is God when elderly loved-ones suffer the natural consequences of growing old in bodies and minds that have betrayed them long before they are called home?
God is in the wait…but the wait is not a time of idleness, not a time of passive hope…the wait is in the words of the voice of one crying out in the wilderness. A culture that celebrates the birth of Christ without using the times we wait as a time of preparation is indeed the wilderness…and through it all, as we wait, hear the words of the prophet Isaiah. ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
During this time of Advent…think of one thing you can do to be a voice crying out in that wilderness. Instead of waiting for a savior how about being one? What can you do to prepare the way of the Lord…to make the path straight?
As you prepare to receive gifts, give God one very special gift just from you…a gift that prepares the way of the Lord in a unique, special way…unique to your calling and calling. Start where you are, where God has placed you as God has all of us…in the path of injustice and need…injustices we can help resolve, needs we can help to meet.
Let this gift be something personal that no one else needs to know about, and let it be a sacrifice using the unique and special gifts God gave you so that you can give back.
Imagine a world so prepared for the birth of Jesus that “every valley would already be filled, and every mountain and hill already made low, the crooked made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all of us prepared to see the salvation of God at the birth of our Lord.”
And this is my prayer, Paul wrote in Philippians 1:1-11…that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.
That would be an Advent worth the wait. AMEN