Christianity involves a lot of waiting.
The big wait, of course, is the wait for Jesus to return as promised in scripture. Jesus told several parables about this which had at their core the need to be ready but also patient.
Advent is a time of waiting. Four Sundays before Christmas dedicated for waiting both for the birth of Jesus but also the Jesus of the end of time.
Lent is a time of waiting. We don’t think of it as waiting in the same way we think of Advent, but we are waiting all the same. We are waiting for Jesus to complete his trip to Jerusalem, we wait for the events of Holy Week. We await the joy of Easter.
The psalms are full of waits. How long, O Lord, goes the refrain. How long must we wait?
And now we are into the season of Easter....the longest wait period apart from the Big Wait. Easter is a fifty day period that culminates with the day of Pentecost. That this is waiting period is made quite explicit in this post resurrection story in Luke.
Luke’s story shares much in common with the story from John we had last week. The main difference is in the distribution of the Holy Spirit. We recall in John’s version Jesus breathes the Holly spirit upon the disciples but in Luke there is no such immediate gratification. Jesus advises the disciples to remain in Jerusalem to receive the power from on high.
Scripture is full of waiting. Faith is full of waiting. The life of a congregation can be a time of waiting. Many churches, like ours, are uncertain of the future. In our Presbytery there are only eleven churches out of sixty-one that claim more than one hundred members. Eleven churches fall within the same membership as our church. An astonishing thirty-four churches list smaller memberships.
Jesus told the disciples to wait for the gift of the Holy Spirit. He said they would be witnesses to him and the kingdom. Waiting time does not need to be empty, uncertain time. We still find purpose in our waiting.
President Bush’s Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld once said, speaking of Iraq, that there were "known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns." The press had much fun with this but he is not wrong. This same analysis could be applied to so many congregations. We know what we know, but there is much we do not know. And that can be a fearful prospect.
But times of waiting, times where more seems unknown than known, do not have to be empty times. There is much the church can do in times such as these and three of the most important things are prayer, hope, and love.
The church can pray. The book of Acts is part two of Luke’s story and it goes into a bit more detail about the time between Jesus’ ascension and the coming of the Spirit. We are told that the disciples and others were “constantly devoting themselves to prayer.” There is much to pray for. The people of God have been in prayer since the the beginning of the people of God. Jesus encouraged his disciples to pray. Jesus himself prayed. Prayer is an essential component of our congregational life.
In a time of waiting, we can pray for the church. Pray for those who you have chosen to provide leadership in this time. It is an uncertain time for all but how much more so for those who feel charged with the task of guiding the congregation forward. Pray for them and support them. Speak kindly to them and to each other. Pray for Manhattan—all who live here. Pray for all of the churches in our Presbytery that, like us, are faced with decline. Although we face challenges, we are not without comfort. Which is why we have hope.
Hope is an essential act in times of waiting. Hope is not merely a noun, not only a possession. Hope is a verb…it is a thing we actively do. It is interesting to note that the word “hope” appears rarely in the gospels but frequently in the letters of Paul. Paul—and the churches he founded—were waiting. At first Paul thought the return of Jesus was imminent. When that was not to be, the focus shifted to living in the “in between” time of the now and the not yet. The essential ingredient—beyond prayer— is hope. Is hope the same as faith? According to the letter to the Hebrews, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” So they belong together—hope and faith. We hope in the Lord. Our hope is in Christ. Our hope is that for which we demonstrate our faith.
Hope is not mere longing. Hope is the assurance of the things of faith, as much as faith is the assurance of things hoped for. Faith and hope and love abound, says Paul. So we hope not just for our congregation but for the kingdom of God to come. That Christ be the guide of our community. That we will give witness to this hope as the disciples were called to give witness to the truth of the kingdom.
Faith, hope and love abide, Paul says. The greatest of these is love. This we can do while we wait. We can love. Love each other, as Christ loves us. Love our neighbors. Love ourselves. Prayer is readily found in scripture. Hope is found in scripture. But neither hope nor prayer are as readily found in scripture as love. Love of God and love of neighbor are inextricably bound throughout the Old and New Testaments. The people of God loved while living in tents. The people of God were called to love while worshipping in a temple. The people of God were called to love while gathering in homes, on roads, in synagogues and churches. Love does not know a building and love does not know an institution. Love knows a heart and a soul and a neighbor and an enemy. Love needs no polity or structure or by-laws. Love need only a desire to be as Christ to all.
We are waiting. We wait as the disciples waited for the coming of the Spirit. We wait as the Israelites waited for their messiah. We wait as so many do across the landscape of this country for justice and freedom and mercy for all. But waiting is not being idle. Waiting is opportunity. Ours is the opportunity to pray. Ours is the opportunity to hope. Ours is the opportunity to love. As long as we are here and have each other….Christ is with us, in us, around us and guiding us into what lies ahead.