We had a parishioner at the church where I served in Los Angeles who did not have cancer but he was convinced that he did. He told me that suddenly one day he began to feel this nausea and it was accompanied by a feeling in his stomach he had never had before and it was very uncomfortable. So like a lot of us he looked his symptoms up on the internet – because we’re all medical professionals now. And after a moment of searching, he found his symptoms and he was convinced that he had stomach cancer. Which he didn’t have. But he didn’t know that.
And of course, I didn’t know what he had when he came to talk with me to me to pray for him. I had no clue what his symptoms meant but I could see that he was clearly upset. He made a doctor’s appointment, he went to the appointment, they did tests. And he came to me one day as he was waiting for the result to come back.
And I realized in that moment that waiting is different depending on what you’re waiting for. Waiting to hear back about test results to see whether or not you have cancer is different from waiting for the server to bring out your shrimp scampi. There is a lot more at stake. And if you believe that you have cancer, if you believe that that thing you’re waiting for is no good, that changes everything.
Because the act of Waiting in and of itself really has no meaning. It’s something we do. And we provide the meaning as we stand there looking off to the horizon for that thing to come. We are the ones who decide how we wait.
Do we wait anxiously and nervously like this parishioner who came to see me? Or do we wait with joy like a child who is so excited on Christmas Eve that she keeps looking at the clock to see if it’s morning so she can run downstairs and open her gifts.
For the man who did not have cancer, when we met I tried to tell him that even if he did have it, there are lots of good treatments and probably they caught it early, which was good, and, most importantly, I tried to let him know that he was in God’s hands, that God would take care of him no matter what– all these persuasive arguments meant to get into his brain so that at some point he could stand there and look off to the horizon of the future and know that he could wait in peace, because all is well. That did not work for him.
So I invite you right at this moment to call to your mind and call to your heart those things you are waiting for that fill you with fear- the bad news that you don’t want to get, the bad diagnosis you don’t want to hear, the difficult conversation you’re don’t want to have, maybe Christmas and the holidays and all that stuff.
I’m sure if we think about it, the list of fearful and scary things we are waiting for is probably endless and could go on forever. Just this past week they discovered an asteroid hidden the solar system in our own cosmic back yard. And it’s one of those asteroids they call a planet killer because if it changes its orbit a certain way it could end life on earth. And so we’ve got that. And all sorts of other things we don’t even know about.
And the question with all this is: are you still happy? Are you still joyful? Are you still excited about the future? And how do we live our best lives as we stand there looking at the horizon. How do we wait? It’s the question I ask myself every Advent. And some years I am blessed to remember this one key fact about my life, something I actually forget from time to time, which is that I am a Christian. And I am a Christian whose life has been saved by God and redeemed by Jesus Christ. Which above all things means that I can choose to wait with faith and in joy.
The horizon is always the same. We look to the east for that which will come and we imagine the future, but in reality nobody knows what’s heading our way, so why should it not be Jesus? Why should it not be something good?
For me Advent is a reminder that I am waiting on so many things, that there are so many things that we wait for every day, and that certainly among those things right at the top is the goodness and the love of God in Jesus Christ. And God’s presence and Jesus’s love are renewed regularly in our lives. They are never gone from our lives. They have been there forever. Sometimes it seems like God is hidden away like an asteroid in the glare of the sun. But God is always there. And God is always coming back.
In the midst of struggles and injustices, God is always there and God is always coming back. In the midst of worries about cancer or whatever else we fret about, God is always there and God is always coming back. As we think about all that needs to be changed and all that has to be done in life, God is always there and God is always coming back. We just need to pause and remember that.
And so why do you think you go to church? Our Gospel today has one of my favorite lines from scripture, which is this moment when Jesus turns to the people who are following him and he talks to them about John the Baptist and he says: What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? What did you go out to see? Because that runs through my head almost every Sunday. I wonder – What did we come to church to look at? What did we come here to see? Did we come here just to sing some hymns or to see our friends? Did we come because we thought this was one of the museums on the Quadrangle and we wandered in by mistake?
No. We need to remember that we came here to be reminded and to remember. And Advent is a season of remembering that Jesus Christ is here and that Jesus Christ is also coming back. And let’s remember that he brings with him gifts, especially this promise of goodness and justice and love for all people, and we are part of that.
We have been baptized into God’s goodness, and cleansed by the love of Jesus. And at some point I imagine that all of us have found that despite our worries and anxieties that things often turn out fine. So as we look to the horizon, we need not to worry. That’s what we’ve come to see today.
As well as coming to see this pink candle. You know I schedule the preaching which means that I get to choose pretty much which Sundays I preach based on the passages I like. And so the hard ones, the really hard scriptures, I always give to Linda to preach on because she has a way of unpacking a difficult scripture and making it so it is about loving and serving other people, which is a gift.
And Jerry has way more years of theological understanding than I do so if there’s something theologically I don’t quite get, I ask Jerry to preach on it. And if there’s one that’s really hard, I give it to Rich Simpson, the Canon to the Ordinary, so he’s preaching next week.
But this passage today I really love and in particular I want to talk about the candle of Joy because it reminds me of the story of a monk.
There was this monk who spent his life dedicated to loving Jesus and serving other people. And one day he was out for a walk in the mountains and his foot hit a stone and he tumbled head over heels down toward the edge of a cliff. And he almost fell off the cliff, but he caught himself at the last moment and he was holding on with his hands struggling to get himself up, and just holding there.
And just as he held there, the monk noticed that right in front of him were some wild strawberries growing on a vine, big, beautiful strawberries right there on the side of the cliff. And he held there with one hand and he took a strawberry into his mouth with the other and he said: God, of all things, I thank you for these strawberries, they are delicious. You have made my day. Because even in the midst of my worst struggle, you are always sending me gifts.
Today as we light a candle of joy, we take a moment to recognize the joy in all things, all the time, even as we wait and struggle and hang on for dear life, joy is in the gift of this day. Jesus is here and Jesus is also still on his way. There’s more to come. And that’s part of why we’re here today, to take a moment to see that.
While we wait for things to come, we don’t have to be miserable or anxious, but we can wait with joy. I may have shared this with you – one time years ago our church had a little girl who was probably 7 or 8 lighting the candles on the advent wreath and it was the third Sunday of Advent and she was there with the lighter and I carefully explained to her before the service that she needed to light the first two blue candles and then the pink candle. And she got up there and she lit the first two blue candles and then she tried to skip over the pink candle to light a third blue one. And I said: no the pink one. And she said: but it’s so pretty. She didn’t want to light that one because it was too pretty. She wanted to skip over her joy.
But you can’t skip over your joy. We have to pause on it at moments like this and own it in our hearts, for God has blessed us with it through the amazing gift of God’s son. And we wait for him, so we can just as easily wait in joy as we can in fear. So let’s wait boldly, knowing that all will be well.