Reflection for Advent 2 by Ian Sowton
Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 85:1-2,8-13; 2 Peter 3:8-15a; Mark 1:1-8
WASTEFUL WAITING. [i] “What are you waiting for?—a funeral?” is what my partner Fran asks me when my frugality twitches threaten to get out of hand. There’s an element of wasteful waiting in my frugalities, but let’s move on to more substantial wastages. [ii] There is the third steward, for example, in the parable of the assignment of talents. Unlike his colleagues he fails to redeem the time between the departure and the return of his boss. He wastes his time of waiting. [iii] Then there are the misers. They wait simply for the accumu- lation of monetary resources. They invest the meaning of their lives in that accumulation for its own sake; it’s doing no good to anybody, including themselves: an archetypal example of wasteful waiting.
CARPE DIEM WAITING. The meaning invested in this “seize the day” waiting is to fill the time remaining to you as pleasantly, or as idly, or as what you take to be self-fulfillingly as possible, maybe throwing some money every now and then at one’s favourite charities. This seize-the-day waiting for the end is all very well for those with the resources to indulge it, even in a modest occasional way, like myself for instance—but what about the poor caught in a grinding cycle of deprivation, having to choose every month between feeding and clothing their children adequately and paying the rent? Or the margina-
lized handicapped living with questions of what happens when their parental caregivers die or themselves become incapacitated? Or those alienated First Nations people who feel like exiles and refugees in their own country? There seems to be a lot of wasteful carpe diem waiting going on.
SKEWED WAITING. [A] One kind of skewed waiting has basically to do with the problem of how to keep a revolution going—in our case the Jesus-revolution—going How do you keep it from devouring its own children, as so many revolutions have done? When “Peter” [quotation marks as a reminder that of course this author is not the apostle Peter] was writing his letters Jesus-followers
were beginning to realize that the second coming—apocalyptic convulsions and all—was not just round the corner; they needed help adjusting to a situation that included an element of waiting if not indefinite postponement.
Some were, understandably, impatient for the Day of the Lord to arrive. Many such folks, with various motives, are with us still: think of the continuous parade of prognostications of THE END, of the obsessive ransacking the book of Revelation trying to decode its apocalyptic puzzles. Jesus, remember, is portrayed in the gospel narrative as rebuking his companions quite sharply for wishing to be let in on when the end-time was due.
Peter is concerned lest prolonged waiting should tempt folk into such new fangled interpretations of the gospel as he (and Paul, whom he cites) understand it, and which new-fangled skewings Paul castigates pretty fiercely in Galations. Peter’s prescribed solution is patience. He reminds his readers
that “with the Lord a thousand years are but a day”—which raises the possibility of a very long postponement indeed. But however long, it should be taken, Peter writes, as a sign of God’s generosity in wishing to allow as much time as possible for everyone, including your selves, to be saved. Also, since the apocalyptic Day of the Lord shall take place—whenever—it behoves the faithful to live exemplary unskewed lives thus avoiding an adverse verdict on an after life Judgement Day. As to an after life, like a lot of contemporary Christians I do not hold with the literal hell of Peter (and of many of our co-religionists) in any scheme of after-life punishments and rewards. The only notion that makes any sense to me at all is from Milton’s Paradise Lost, courtesy of Satan himself. In one of the few moments when he’s not busy nursing his outraged sense of injured merit Satan says, “which way I look is hell, I myself am hell.” Be all that as it may, in our Epistle for today Peter is posing and tackling head on what he, along with Paul before him, takes to be mortally serious matters of skewed waiting.
[B] Another version of skewed waiting might be sub-titled “waiting-in-certainty”. There are variations of this and to my mind each variation has an increasingly strong sense of having God in one’s pocket, of being confident that one knows the divine what’s what. Variation 1 is relatively innocuous complacent immunity from doubt. Variation 2 is creedal affirmations which of course have the effect of defining who’s in and who’s out. Variation 3 is bigotry that has manifested itself not only in some of the truly bizarre pronouncements by the likes of Pat Buchanan and other TV/radio evangelist-fulminators but also, in more than one historical time and place, as a violence capable of rising to and sanctioning even genocide. Of course they have God in their pockets—they have fashioned him in their own image: a lethally vindictive old twirp thundering denunciations when he’s not too busy separating their version of sheep from their version of goats.
FAITH/FULL MEANWHILE WAITING. A major characteristic of faith/full in the meantime waiting is living in a state of negative capability. That term was by the early 19th century poet John Keats in one of his numerous letters to his brother Tom and George. Negative capability, says Keats, ”is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after facts & reason.” I’m sure there many devout Muslims and Jews whose pilgrimages are characterized by negative capability. To help enquire what it is in our faith tradition that makes it more possible to wait in negative capability I recall Jennifer Henry’s very helpful picture in last Sunday’s reflection of living somewhere along the spectrum between Hope to Despair and somewhere along the spectrum between Now and Not Yet. Imagine yourself living in the vicinity of the intersection of a let’s say vertical axis Hope/ Despair, and a let’s say horizontal axis Now/Not Yet. I say “in the vicinity” because Jennifer made it clear that one’s position at any given time in this Illustrative scheme is moveable—sometimes nearer despair than hope for instance. So moveable not fixed, which might well be an early warning symptom of coming down with waiting-in-certainty. Our hope arises out of Jesus’ fundamental insight: the Realm of God is within you. The Now and the Not Yet aren’t an either/or but a both/and. While living with uncertainties, mysteries, and doubts we can take heart from such benchmark visions of a restored Peaceable Kingdom of reconciliation as we’ve just listened to in Isaiah 40, Psalm 85, and 2 Peter 3:13 with it’s wonderful image of justice being right at home. With texts like these we can wait proactively in a faith/full meantime—working for that realm of God that is already within us now and still to come. Being a literary bloke I think again of Milton: his sonnet lamenting his blindness ends with the famous line “They also serve who only stand and wait”. He’s mourning the fact that the loss of his sight has banished him to the sidelines, away from the busy political hurly burly of being a parliamentary secretary at the centre of national policy making. At the same time he sets about dictating Paradise Lost, the most famous and influential epic poem in the English language. Now that is proactive standing and waiting to say the least. He is an inspiring example of faith/full meantime waiting. I’m sure you think of your own inspiring examples. Do not be intimidated by matters of scale: we can do work for the Realm of God both on a small below-the-radar scale and/or invest time, skill, and energy to larger scale efforts, such as KAIROS, for real systemic change where justice is right at home.
I conclude with one of my poems called (ironically enough) “Do Not Wait” that in its own fashion has some relevance to considerations of modes of waiting:
DO NOT WAIT
Do not wait for the Last Judgement
It takes place every day.
The Rapture remains, friends,
in its postponement mode
Do not wait, burn those calories
of anticipation in studying
to pass charity’s unscheduled exams,
her snap quizzes
is beside the point—that point
of seraph-charged mundanity
which serves, any moment, peremptory
summons to its everyday assizes:
next session of this here
this right now
judgement unplanned, irreversible.
Leave those storied sheep and goats,
ambered in their parable, to heaven.
Leave out-of-this-world punishments,
leave ecstasies of the end rumbling and
flickering below apocalyptic horizons.
Attend to the middle of our narrative:
A cup of water given irrigates
whole acres of the scalding sands of hell
A right-hand slice of pizza not knowing
what its left-hand cup of coffee’s up to
will sing among Christ’s loaves and fishes
Give a coat and sweater, hear
Satan’s molars break for gnashing
Charity—we are talking love-in-action—
can be calculated, customary
but in good faith,
can be as regular
as seasons but true
can be impulsive—
even to stepping on some toes
of self-esteem—but genuine
Spare some compassion
But no sympathy or credence
for that cheap exsanguinated sneer
just a bleeding heart
a heart that remembers how to bleed
is a heart still living, beating
apocalypse is now, yes now, yes now
(p.168-9, Affordable Wonders, 2011)