There are different kinds of waiting.
The farmer waits for the crop to be ready but this doesn’t mean just sitting around until the grain walks up to the door. The farmer will be in the fields, looking for problems and trying to deal with them, checking for ripeness, paying attention to the weather forecast. When the moment comes he or she will move fast, getting the harvest in as quickly as possible. This is a waiting that is hopeful and also anxious, that is active and which needs to seize the right moment when it comes. This is one of the images of waiting for God’s action that James offers us.
The moment of harvest stands for the moment of God’s judgement. The judge is standing at the door. We have to be ready. As the farmer makes sure that everything is prepared for the time so must we. This is waiting that works.
In Lamentations we find something else altogether. “It is good to wait quietly”, it says, “The Lord is my portion therefore I will wait for him”. While we wait for the return of one we love, one whose love means everything to us, on whom we depend. Perhaps we might think of Odysseus’ wife Penelope, or of a child waiting patiently for the return of their mother. The waiting itself is just waiting and depends more than anything else on trust in the one who is coming. They will arrive in their own time and nothing we do will make a difference to that. Our patience is important because it will affect the quality of the welcome we give. The more we trust the more open-hearted we can be.
This is a waiting that simply holds itself ready.
So what about the waiting that Jesus talks about in our Gospel reading? Waiting to catch a thief in the night. The householder knows that they are under threat, that sometime during the night somebody is going to try to break in. They sit quietly and anxiously, nervous and alert, keeping watch so that when the time comes they will be ready to react. This, Jesus says, is also what it can be like to wait for God, to wait the coming of the Son of Man.
Three vivid Biblical images for what we are doing, during Advent, during our lives as faithful Christians. We wait, wait for Christ’s return in glory, wait for the coming of the Son of Man, wait for the fulfilment of God’s promise of salvation.
This waiting is a careful and active preparation. A making ready of what is growing, a looking for the time of readiness. It is the waiting of the farmer.
It is also the quiet patient anticipation of the arrival of somebody much loved. We look forward to greeting them, long for their presence. We try not to be too eager, to be ready to be properly happy when they come.
It is also a fearful watching, full of anxiety that we might miss the moment, fail to react as we need to, might lose all we have by not being ready.
The Bible gives us all these images and what they have in common, what we are called to remember at Advent, is the sense of a an expected future event that is at once something that will happen whatever we do or don’t do and also an opportunity we might miss. The crop will ripen, the loved one will return, the thief will break in. The farmer, though, can neglect to gather it so that it rots in the field. The waiting spouse or lover can give up, become resentful of the delay, turn to others. The watcher can be distracted or fall asleep so that the thief can steal away with the contents of the house.
After all this time, these many centuries of waiting, we Christians may find it difficult to continue to believe that this moment of opportunity and danger lies ahead of us. Scripture tells us that it does. Our encounter with our Lord is in the future for each and every one of us, at a time that no-one can know or predict.
The quality of our waiting is, perhaps, the most important thing about us. We await the time of our salvation, we are waiting for salvation, for the fulfilment of God’s plan for us and for all creation. As we wait we uphold, before all the world, the hope and expectation that things will be as they are meant to be.
An image for waiting not used in our passages is that of waiting for the birth of a child, an image never far from our minds during Advent. Many of us have had that experience in our own lives. We remember the mixture of joyful anticipation, fear of some disaster, and anxiety about the arrival itself. We remember the wondering and the dreaming about the future beyond the birth.
As we wait for Jesus we might do well to remember that, too. The coming of the Son of Man of which he speaks is not a peaceful idyll like the nativity stories we tell. It is a time of trouble and of danger. But it does usher in the time when peace and justice, plenty and love will be the order of the day and war, oppression, want and hatred will be banished. We can dream of that future and we can prepare ourselves to be part of it. We can wait patiently for God.