A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at the Church of the Incarnation, San Francisco, on the Third Sunday of Advent, December 15, 2019.

The Epistle says, “Be patient.” Just before Christmas is probably the time when we needed that advice the most.

Years ago and in another city, I used to go to a dentist who understood me. He did one thing that showed more understanding than any other doctor I ever met. He would get to that point in doing a filling – – you probably remember the experience – – when your mouth is full of all kinds of dental equipment and packs of cotton and most dentists walk away and say, “Now just sit still for a few minutes while it sets.” And you sit there with your mouth full of cotton and dental equipment staring at the ceiling for what seems like eternity. But this dentist – I will never forget him – would give me a newspaper to read before he left the room. It made all the difference.

I don’t know how people can sit in a dentist’s chair or a bench on the N-Judah or the #7 bus with nothing to read. How do they do it? Of course these days they have their cell phones. But still I see people in offices, shopping lines, buses, even park benches, just sitting. They don’t have a book or magazine or newspaper. They just sit there. I don’t understand it. I envy them. I really do. Because it seems as if they know how to be patient and wait. And I don’t. But it’s something we all need to learn. Many of these same people, by the way, will tremble at the thought of sitting quietly in church for even a few minutes or going on a retreat.

The lessons today talk about patience. They say, “Be patient; God will come.” If you want God to be present in your life, you often have to wait. This a season of waiting and it‘s nearly over. We are waiting, and sometimes we focus on the small things – the presents, the turkey or roast beef or vegetarian salad, the lights on the tree, the cards to send, the small stuff – and not the great thing: for the gifts of God, for peace, for joy, and especially for the birth of a child. That’s the hardest kind of waiting, but also the very best. We wait with Mary for the birth of a child – a child who brings hope to a hopeless world, who makes a difference, a real difference.

So let me point out three aspects of waiting, three things we can learn to do, if only we learn to wait.

The first thing waiting teaches you is how to deal with need. No one ever waits if they don’t have to. But when you need something and it isn’t there, you may have to wait. There’s a helplessness involved in waiting. And that’s one reason it’s hard. We don’t like to be helpless, we don’t like to face the fact that we are not in control. Children may be better at waiting just for that reason. Children are born helpless. We all are. We start out totally dependent. And we have to wait: wait for parents, wait for food, wait for help, wait for birthdays, and wait for Christmas. But do you know what we do wrong? We teach children that when they grow up, they won’t have to wait anymore. We create a myth. We want to believe in it ourselves, and that’s why we teach our children the myth. We know better, but still we teach them that grownups are not helpless, don’t have needs, don’t have to wait. And that’s a lie. We fool ourselves into believing it because we want to believe that we grown-ups really are in control. And if all else fails, we can always find a book, a magazine, a newspaper, so we won’t have to wait, won’t feel helpless. That’s the first aspect of waiting: not being in control.

The second is confidence. We wait in confidence. Why do we sit in waiting rooms or buses or anywhere else? Well, surely we wouldn’t be there if we didn’t think we stood to gain by waiting. The doctor will come back. The bus will arrive. We hope. Waiting involves a certain degree of hope and trust and confidence. Lacking that, you would move along, you would search. You would look for a doctor who could help you sooner, a means of transportation you could rely on. You wouldn’t wait; you would act. So we wait with patience – and we wait with confidence..

And\, third, we learn the value of waiting. We live in an age that tries to relieve us of the need to wait. There’s instant everything – or almost everything. But there’s a limit to the value of the instant everything. In the age of instant everything, it’s probably useful sometimes that we don’t have to wait for potatoes to be mashed or the television set to warm up. But what parent wants an instant adult? What adult wants instant birthdays? But it’s either that or wait, and sometimes there’s no alternative – so we wait. It sometimes seems as if, we spend our lives waiting: for a child to be born, to grow up, to come home to visit, to be married, to produce grandchildren. And however much we want any one of those things, they all involve waiting. And often the waiting itself adds to the joy, and waiting itself is a joy. Don’t spoil that. Don’t miss out on the joy of waiting. Advent is a time to wait, to practice waiting, and to learn our need to wait, and to remember God’s power, and to know the value and the joy of waiting.

Children have the advantage on us because they have to wait, and we don’t. We are grown up and we can make the rules and if we don’t want to wait, a lot of times we don’t have to. We can buy all the presents by Columbus Day if we want to and we can open them right after Thanksgiving. And we can put up the tree three weeks early and take it down on the 26th. We can be done with Christmas before it’s really begun. And we can be like everyone else and be in such a rush to have Christmas that we never really have it at all. We can be in such a rush to carry out our plans that we failed to carry out God’s plan or receive the gifts God prepares for those who wait. So remember the value of patience. Let’s refuse to let ourselves be rushed. We have time to wait, and we can wait because God know our needs, our real need, and we know that need will be met in God’s good time because God has promised and given us in the coming of Christ and the joy of Christmas the evidence of a fulfillment beyond imagining which, once given, will never be lost.

Meanwhile, right now, there’s the joy of waiting.

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