2 Peter 3:8-15a
But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.
The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.
Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire? But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home. Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.
The 2007 film Lars and the Real Girl, starring Ryan Gosling, is the tale of a socially inept young man who orders a life-sized doll from an internet website, and, when she arrives, introduces her to his family and friends as Bianca, a wheelchair-bound missionary of Brazilian and Danish ancestry. Concerned about his mental health, Lars’ family convinces him to take Bianca to se the family doctor, who is also a psychologist. The doctor diagnoses Bianca with low blood pressure and tells Lars to bring her back every week. She also begins treating Lars for delusional disorder, but tells the family that they need to treat Bianca as real, because, to Lars, she is. The community, including the church, accepts all this without blinking an eye.
One morning, Lars announces that Bianca is unresponsive, and she is rushed to the hospital by ambulance. Lars tells everyone that Bianca is dying, and that she wants to come home to die. Three women from Lars’ church come to his house, bringing casseroles:
Sally: We brought casseroles
Lars : Thank you. [Lars looks around the sewing circle. The three ladies are knitting and doing needlepoint] Um, is there something I should be doing right now?
Mrs. Gruner: No, dear. You eat.
Sally: We came over to sit.
Hazel: That's what people do when tragedy strikes.
Sally: They come over, and sit.
And so the three women from church sit with Lars, and wait, because that’s what we do, especially in times of tragedy. We sit, and we wait.
It’s hard to wait. Ask the children about waiting for Christmas. But we live in an impatient world, now stocked with gadgets to make sure we don’t have to be patient. I am old enough to remember the first instant-on televisions. In the days before transistors, it took several minutes for the tubes in the TV set to warm up enough for you to be able to see a picture on the black and white screen. In the 1960’s, electronics moved into the transistor age, and when you flicked the on switch, the image appeared almost instantly, aided by the trickle of current the TV was constantly drawing from the electric socket, to the great delight of the electric company. Now, we don’t have to be patient about anything – even when we’re waiting, there are TV sets blaring, we have iPods to listen to, and, thank God, we are never out of touch with the entire universe thanks to our smart phones, on which we can talk, text, check Facebook and the news, and play games simultaneously. We have fast food, instant messaging, and twenty-four hour news. Who needs to wait?
Well, we do. In the 1960’s Stanford University psychology researcher Michael Mischel devised an experiment in which he placed a single marshmallow in front of hungry 4-year old children, but told them that if they could wait to eat until after the researcher returned from running an errand, they could have two marshmallows. He noted which children – about one-third of the group -- ate the first marshmallow, and which were capable of delaying gratification for 15 to 20 minutes. He then tracked these children through childhood, adolescence, and adulthood.
Years later when the children graduated from high school, the differences between the two groups were dramatic: the resisters were more positive, self-motivating, persistent in the face of difficulties, and able to delay gratification in pursuit of their goals. They had the habits of successful people which resulted in more successful marriages, higher incomes, greater career satisfaction, better health, and more fulfilling lives than most of the population.
Those having grabbed the marshmallow were more troubled, stubborn and indecisive, mistrustful, less self-confident, and still could not put off gratification. They had trouble subordinating immediate impulses to achieve long-range goals. When it was time to study for the big test, they tended to get distracted into doing activities that brought instant gratification. This impulse followed them throughout their lives and resulted in unsuccessful marriages, low job satisfaction and income, bad health, and frustrating lives.
In other words, learning patience – learning how to wait, how to delay gratification now for something better down the road – is key to a successful life. Parents, think very carefully before you buy your child that smart phone, or that computer for their room, or that toy, or that whatever so your child won’t have to, God forbid, wait. If they don’t learn delayed gratification they may end up being members of congress or bankers.
In today’s Epistle, Peter is trying to explain to early Christians who thought Jesus was coming back soon and very soon why they should be patient. Since we’re waiting not just for Christmas but for the same thing those early Christians were – the establishment of God’s Kingdom of justice, love, and peace, and the eradication of suffering, death, war, and inequality – we need to learn some patience as well. Peter’s advice to those of us who want to be more godly is that we imitate God, who is the essence of patience. The Lord is merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, say Psalms 145 and 103. The Suffering Servant in Isaiah is patient. God is patient with the sinful Hebrews in the Wilderness, with the idolatrous people of Israel and Judah, Jesus is patient beyond all measure with the clueless disciples. Think of what God puts up with from you, and especially from me every hour of every day. God is patient, and if we want to be more godly, then we need to be patient as well. The reason why the world hasn’t ended yet, Peter says, is because God is patient and is waiting for us to get our acts together so that none of us get damned when the world ends. Who are we to be less patient with God – or with life -- than God is with us?
David Baily Harned, my first theology teacher in college, says in his wonderful little book Patience: How We Wait Upon the World, that patience is a crucial but forgotten spiritual virtue because when we wait, we are being open and receptive to what comes to us from the outside, rather than living under the delusion that we are what we do. When we fill every spare second with reading, with TV or a computer or smart phone screen, with talking, with doing of one form or another, we inflate our self-importance but miss out on what God might want to give us in the spaces. Perhaps the reason why God comes to Mary to give birth to the Messiah is because Mary was quiet. She wasn’t checking her email every five minutes, she wasn’t glued to the TV, she didn’t have her ear buds in, she wasn’t running her mouth. She was waiting. She was patient. She was open.
This gift of Advent, which we ruin with our frenzied activity, is meant to teach us patience. If you are impatient – which, if you live in this culture, you almost assuredly are – the path to patience is like the path to any discipline, athletic, mental, emotional, or spiritual. Start small. Begin by setting aside five minutes to do nothing. I mean, nothing. No phone, no book, no music, no TV, no talking, no driving, nothing. Just sit. Just be. Listen. And if absolutely nothing happens, that’s just fine. Just wait. And the next day, try it a little longer.
Practice patience every time you have to wait. When you’re waiting for an appointment, don’t check your phone or the TV or a magazine. Just wait. At the traffic light, just wait. At the restaurant, just wait. In the kitchen, just wait. Listen. Look around. Be.
My friend and fellow United Methodist pastor Dwight Zavitz used to have a plaque on his office wall that expresses the essence of the holy patience Advent has to teach us, as we wait for the Kingdom of God. It begins, from Psalm 46,
Be still, and know that I am God.
Be still, and know that I am.
Be still, and know.