“And Jesus said to them, ‘Go into the world and proclaim the Gospel to all creation.”
(Mark 16. 15)
This past week the Church celebrated the Feast of the Ascension, the taking up into heaven of Jesus’ resurrected body forty days after Easter. The Ascension is often depicted as the beginning of the Church’s wait for Christ’s Second Coming, when Jesus will return at the end of the ages in order to judge the earth. If waiting is a characteristic of Christian life, existing as we do between the Ascension and the end of times, then what does this waiting look like and how does it feel?
Waiting can sometimes be a conditioned response that builds upon excitement and rewards attentiveness. Think of Christmas Eve as a child: we all know presents are coming, we are excited, and our patience (even our impatience) will be rewarded with gifts the next day. Maybe this kind of waiting is something like the Christian life? We wait with excitement for the coming of Jesus and we will be rewarded. That’s not a bad picture of Christian waiting, but I don’t think it’s really the kind of waiting that Jesus expects us to be doing. Let me explain why.
The type of waiting that is conditioned by expectation of reward is ultimately unsustainable. If all we do is wait around for the desire to see Jesus’ return be fulfilled, I dare say we will be either disappointed or burn out.
In terms of disappointment, think of the recent, silly predictions of Christ’s Second Coming by an American evangelist. The predicted day and hour came and went, but nothing happened other than that the evangelist’s bank balance had increased dramatically as people signed over their life savings to him. Those convinced by the wild prediction of the evangelist, foolish as he and they were, surely felt a deep-seated disappointment that, in some cases, has shattered their faith.
In terms of burning out, we might think of the Russian psychologist, Pavlov, who pioneered in the techniques of conditioning the behaviour of dogs. Pavlov first rang a bell, and then a second later gave them some meat. After doing this a few times, he rang the bell but did not give them the meat. Even though the dogs did not get the meat, they salivated - their whole system was conditioned to respond to the idea they would soon receive meat. Pavlov next extended the time between ringing the bell and giving the dogs meat. It was quite successful at first but Pavlov finally ran into a problem. It seems that after a certain period of time the dogs would not salivate as he had hoped they would - instead they would fall asleep! They concentrated so much on what they were waiting for that they had no energy left to keep themselves awake with. So it is with Christians too who focus so much energy on trying to discern the future: they are asleep to the present, burnt out and unable to pay attention to the needs of those around them.
We are, of course, neither fools nor dogs. The Gospel this evening makes it clear that Jesus directs his followers to an active and present-oriented waiting. Our attention is not supposed to be focused so much on Christ's return - or on the next thing that we want to have happen in our lives – that we end up forgetting what else is going on, or that we end up falling asleep on the job. In the times between, our eyes are meant to be fixed on the present moment that God has given us. We are called to live now in the way God intended us - rather to live in the future.
And the shape of this active, present-oriented waiting? The Gospel this evening is clear: proclaim the Gospel, baptise the world, and give signs of God’s greatness. Waiting is dynamic; waiting has the urgent edge of mission; waiting trusts that we co-operate now with Jesus at the right hand of the Father, the place of power, wholeness, and hope. May we all wait in this life-giving way, every day. Amen.