Today is the first Sunday of Advent: that wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey season when we… wait.
Advent is the season when we wait in holy anticipation—right now in the present—for an event that happened so long ago that it’s easy to imagine that it never happened at all: for Christ to lay aside glory and come into the world as one of us, among a dispossessed people in an occupied land, to parents who couldn’t find a decent place to stay for the night.
And… Advent is the season when we wait in holy anticipation—right now in the present—for an event that has taken so long to happen that it’s easy to imagine that it will never happen at all: for Christ to return to the world in glory, and usher in God’s reign of love, and destroy the powers of the death forever.
And… Advent is the whole long right-now-in-the-present between those two events, when we ponder how we are supposed to live here and now, in the in-between.
And today is the first Sunday of Advent: that wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey season when we… wait.
Last week, we watched the Assyrian Empire conquer the northern kingdom of Israel, and take its people into exile, and then turn its attention to the southern kingdom of Judah. We saw the Assyrian army march toward the gates of Jerusalem. We heard the Assyrian emissary tell the people of Judah that they cannot win.
And we listened to the king pray… and we heard the prophet deliver a message… and we saw Judah survive… and keep going as this little kingdom… surrounded by the biggest and most powerful empire… ever.
Almost three-quarters of a century after Judah survived, a different little country rebelled against the Assyrian Empire. The Chaldeans—the Babylonians—rose up.
And the Chaldeans are fierce and impetuous. They are dreadful and fearsome. They seize land where they have not labored and towns that they have not built. They enjoy the fruit of vineyards that they did not plant and olive orchards that they did not tend.
And they are devouring the Assyrian Empire. They are defeating the undefeatable. They are conquering the unconquerable. And they are marching, inexorably, toward the gates of Jerusalem.
On the one hand, there is evil in the kingdom of Judah: destruction and violence and strife and contention; the law is slack, justice never prevails, the wicked surround the righteous, and judgment is perverted. And Habakkuk knows who the Babylonians are; he knows that they are the instruments that God is using to punish Judah for its iniquities.
On the other hand, these are the Babylonians. They are fierce and impetuous. They are dreadful and fearsome. They defeat the undefeatable and conquer the unconquerable. And if they reach the gates of Jerusalem… then Judah will fall… and the people will be taken into exile… and there will be no hope at all… because there will be nothing left at all.
And it all seems hopeless. And crying out seems pointless. And Habakkuk is overwhelmed by the world. So he brings his complaint to the Lord. He cries out—even though crying out feels pointless—“How long, O Lord?“
We spend a lot of time crying out. We might even spend enough time crying out that it seems pointless.
Last week, last Saturday night, O Lord, a man walked into a club in Colorado Springs… and killed five people… and injured twenty-five more. The first call came into nine-one-one at 11:56pm, and the police had the suspect in custody by 12:02am, and somewhere in there a couple of club-goers tackled the gunman and kept him down by hitting him with his own gun.
Six minutes, O Lord, from start to finish. Less than six minutes from start to finish. And he still killed five people and injured twenty-five more.
And I know, O Lord, that I am standing in a pulpit that feels a million miles away from Colorado Springs. But I also know that it takes one person who has absorbed the words of people—of politicians and media personalities and pastors—who preach hate, and who has a weapon of mass destruction, less than six minutes.
And I know, O Lord, that this is just one of the things that troubles my soul. There is destruction and violence, strife and contention, all around us. There is war and there is famine and there is pestilence and there is so much more. All of the powers of death. And the law is slack… and wicked surround the righteous… and judgement is perverted… and justice. never. prevails.
I could make a list, O Lord. But someone taught me that you are holy. Someone taught me that you would not remain silent while the wicked swallowed the righteous. Someone taught me that you are repairing the world. So I just have this one question, O Lord: how long?
How long until the fullness of your reign comes into this world? How long until you swallow up the powers of death—the powers that walked into that club in Colorado Springs and the powers that seem to rule this world—forever?
We know what it is to feel like crying out is pointless
We know that in the face of all that is wrong with the world—in the face of homophobia and transphobia and gun violence… in the face of racism and sexism and nationalism… in the face of war and famine and pestilence and so much more… in the face of all of the powers of death—it can all seem hopeless.
Because one more sermon won’t make a difference. One more protest won’t matter. One more conversation won’t change anything. The wicked will still surround the righteous; Babylon will still be marching inexorably toward the gates.
And it is in that moment that the Lord tells Habakkuk… it is in that moment that the Lord tells us… it is in that moment that the Lord assures us…
There is still a vision for the appointed time. It speaks of the end and it does not lie. It might seem to tarry, but wait for it. Trust in the promises that I have made. Live in faithfulness.
I need to be careful here.
The Lord tells us to wait. The Lord does not tell us to do nothing.
I don’t want to jump ahead to next week, when we will talk about using this time of waiting creatively, when we will talk about using this time of waiting to prepare. But I also don’t want to leave you here with the impression that the best response to an overwhelming world is to give up and sit down and do nothing.
Waiting does not mean doing nothing. Waiting means trusting in the promises that God has made: the promises that make doing something worthwhile.
The hard truth—the truth that Habakkuk doesn’t know yet—is that the Babylonian army will reach the gates of Jerusalem… and Judah will fall… and the people will be taken into exile… and the promise will remain.
The people will continue following the way of the Lord, who brought them out of the land of Egypt and the house of bondage, and who will bring them out of this, too. the people will continue observing the statutes and celebrating the festivals. And even though being Judean may not me an option anymore—even though the kingdom of Judah may be gone—the people will keep being Jewish.
And they will do that through exile and through return, through this empire and through the next one, through the Shoah and even to this day. The people will keep being Jewish. Because they trust in the promise that God has made.
Today is the first Sunday of Advent: that wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey season when we wait. Today is the first Sunday of that season when we ponder how we are supposed to live here and now, in the in-between.
And the answer to that question is that we keep living in the hope of the promise that God has made. We live in the hope that the next sermon will make a difference. And the next protest will matter. And the next conversation will change everything. And if not the next one, then the one after that; and if not that one, then the next.
We live in the hope—even in the depths of winter—that the tree will blossom and the vine will bear fruit… that Christ will return to the world in glory… that Christ will usher in God’s reign of love… and that Christ will defeat the undefeatable and conquer the unconquerable and destroy the undestroyable—the powers of death—forever.
We trust in the promises that God has made. We live in faithfulness. We rejoice in the Lord. We exult in the God of our salvation.