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Lessons in Waiting
The Word in the Wild I Proper 27, Year A
The time between anticipation and arrival is the hardest. There is the longing, the waiting, the not knowing when, exactly, it will come, whatever it is. I know this feeling best from the births of my two daughters. In each case we had a due date, but even with a fairly solid range, there was no telling when they would actually come to join us in the world. And the same reality has played out in myriad other ways in my life, from acceptance letters to job offers.
How do we spend the time between? That’s the question at the center of our scriptures this Sunday. From Joshua to Thessalonians to Matthew, each of these readings involves people on the cusp of something new and not yet. From each, we can gain a lesson in what to do while waiting.
In Joshua we find the people on the edge of the promised land. After years of wandering, they are about to arrive. But on this border, Joshua calls for them to take stock and enter a time of examination. Despite their long experience with God to this point, they are still carrying with them their old idols—the gods that their people worshiped before Abraham ventured into a relationship with the singular YHWH. Joshua calls on the people to decide, will they keep clinging to these old idols, or will they let go and embrace the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob without question.
In our own time of waiting, longing for the arrival of the commonwealth of God’s reign, we would do well to also dig through our bags and throw out the idols we’ve been carrying around. If you need help identifying them, look at William Stringfellow’s brilliant little book Imposters of God. He names our idols as money, nationalism, work, religion, status, and race. These are the idols we have to find and clear away if we want to welcome the God who refuses to be manipulated.
The danger of between is that we give up hope. That was the challenge Paul was facing in Thessalonica. There Christians were dying, and the second coming of Christ hadn’t arrived. There were some who were losing faith because they expected Jesus to return sooner than later. Paul seeks to set them straight, offering an image of people going out to meet a king returning. Everyone would rush out of the city and join in the march back to the city. So it will be with Christ, Paul tells us, in a grand metaphor that has unfortunately been often misread as a rapture. Nonetheless, the lesson here is that in our waiting, we must continue with hopeful patience and not become anxious when the end does not arrive when we expect. Whether we die or we live, we will be joined in that great healing at the end of all things.
The final lesson for our waiting comes in the Gospel of Matthew. Jesus offers another of his parables of the kingdom. Like so many others, the image is of a wedding—a coming union at which we get to celebrate. The bridesmaids are ready to welcome the groom, but half of them went with no expectation of waiting. The message of the parable is clear enough. We must be ready to wait. As I’ve written in past posts, patience was a prized virtue among the early Christians. It was their willingness to endure the difficulties of waiting that in many ways made the rise of Christianity so successful. But this waiting also had to be mixed with anticipation. So it should be for us.
The world is broken and in need of healing. And though, already, God is working to bring that healing about, we are still far from its fruition. What does it mean in such a situation to be wise with plenty of oil for our lamps? I think the call here is one to depth and prayer. It can be so easy to seek the ecstatic joy of arrival, but the work of keeping the candle lit requires a deep reservoir of the soul. Such oil for the lamps comes through deep and continued prayer.
Among the best images I know of this comes at the end of Andrei Tarkovsky’s profound movie, Nostalghia. In one of the closing scenes, the protagonist Andrei Gorchakov, is told that he must carry a candle across the spa pool of a hot spring. He begins and the candle goes out. He goes back and begins again. This repeats over an over until finally he makes it across the pool with the candle lit. And so it is with the life of faith. Our work is to maintain the oil, that deep well, that allows us to keep going until that final blaze when all will be healed.