Waiting 1 Thess 3.9–13 Luke 21.25–36
I think one of the most popular sports that people participate in here
in Britain is angling or fishing for pleasure. For some this may seem
odd, but it involves watching and waiting. Waiting for a fish to take
the bait and watching for the float to bob or the end of the rod to move.
Some fishermen even attach a small bell to their rod in case they don’t
notice the tell-tale movement. For some it is a spiritual pastime, almost
a religion, because it involves going away to a quiet river or lake and
a season of watching and waiting
When we use the word watch these days, most probably the first association
that comes to you is TV. We commonly watch TV programmes. But in the sense
we are using today, watching is more like looking out for signs and knowing
how to interpret them. The science of phenology has grown recently. The
word comes from the Greek for “appear” or “come into
view”. Phenology is the study of annual changes in the seasons which
can lead to predictions about future patterns of climate change. The mass
media have made participation by thousands of ordinary citizens possible,
which widens the data collected for this science.
has always been around and Jesus referred to it in his teaching to his
disciples. You commonly watch for the fig to start sprouting, he said,
and thereby know that summer is not far off.
Jesus was in the Temple, not long before his arrest, trial and crucifixion.
He was teaching there, sometimes the crowds and at other times, just his
inner circle of disciples. These words we read in today’s gospel
were for his close followers. Some were admiring the Temple for it was,
indeed, a stunning building for those days. Jesus commented that things
were not what they might seem. They had just watched a poor widow put
two small coins in the collecting box. Jesus pointed out that she had
really given all her money – a huge sacrifice. It didn’t appear
as it really was. Just so with the seemingly permanent Temple building.
It wouldn’t always be there.
to his disciples that when frightening things begin to happen around them,
things were not what they might seem outwardly. When such things happen
which seem to herald the end of life as their people knew it, they were
to take heart. They were to hold their heads up. When people fainted with
fear and foreboding, they were to stand up, raise their heads, because
these were signs that their redemption was near. Something new was to
come out of the dreadful times they were entering.
Two things are telescoped together in what Luke recorded of Jesus’
warnings to his disciples. In the foreground was the destruction of the
Jerusalem Temple. In the background was the destruction of nature. These
things appeared very close together and are set next to each other in
Luke’s account of Jesus’ sayings. We now know that, in fact,
the Temple’s destruction occurred in AD70, and it had a profound
effect on the development of Judaism and Christianity afterwards. The
end of the world, or the collapse of nature was not going to happen at
the same time. However, these days it seems as if the words are closer
to coming true: “there will be signs in the sun; the roaring of
the sea; the powers of the heavens will be shaken.” Climate change
nightmares are becoming a reality if the scientists are to be believed:
the polar ice is melting like never before; sea levels are rising; there
are floods and droughts when and where they never were before and we are
all aware of the dangers of global warming. We are waking up to the reality
that nature is fragile and in the laps not of the gods, but of humanity.
These things may be a fulfilment of Jesus’ words, but we also know
that avoiding climate change is within human power to slow down or reverse.
That is why the conference in Copenhagen in mid-December is so crucial.
Perhaps standing up and raising our heads in our day means taking the
opportunity the crisis presents us with to do something about it. The
Japanese character for “crisis” is made up of two elements:
the symbols for both danger and opportunity.
If Advent is the season of watching, it is also the season of waiting.
Our culture is not very good at waiting, with its “buy now pay later”
deals, and its adverts that ask us, “Why wait?” There are
so many instant things from instant whip to instant access savings accounts.
But there are some things that you have to wait for, and the waiting is
an important part of the process. A mother knows she has to wait for 9
months for her baby to be born healthy. A prematurely born baby is a worry,
although the doctors do know how to help them survive from incredibly
is not an idle lying around, though. Jesus said that his followers were
to avoid three particular kinds of behaviour. First, we must not be weighed
down with dissipation. Next Jesus urges drunkenness to be avoided. Thirdly,
his followers are not to be anxious. These three are actually connected
and make sense together. Dissipation means wasting away, squandering,
frittering away. We can dissipate energy, time, money or resources. In
a time of climate change, we are learning how not to dissipate the precious
resources of our fragile planet. We might wonder why we are urged not
to indulge in drunkenness. Most of us in church are probably quite respectable
and sober. But there are many in our society affected by substance abuse,
or addiction. Even if we don’t have problems that way, drunkenness
is a symptom of a deeper malaise: it is a sign of losing control, of trying
to avoid pain. A time of crisis is both a time not to waste opportunities
in dissipation, as well as a time to keep your head clear and face up
to the reality of what is happening.
The pain is not to be avoided if a crisis is to be averted.
The third failing to be avoided is anxiety. Anxiety is linked to the other
two. To be anxious means we believe we should keep what we have, and that
yesterday owes us tomorrow. The poor have never entertained such a false
notion! The poor have to live by faith, but the rich live by anxiety.
When crisis times come upon you, Jesus says, resist the temptation to
go in either of three ways. There is the temptation to fiddle with furniture
whilst the ship sinks – to dissipate precious time and energy when
something constructive could be done. There is the temptation to lose
oneself in denying the reality of it – to be mentally drunk, if
not literally so. Then there is the temptation to be overcome with anxiety
– to hold on so tightly to what was, to what kept us secure, that
we can never let go and let God. We are to give up false expectations
and rely on him. Then we will be open enough to greet the new creation.
Then we will be able to read the phenology of the times.
apply in the first instance to us on a personal level. But they also apply
to us as nations, they apply corporately, too. As a society we fall into
these three traps in times of global crisis: wasting resources; denying
the reality; being paralysed by anxiety.
This is a challenging message for all of us. Perhaps we can usefully use
this Advent time of waiting to reflect on our lives. Contemplate the ways
we have wasted energy or resources. Reflect on the ways we have tried
to deny reality or ignore the pain. Think of what makes us anxious and
try to let go of those things we needlessly hold on to so tightly. Advent
is a time for watching and waiting.
© Rev Paul Smith