Waiting … (Advent 3 2014, Lamentations 3:22-27, James 5:7-11, Matthew 24:42-44)

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.


Brookmans Park 23 Sept 2012 – James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a and harvest festival

Last week I chaired my first church meeting, here in this church. It felt like an important moment for me and I paid close attention to what happened and how it matched with my theology of the church’s decision making. As I reflected afterwards and prepared for this morning’s service it dawned on me that the passage from James’ letter was a wonderful help to me in thinking about that meeting.

James writes about two kinds of wisdom, that which comes from above and brings peace and other good things, and that which comes from below and is envious, covetous and arrogant, bringing conflict, war and murder. When we meet as the church we seek the guidance of the Spirit to lead us into the mind of Christ, we hope for the wisdom from above. We hope that we will be able to discern what it is that we could and should do together to advance, represent, or embody the rule or kingdom of God.

For this reason it is traditional in some congregations that there should never be a vote. No decision can be made until all accept it even if they don’t agree with it. This has been adopted recently by the URC at Synod and General Assembly with the fall-back position that majority decisions can be made where this is required. This happened at this year’s assembly where a contentious issue about attitudes to civil partnerships was settled by a 70 per cent majority. I think this is to be regretted, even if it was necessary, as I hold to that old Congregationalist idea that a divided church has not yet finished discerning God’s will.

At our meeting we had an important, although less divisive, matter to decide, the amount of our financial contribution to the URC for 2013. This was potentially a painful matter to discuss. Both Brookmans Park URC and the denomination as a whole are in deficit, spending more than their income. How could we balance protecting the future of this congregation with discharging our responsibilities to the wider Church?

In the event though a discussion of admirable openness, honesty, realism and faithfulness was conducted. A spirit of cheerful confidence in God’s provision was combined with a mature determination to face the truth and do what is required of us. I was moved and impressed by this community’s knowledge of itself and seriousness about its Christian vocation. A range of possibilities were considered, under the patient and expert guidance of our treasurer, and eventually a sum was agreed without dissent. In the meantime our identity and mission as a local church and as a constituent part of the United Reformed Church were touched on and acknowledged.

So what does James have to say that will help us assess and understand this process and prepare ourselves for the future? Harvest of righteousness.

First of all it’s worth reflecting on his words about the two kinds of wisdom, and especially the wisdom that comes from above. The “earthly, unspiritual, devilish” wisdom is marked by “envy and selfish ambition”.It is covetous and desires things for itself. It is selfish and acquisitive. These feelings lead it to rivalry and conflict with others as it competes for status and possession. It is oriented to personal gain and success and will use any means to advance its own ends.

The other wisdom, by contrast, that from above, is single minded in its commitment to peace, it is gentle, yielding, full of mercy, with no partiality or hypocrisy. It submits to God, draws near to God, in the confident expectation that God will respond by drawing near.

This other wisdom, this yielding faithful, trusting and above all peaceful and peace-making wisdom from above knows about harvest, to return to where we began today. It knows that harvest is both something that comes to you from outside, that requires patience and a partnership with creation and with God and at the same time something that has to be done, a labour and a task.

It knows too what the fruit it wishes to is. The Greek work James uses to describe the harvest is dikaiosynēs. This is variously translated into English as “righteousness”, “justice” or “holiness” but none of these quite catch what’s meant, I think. This word derives from the law courts and means victory at law. Its meaning here is wider than this but centres on the idea of being seen by God as innocent, as being in the right.

The wisdom, that to the world is folly, that puts peace before its own interests, that is what harvests God’s good judgement. Blessed are the peacemakers, to say it another way.

So how do these teachings from James help us in thinking about church meeting?

First that the only reward we should look for from our service to God through the Church is the harvest of righteousness. If we draw near to God, humbly and gently, yieldingly and loving peace then God will draw near to us and we will know his love. We come here not because we think God will do something for us but because we want to serve his purposes of healing and peacemaking. The wisdom from above is unselfish and seeks neither status nor special favour.

Second we know that the harvest won’t come to our timetable or through our efforts. Rather it will come in God’s good time and our part is to tend the plants while they mature and to be ready to help bring it in when it’s ready.

The wisdom that comes from above is peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits.