The lectionary readings for the third Sunday in Advent were all about deliverance, including this vision from the Old Testament prophet Isaiah:
The desert and the parched land will be glad;
the wilderness will rejoice and blossom…
Strengthen the feeble hands,
steady the knees that give way;
say to those with fearful hearts,
“Be strong, do not fear;
your God will come…”
These words sustained a community in exile. But even though displaced sons and daughters of Jerusalem were allowed to return a generation or so after their forced departure, God didn’t show up as promised for another 500 years. The fulfillment of this oracle was a long way off for those who first heard these words.
Those who returned rebuilt their temple, but it was an empty shell of what it used to be. A vacant house waiting for an occupant. The presence of God, which departed the first temple before Jerusalem fell, had yet to return. It would not do so until one day, centuries later during the reign of the Caesars, when a month-old baby was brought to the temple for his redemption, causing an old man to declare that he’d seen God’s salvation for the world and an old woman to tell everyone she met about the child who would be Jerusalem’s redemption.
But for the exiles in Babylon, all that was still 500 years off. They would not live to see these words of hope fulfilled.
I grew up in the eschatological fervor of fundamentalism. We were convinced The End was just around the corner. The events depicted on all those prophecy charts that were periodically hung in our sanctuaries — the rapture, the tribulation, Christ’s Second Advent — we were confidently told they would take place in our lifetime.
We weren’t the first generation of Christians to see ourselves in such a privileged light. As Jesus prepared to ascend, his disciples asked if he was about to “restore the kingdom.” They wanted the payoff then and there.
We’re not so different. Too often, we prefer escape to rescue. We want Jesus to lay waste to creation and evacuate us from this world, when he promised the opposite: to come back and renew the world. More to the point, we want to escape the hard work of waiting for our deliverance, of waiting for a consummation we might not live to see ourselves. We want the payoff here and now.
We want God to operate on our timetable. We want eternal life without having to walk through death first. We want there to be a rapture and we want it to happen in our lifetime so we don’t have to contend with our mortality. We want Christmas without Advent, Easter without Lent.
Which, in the end, cheapens faith. It’s a shortcut, a bypass, a shadow of the real thing. Faith without the hard work of waiting isn’t faith.
Everyone wants to be part of John the Baptist’s generation, those who live to see the Messiah with their own eyes. (Though in John’s case, even that wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.) No one wants to be part of the exiled generation who still has a long wait ahead in the wilderness.
But that’s why we need Advent: to remind us that waiting is the hardest — and most important — part of faith.