Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
St. Nicholas/II Advent
A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God. (Isaiah 40)
It is said, that the cone of a Lodge Pole Pine tree does not open to spread its seeds, except in the presence of fire.
Think about what that means: a tree may have to grow and produce cones for decades before a fire finally ravages the forest, and only then do the cones finally release the seeds of new life. Time, to a Lodge Pole Pine tree, must move very slowly.
We are caught in a set of circumstances in which time is also moving very slowly for us. Why, it’s been ten months now since the pandemic began! And though vaccines are in sight—there will be still more waiting! And so words like “fatigue” and “exhaustion” have become an active part of our vocabulary as we wait — whether while shut in at home, or struggling on the front lines of providing care and support to others.
But in the grand scheme of things, think of how impatient we have really become! Today’s first reading from Isaiah records a text that dates from about 740 years before Christ. Speaking words of comfort to the people, the prophet promised a time of peace when a voice would cry out, “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” But then nothing really came of that for years, centuries even.
We talk a lot here at St. Michael’s about how the liturgical year tells us the story of Jesus over and over again, which is true enough. But it does so in a way that also distorts our perception of just how much time elapsed in the biblical story from promise to fulfillment. Why, in our telling, Jesus is born on Christmas Day, and by mid-January his ministry is up and running! There is very little to hint at the 30 some-odd years that it took for that maturity to develop.
So too, Advent collapses prophecies and fulfillment rather casually into one another, as if the one led to the other almost immediately. Isaiah and John the Baptist, all in one day! But imagine, from the time that Isaiah spoke of a voice crying in the wilderness, to the time that such a voice was heard, nearly eight centuries passed. Just to put that in perspective: it would be like something Thomas Aquinas said back in the 13th century, just now coming to fruition! That was a long time ago!
There is a scene in the recent documentary about Michelle Obama, in which she meets with the matriarchs of an African American church somewhere in the South – Savannah perhaps, or maybe its Charleston. Talking with Mrs. Obama about some of the challenges she faced, one of the women nods sympathetically and offers her own bit of advice: “Give it some time. Just give it some time.”
We are not, in our day, disposed to give things time. And we are not prone to recognize the value that can come out of waiting. Interestingly, the word “wait” is one of the most frequently used words in the Bible — over 140 times! But waiting is hard to do.
It was, for instance, a lesson that St. Nicholas, whose feast day is today, had to learn in his own life. Born in the year 270 to devout Christian parents in what is now Turkey, he lost his mother and father at an early age to an epidemic, not unlike the one we face now. Because he developed such a reputation for generosity to the poor, he was made bishop of Myra as a young man, but he was then imprisoned under the persecution of the Emperor Diocletian. He languished there for years—waited—until the conversion of the emperor Constantine to Christianity in 312, after which he was at last released and able to continue his ministry of generosity. He is best known, for example, for having dropped three bags of gold coins through an open window as dowry for three girls who otherwise had no hopes for their future. He died on this date, December 6th, in the year 343, having lived a life marked by grief and imprisonment—and yet also one that remained fixed on the virtues of generosity and compassion, even though he had to wait patiently for the opportunity to exercise them.
So the question rises: what might grow in us in these days of languid time, if we like Nicholas were to embrace rather than chafe at its restraints? After all, perhaps one of the most important insights that the spiritual life gives us, is that time is a gift, every kind of time: hard times, good times, stagnant times, changing times. And though in these difficult days time can seem like our worst enemy, it is ultimately our best teacher and nearest friend.
That time is a gift, is so because it both pulls us into ourselves, where we recognize the fleeting nature of our physical life; and it pulls us outward into the eternity of time that is God, so that we recognize that the one contains the other. Our limited number of days, are part of God’s limitless time.
For we inhabit time, equally as much as we do space. And it was into that temporal habitation that Jesus came, bringing together both the eternal and the transitory into the one mysterious moment that is the present. Waiting through time is thereby made not a burden, but a blessing: as the Lamentations of Jeremiah put it, “It is good to wait patiently for deliverance from [our God].” Amen.