By James G. Munroe
I have a friend who is an Episcopal priest and who lives in another diocese. Recently, he was invited to serve as a guest preacher at a church. After the service, a couple in the parish invited him to their house for dinner. The dining room table was elegantly prepared. As the priest commented on how nice it all looked, the wife picked up a fork and said, “You know, I just don’t like these forks.”
The words were barely out of her mouth when her husband leapt to his feet, threw his napkin on the table, and said, “You have never appreciated anything I have ever done for you! I have been waiting and waiting and waiting my entire life for you to thank me for just one little thing. For just anything! I can’t take it any longer!” And with that, he stormed out of the house.
My friend said that he didn’t remember a course in seminary that covered that sort of situation. He also told me that the forks didn’t look that bad.
True story. And I tell it to you because it’s an Advent story. It’s an Advent story because it has to do with waiting — in this case, with a person waiting for another person to be appreciative.
Today is the first Sunday of the new church year and the first day in the season of Advent. We’re beginning today a season that is all about the discipline of waiting. And if the word discipline makes you break out in a cold sweat, well, it should. But let me hasten to say that how well we wait depends not so much on how good we are at waiting, but rather on the quality of the thing for which we’re waiting.
And that really is my whole sermon in a nutshell. So I’m going to say it again. How well we wait this Advent depends not so much on how good we are at waiting, but rather on the quality of the thing for which we’re waiting.
Now, sometimes the thing we’re waiting for is bad — and that has an effect on the quality of our waiting. If I’m sitting in a car repair shop, and every 15 minutes the car mechanic comes out to tell me he’s found something else wrong, the quality of my waiting is not characterized by praying for that mechanic to be blessed with God’s grace and mercy. I’m waiting for my car to be fixed, with some frustration.
If I’m standing in line at the bank, and every person at every counter has been there for a half hour and every teller at every counter is wearing a badge that says “trainee,” the quality of my waiting is not characterized by hoping that those trainees have spiritually uplifting days. I’m waiting to get to the counter, with some irritation.
Now, sometimes the thing we’re waiting for is good — and that also has an effect of the quality of our waiting.
I have a friend whose entire purpose in life is to ride roller coasters. And he waits for the next ride by, as today’s Gospel says, staying alert and awake and up on his tiptoes with earnest expectation. Maybe you wait this way for the end of the day, when you can finally crawl into bed with a good book. Maybe you waited this way for your first child to be born.
The word Advent means “coming” or “arrival.” And the arrival that we are waiting for is not a roller coaster or a good book at the end of the day. You and I are waiting for the Creator of the entire universe to identify with us minute specks, by becoming one of us. We’re waiting, as Martin Luther put it, for Jesus Christ to “Sink himself into our flesh.”
And as Jesus takes this almost incomprehensible journey from the throne of heaven to a little cave in the Middle East, what is the quality of our waiting supposed to be? Well, this is where today’s Gospel (Mark 13:24-37) comes in. Because toward the end of the passage, we’re given a very clear and very specific picture of how we’re supposed to wait during these next four weeks.
In this passage, a man goes on a journey, he leaves his servants in charge, he doesn’t tell them when he’s coming back, it could be any time of day or night, and he says to the servants — Watch! Keep awake! Get up on your tiptoes with earnest expectation!
And that’s the attitude that you and I are invited to adopt this Advent, as we wait for the arrival of the Word made flesh. It’s a great attitude. I encourage you to put it on. But I’m also aware that sometimes, for some of us, some of the time, this is not an easy request. Because for some of us, in some areas, some of the time, it feels as though we’ve already waited and waited and waited and waited for some good news, and it still isn’t here.
I wonder if that sounds familiar. Two weeks ago, a bishop from another diocese said to me, “I’ve been a bishop for over 10 years. And in that time, I have not had one experience of joy.” And then just this past week, a friend said to me, “It feels as though I spend my entire life waiting, waiting for some happiness that’s always just around the corner and never quite here.”
If that rings any sort of a bell, then I am authorized this morning to tell you that the message of Advent is that God’s grace is relentlessly intrusive, regardless of how good or bad you and I are at waiting.
I said it earlier, and I’m saying it again. This is the entire sermon in a nutshell. We’re invited to stay awake not because we’re so good at waiting, but because God is relentlessly intrusive with love.
And it’s right here that I come to the best news of all, because the fullest expression of this relentlessly intrusive love is not Christmas Eve. Jesus sinking himself into our flesh is an incredible beginning. But the relentlessly intrusive love of Jesus comes to its fullest as he chooses a cross — when he bears on his own shoulders all of our weak and failed waiting.
That’s the fullest good news for Steve Martin in the movie Father of the Bride, when his daughter is getting married, and he’s afraid that he’s missed her childhood, that it’s gone by too quickly. That’s the fullest good news for the innkeeper that we’re going to meet on Christmas Eve, the innkeeper who misses the relentlessly intrusive love of God in his own back yard. That’s the fullest good news for you and me in our weak and failed waiting.
For Steve Martin, for the innkeeper, for you and me, the invitation to keep awake with earnest expectation this Advent can only be given because the gift of 100 percent, no holds barred, unconditional forgiveness and mercy has already been given by Jesus on the cross.
So I want to close with a little story. It’s the story of a moment when my waiting was pretty bad, and then I was encountered by the relentlessly intrusive love of Jesus. It’s a story that concerns the colonoscopy that I had some time ago — and I bet that’s a sentence you’ve never heard before in a sermon.
It had been ten years since the last colonoscopy, and this was a regularly scheduled procedure. There was no indication that there were any problems. Nonetheless, as I sat in the waiting room of the day-surgery section of the hospital, I was perfectly relaxed on the outside, and I was more than a little anxious on the inside.
I tried to spiritually commune with Norman Vincent Peale and work on the power of positive thinking. But I wasn’t strong enough. I could not erase that doubt, that fear, that dread that maybe, in a couple of hours, I would receive some very terrible news. The quality of my waiting was not very positive. In fact, it was utterly failing.
I heard my name called. I stood up. A double door swung open, and a nurse was standing in the opening with a clipboard. She looked at me. She said, “James Munroe?” I said yes. I didn’t know her. I had never met her. But suddenly, she swung her arms wide open, a big smile broke over her face, and she said in a loud voice,
“Welcome! I’m so glad you’re here! We’re all ready for you! We’ve got a room, and a robe, and a warm towel! Jim, it’s wonderful to see you! You look terrific! It’s going to be great! Come on in!”
And then this, I don’t know what, this woman, this person I’d never met, this angel, put her arms around me and gave me a hug.
And that is how God was able to introduce me, once again, to his relentlessly intrusive love — by sending Jesus, in the guise of a nurse, to throw open his relentlessly intrusive arms of love in the midst of my fears and my failure at waiting well.
May you and I be open every day this Advent to receiving moments of the relentlessly intrusive love of our crucified and risen Lord Jesus.
And may you and I be given the assignment this Advent of being the wide-open arms of Jesus for some fearful child of God.
The Very Rev. James G. Munroe retired in 2015 as dean of Christ Church Cathedral in Springfield, Massachusetts.