Sermon: Wait, and Watch, and Work

“Wait, and Watch, and Work”
Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron
Park Avenue Congregational Church, UCC
December 2, 2018

Isaiah 40:3
A voice cries out:
‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
 make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

Luke 1:5-25, 57, 60, 64, 67, 76-79
In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.

Once when he was serving as priest before God and his section was on duty, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. Now at the time of the incense-offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. But the angel said to him, ‘Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.’ Zechariah said to the angel, ‘How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.’ The angel replied, ‘I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.’

Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah, and wondered at his delay in the sanctuary. When he did come out, he could not speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. He kept motioning to them and remained unable to speak. When his time of service was ended, he went to his home.

After those days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she remained in seclusion. She said, ‘This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favourably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.’

Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son [and] said, “he is to be called John.” …Immediately [Zechariah’s] mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God. …[He] was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy [about John]:

‘[Y]ou, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
  for you will go before the Lord to prepare the way,
to give knowledge of salvation to God’s people
  by the forgiveness of their sins.

By the tender mercy of our God,
  the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
  to guide our feet into the way of peace.’

This morning’s Gospel passage is a case study on hope, our focus on this first Sunday of Advent. Elizabeth and Zechariah have struggled with infertility long past the age when they expect to be able to bear children. So when an angel tells Zechariah that they will conceive, the of years of deferred dreams weigh heavily on him and he responds with a hearty dose of skepticism: “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” He is, it appears, out of hope.

Gabriel, the aforementioned angel messenger, is not impressed and tells Zechariah he will be unable to speak until his pronouncement comes to pass.

In our house we often talk about appropriate consequences for misbehavior – for example, failure to pick up your room for a day might result in no screen time that day, but it won’t result in no screen time for a month. And I have to say, Gabriel’s punishment feels like a pretty outsize consequence for someone who has every reason to want a little extra reassurance about such a seeming impossibility.

Gabriel might be on an angelic power trip, but I think it’s more likely that his chastising is a forceful statement on having hope: that being open to what might seem impossible, and then being willing to be an enthusiastic participant when that impossibility finally comes to life, are key to following a God who plays with impossibilities all the time.

After all, this is a God who “gives light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, [who] …guide[s] our feet into the way of peace” no matter how despairing, embroiled in loss, or in turmoil we might sometimes feel. And though it is no easy task, if we can summon the willingness to hope, to partner with God – the light can break through.

In her book Bird by Bird, author Anne Lamott calls hope “a revolutionary patience.” “A revolutionary patience.” When I think of revolution, I think not of something passive, but rather of a movement, a struggle to create a new reality. By the time things finally start to change, the movement has gained so much momentum that a new reality seems inevitable. Yet this snowball effect can obscure the years of painstaking labor that led up to it, all they long, dark nights when the desired outcome seemed wholly unrealistic.

Think of the civil rights movement, or the fight for equal marriage rights, or the more recent #metoo movement to bring sexual harassment and abuse to light. As legislative or policy changed loomed near, it seemed a more just outcome was practically assured. Yet all these movements were decades in the making, marked by what must often have felt like fruitless struggle.

Friday was the 63rd anniversary of Rosa Parks’ refusal to move for a white bus passenger, an act of resistance that sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott and jumpstarted the civil rights movement. But I was reminded by a recent episode of Doctor Who that this was not the first time Rosa Parks had had a run-in with a bus driver. 12 years previously, in 1943, she had paid her fare and then been told by the very same bus driver that she needed to exit the bus and re-board by the back door designated for passengers of color. Parks protested but complied; the bus driver waited until she exited and drove off without her.

I wonder what life was like for Rosa Parks in those intervening 12 years, always waiting, watching, wondering whether she would get stuck on the bus with that same bus driver who had humiliated her, a daily reminder of the spider’s web of laws and unspoken rules that trapped her and millions of others in the indignities of second-class status, seemingly without a viable exit.

I imagine Zechariah caught in just such a wasteland of disappointed hopes. The days and months and years of living in the uncertain, the in between, the not-yet take their toll, sometimes stunting the ability to hope in anything at all. No wonder Zechariah doubts the angel!

You see, the thing that no one much talks about in regards to hope is that it requires of us a courage that can sometimes be hard to summon. Because hope as revolutionary patience is both a waiting on God – an acknowledgment that in some ways this is out of our hands – and, paradoxically, a willingness to live as if the thing for which we hope is within reach. “Hope begins in the dark,” Lamott writes, with “the stubborn [belief] that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work,” Lamott writes; “you don’t give up.” And that can be far easier to say than it is to live, as Zechariah and many of us know.

For Rosa Parks, living in such a demeaning, dehumanizing reality without giving up hope must have indeed required the courage of a revolutionary patience. No doubt Parks’ tenacious faith in God played a pivotal role in helping her survive not just the 12 years between busing incidents, but the 381 days of the bus boycott, the loss of her job as a result of her actions and the inability to find another, the death threats, and indeed the entire long arc of the civil rights movement, for which she was finally recognized by the nation in 1999. “I was fortunate God provided me with the strength I needed at the precise time when conditions were ripe for change. I am thankful to [God] every day that [God] gave me the strength…to endure whatever I had to face,” Parks said.

Whether or not you’ve been part of a slow-burning movement for change, you might well relate if you have gone through a different long-term struggle; perhaps one with infertility, or with chronic illness, or with watching a child or loved one face some challenge you can’t help them overcome. If you are lucky enough to have come out the other side, the whole experience may have telescoped into that moment when you realized things would finally, finally be different. But those long, dark periods without light can feel interminable while you are going through them.

As a young adult, I struggled for eight or nine years with disordered eating. Nothing so dire as to involve hospitalization, but a big enough problem that my mental health was run a little ragged and I wasn’t sure I would ever see the end of it. I was wise enough to avoid the fallacy that if I just had enough faith, if I just prayed hard enough, God would swoop in and fix everything. But I also knew that I wouldn’t come out of it by sheer force of my own willpower, because I had so often tried that approach and failed.

On many nights things felt helpless; I would go to bed defeated and ashamed. But on just as many nights I was able to summon the courage to pray for things to change, to find the right resource or the shift in mindset that would release me from this burden I lugged around. In the beginning I often found myself exactly where Lamott described: in the dark, yet stubborn enough to keep showing up, to keep returning to the belief that change might really be possible, that I followed a God who indeed played with impossibilities and regularly helped to turn them around.

At some point it might have looked like I had given up hope, because I tried to just live around my unhealthy relationship with food, determined not to spend so much time and energy on something that might never change. But like Zechariah, I kept a part of myself open to the hope that things would, one day, be different; open to the paradoxical combination of God’s healing grace and my own fits-and-starts refusal to give in to despair.

So I waited, and watched, and worked, and eventually I got to a place where, as Parks describes, the timing was right and God provided the strength: I felt supported enough (and where counseling was covered by my insurance) to seek out a provider who was a good match for me. Within what now seems like a blink of an eye, I climbed out of the darkness and into a much healthier sense of myself – and rejoiced that God had helped me get there and had even given me joy along a sometimes darkened path.

I said earlier that Zechariah was out of hope, but that’s not entirely accurate. Did you notice the very first thing Gabriel said, before he laid the smack down on poor Zechariah? “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard.” Zechariah might have found it hard to believe the angel that his circumstances will finally change, but some part of him had hoped it might be so all along, because he had kept praying. He had had the courage to continue to offer up to God his desire for a different reality, just the smallest sliver of a sign that he was open to God doing a new and unexpected thing in his life.

As we confront a world too often weighed down by war and injustice and pain – as we look inside ourselves and around us at our loved ones and see so much that seems impossible to change – my question this morning for us is whether we have the courage to hope. Do we have the stubborn willingness to keep showing up and watching, even in the midst of the darkness, for a new dawn? Do we have the paradoxical capacity to both wait on God to shift the things beyond our control and to work to keep ourselves open to the change we desire? And even as we long so desperately for things to be different, do we have the grace to appreciate what is good in our lives now, leaving the door cracked open, as it were, for more good to burst through?

This Advent season may we have the courage to hope; to live as if the One who will shine a light into our despair, who will bring a new dawn to those who wait in darkness, is really on his way, and to wait and work with an openness to a new reality.