It may well be that patience is the spiritual crisis of the 21st century. There is not much that we have to wait on any more, so we do not usually deal with it very well when we do have to wait.
When I went to college, eight hours away from home, I had two ways of communicating with my parents. There was a pay phone at the end of my dormitory hall. When it would ring, someone would answer it and then go find whoever the call was for. You really had to schedule calls so you would be around to receive them. There were no cell phones. The other option was to write a letter, put a stamp on it, walk to the post office, and several days later the letter would arrive home and several days later a reply would come. There were no computers, no email, no texting, no Face Time. Communicating with others required planning, effort, and patience. If you knew someone overseas, letters took forever.
So now that I am able to send a text or email almost anywhere on the planet and get a response in seconds or minutes; watch events happening live all over the globe; watch my school’s basketball team play most of its games live over the internet; there is much less that I have to wait on. And bit by bit we lose the ability or the will to be patient. We think we ought to be able to snap our fingers and fix problems. The doctor ought to be able to immediately diagnose what is wrong and fix whatever it is. A new coach ought to be able to start winning games immediately. An adjustment to my putting stroke should eliminate all those pesky three putts overnight.
The culture of instant gratification has put our young people into awful positions of making decisions. Why should I wait until I’m 21 to drink alcohol? Why should I not go ahead and become sexually active since nobody else seems to be waiting? Why should I have to start a job at the bottom of the ladder before I start making a lot of money? Why should I wait until I can afford the things I want when there are credit cards that can always be paid off later?
We buy fast food. We have phones that we can tell to dial numbers for us, compose texts for us, and answer questions for us. Photos are immediately available on our phones and tablets, and printed instantaneously at any kind of store. There are automated teller machines, but even faster than that there is online banking and bill paying. We have navigation systems in our cars so we don’t have to study maps and routes or stop to ask for directions. It is all incredible, it is fast, and it erodes our ability and our willingness to be patient.
For some people this spills over into their spiritual lives and the life of the church. Many people want instant gratification in their spiritual lives. They want to make a quick stop at church for some fast spiritual food and leave feeling satisfied. They want to know the essentials about the Bible and faith but don’t want to have to work to get that. Isn’t there an app for that?
It is very tempting for churches to cave in to that mind set and move towards face-paced, sound byte, power point, quick boost stuff. While I enjoy much about our modern, fast-paced, convenience oriented society, I believe the church has a very different role than that for society. I think that when you step into church time is different, language is different, music is different, and values are different, and I think the difference needs to be emphasized rather than minimized.
The season of Advent is a perfect case in point. Stores put Christmas stuff out before Halloween this year. You’ve been listening to Christmas carols in the mall and on the radio for a couple of weeks now, and there have already been many Christmas specials on television. Many of us already have our homes fully decorated. We are culturally conditioned to this co-opting of our day to serve the purposes of the economy. We live in a dual world where we participate gladly in much of that cultural observance of Christmas while at the same time participating in the faith observance of Christmas as the birth of Jesus.
So when we show up at worship on November 30 and find a different sense of time at work, it is disorienting. We begin a process of preparing God’s house for Christmas by decorating over a couple of weeks. We remember the long years of waiting for a Messiah to come by listening to the prophets. We listen to the dissonant voice of John the Baptist marching to the beat of a very different drummer and calling people to repentance in preparation for the coming of the Messiah. We reflect on the teenaged Mary and the hurt Joseph struggling with the news of an unplanned pregnancy and the months of waiting and preparing involved in that and the difficult journey required to get to the birth away from home in Bethlehem in a stable. And most difficult of all, we sing songs which reflect that waiting, that hoping, that need for patience and perseverance as we wait for something very important to happen. “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence.” “Watchman, Tell Us of the Night.” “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus.” “Savior of the Nations, Come.” These are the hymns of Advent, which speak of the longing, the hoping, the desire, the deep need for God to come into our world, into our lives, and bring redemption and salvation. To skip over this season of waiting and preparation in lockstep with the culture is to do ourselves a disservice and to miss the point of the rising expectation and hope which finds its culmination in the Christmas celebration over the birth of Christ.
Because there are few places willing to do the hard work of helping people learn how to wait. And though we can receive instant gratification in many areas of life, there are still many areas in which we must learn to wait and be patient. We wait for the right person to come along, or the right job. We wait for a child to get on the right track. We wait for relief from an illness or injury. Patience is still an essential quality to develop in our lives. The word “patience” comes from the Latin word “patior” which means to suffer. To wait is a form of suffering, and it shapes character.
I have a lovely story to share with you this morning about patience. Becky Chamblee shared it with our Bible Study class on Wednesday, and she gave me permission to share it with you sometime. Becky’s mother was a dedicated Christian who was at church every time the doors were open along with her two daughters. Becky’s father never went to church. Here is what Becky’s mother did about that. Every Saturday night she asked her daughters to go speak to their father and ask him to go to church with them the next day. And every Sunday she would lay out Sunday clothes for him to wear, all the way to the shoes. And they did this every week. Never any complaining or arguing or nagging, just invitations. And Becky remembers that one Sunday when she was 14 years old her mother whispered excitedly, “I think your father is going to church with us today!” And he did, and he went every Sunday from then on and became a Sunday School teacher and a leader in the church. That may be the best story I have ever heard about active, hopeful waiting, and longing for someone to come. That is an Advent story.
The people of Israel waited and prayed for the coming of the Messiah for hundreds of years. There was no quick answer. Advent proclaims that we, too, are waiting and know that waiting is an important spiritual discipline. In remembering the long years of Israel’s waiting, we realize that we are waiting for the return of the Messiah. We struggle with the sorry state of the world and the sorry state of our lives.
When II Peter was written, scoffers within the church were already ridiculing the idea that Jesus was coming back because it had been so long and he still had not returned. Haven’t you experienced that, when there is something you are anxiously awaiting happening and it doesn’t happen and it doesn’t happen? Each day that goes by the excitement dies a little bit, as does the expectation that it will actually happen, until eventually you have become numb and don’t even think about it anymore. And you no longer live as though you expect it to happen.
If that happened in the slow paced world of the early church, how in the world is the instant gratification society of the 21st century going to learn to patiently await the return of Jesus, living faithfully and confidently in the light of that return?
I’m not sure, but I think it is important. I hope that some of our church traditions help teach patience and an increasing sense of excitement as we move through Advent toward Christmas: the progressive lighting of Advent candles each week climaxing with the lighting of the Christ candle on Christmas Eve; the progressive decorating of God’s house which began with the hanging of the greens service last week reminding us of the symbolism of the decorations; the development of mood and music from themes of yearning and hoping and preparing and waiting to the unbridled joy of Christmas. This is what it means to learn to wait for the light with patience. Remember the note on presents that says: Do not open until December 25. Nobody said it would be easy!
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey
December 7, 2014
Central Presbyterian Church