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What Are You Waiting For?

Updated: Nov 3, 2021

Message for worship at West Richmond Friends Meeting, 20th of Twelfth Month, 2020 Speaker: Patrick Nugent Scripture: Luke 1:26-38 Luke 1:26-38, New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

The Birth of Jesus Foretold

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

Good morning, Friends!

Of all the liturgical seasons, Advent might be the most Quaker. The early Quakers were death on the liturgical seasons, for all sorts of reasons. There’s no getting around that. Having grown up in the church that invented liturgical seasons, I know a little bit about them, both their spiritual dangers and their spiritual benefits, and I admit both. I’ve often wondered when West Richmond meeting started observing Advent. I remember Friends earlier this season talking about Advent not being a familiar part of their growing up in this and other pastoral meetings. I’d make a wild guess it was sometime during the 70s, but who knows?

Nonetheless, here we are: it is Advent. I’ll tell you right away that I’m not going to preach about Christmas today. I do want to talk about Advent and what we might learn from it. I do think that of all the liturgical seasons, it may be the most Quaker. We tend to think of it as a preparation for Christmas, and in some ways I was raised to think of it that way. For parents of young children it can be helpful to give us some pacing on our way to Christmas, to put the brakes on things, slow them down, mark time a little bit. The pressures of secular Christmas are so enormous that Advent can be a way of helping children dissipate the pressure a little bit and talk about why Christmas itself is important.

More than anything else, Advent is a season of waiting. The liturgical tradition has scripture readings assigned to the Sundays of Advent, and those readings are calibrated very carefully to recall the First Coming of Christ, but only in order to remind us that we are really waiting for the Second Coming of Christ. I recently encountered a reading from St. Cyril of Jerusalem, a writer in the very early Christian centuries, who made exactly that point about Advent. We remind ourselves and prepare ourselves for celebrating the anniversary or the memorial of the First Coming of Christ, precisely so that we remember that we are now waiting for the Second. I don’t know how much sympathy that idea will generate with anybody here, but please hear me out, because I think Quakers can profit from thinking about Advent as a season of waiting.

The traditional readings of Advent, which these days are spread across a cycle of three years, emphasize both the coming of Christ, the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, and also the prophetic heritage of the Hebrew Bible that expresses the hope and the longing of Israel.

Now, there’s a certain way of thinking about prophecy that is not really helpful--thinking about it as a form of journalism that writes about the future instead of the past. For me it is not helpful to believe that prophets were simply telling us in advance what was going to happen in the future, the way a journalist tells us about what happened in the past—just in coded form. I think of it, read it, and experience it as expressing the hope and the longing of Israel, as well as a fair amount of self-criticism and pointing out injustice, pointing out ways in which people were walking on paths other than the path of God’s law, Torah. It’s not just about condemnation, though: It’s about hope for a future and the longings of the people of Israel. The earliest followers of Jesus and those who wrote the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament saw in that expression of hope and longing something that described what they found fulfilled in the person of Jesus.

Here’s a reading from Isaiah which will be very familiar to you, I think. What I want to listen for in this is that sense of hope and longing:

2 The people walking in darkness

have seen a great light;

on those living in the land of deep darkness

a light has dawned.

3 You have enlarged the nation

and increased their joy;

they rejoice before you

as people rejoice at the harvest,

as warriors rejoice

when dividing the plunder.

4 For as in the day of Midian’s defeat,

you have shattered

the yoke that burdens them,

the bar across their shoulders,

the rod of their oppressor.

5 Every warrior’s boot used in battle

and every garment rolled in blood

will be destined for burning,

will be fuel for the fire.

6 For to us a child is born,

to us a son is given,

and the government will be on his shoulders.

And he will be called

Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,

Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

7 Of the greatness of his government and peace

there will be no end.