What Are You Waiting For? Getting Started

[audio http://www.opcbrookhaven.org/worship/audio/sermons/11-22-09.MP3] Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14 John 18:33-37

We have come to the end of our liturgical year. Next week, as we go into Advent, we'll be wishing each other Happy New Year. The sermon series we’re beginning this week will continue through Advent, called, “What Are You Waiting For?” In this time of Advent, of expectation and waiting, it is a time of sympathy for those ancient peoples who waited so long for Messiah to come. Advent is also a time of waiting for Christmas. We already know the Christmas story, though. In a sense, we are remembering that sense of longing as a Christian practice, but also remembering the Christ has promised to come again. And so we await his return.

It strikes me that many of us find ourselves in phases of life where we are ready for the next one. Think about that kid on Christmas Eve, maybe yourself, waiting for that Christmas morning when the presents will open and you'll get to know finally what is in those boxes. Many of us live in these periods of our life where we feel like we're preparing for the next step, that there’s something, and we’ve just got to gut it through and get to that next phase. That question comes for each of us: What are we waiting for?

Maybe we're in the phase where we are already supposed to be. Maybe there's another phase that’s coming, yes, but maybe where we are right now is exactly where we're supposed to be.

Dan Gilbert is a psychologist at Harvard and author of a book called Stumbling on Happiness. In a twenty minute video, Gilbert lays out the psychological and neurophysical stuff that creates happiness. We seem to have within our own system, our own biology, a psychological immune system that helps us to deal with the here and now. There's a process called synthesized happiness. It is that happiness that is not “natural” (in the way that we might think). We may think that we have a multitude of choices in our lives, and if we choose the best choice, the thing we want the most, then we will be happy. That’s so-called “natural happiness”. But there's also this thing called synthetic happiness. It’s a happiness that we create. It’s almost as if life leads us into these series of accidents and we determine that we are happy.

Gilbert gives a couple of examples. One is of an exonerated ex-con named Maurice Bickham. He spent 37 years for a crime he didn’t commit in the Louisiana Penitentiary system. It was DNA evidence that ultimately exonerated him, and he was released from prison when he was 78 years old. Listen to what he said: “I don't have a moment’s regret. It was a glorious experience.” Yeah, right. 37 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, and yet he speaks of it as though it were a religious experience.

Another one is Pete Best, first drummer for the Beatles. Not the famous one; the first one. In 1994, he was still drumming as a stadium musician. Listen to what he says: “I’m happier than I would have been with the Beatles.” Yeah, right.

There is this process that we have, as humans, within our brains, that helps us to create and synthesize and be happy in the circumstances that we have. We have a mythology within ourselves that somehow natural happiness is better, that somehow, if we choose what is it makes us happy, we're going to be more happy then this “fake” happiness would make us. Gilbert, in this video, unpacks the fact is that the more choices we have leads to a tyranny of choice. The more unhappy we become with the choice we made because there were other options.

Think about choice this way: choice is the difference between dating and marriage. If you're dating a guy and he picks his nose, you're probably not going to date him again. But if you're married to a guy that picks his nose, you'll probably say, “Oh, he has a heart of gold. I’ll let it slide.”

Through psychological testing, they have proven that the human pattern is that the more choice we have in making a decision, and the longer period of time we have in making that decision, the more unhappy we are likely to be with that decision in the long run. Synthetic happiness is every bit as real as what we might call “natural”.

Enough psychology. What about our theology? Is there something in our faith that might teach us about being happy? Could it be that we are called to be where we already are?

I remember when I was in Chicago, a recent seminary grad, with Elizabeth working on her Master’s Degree. We knew that the next step in our lives was going to be ministry in Palestine. It was just a matter of getting the degrees finished and wrapping things up. And I realized that I was spending so much time getting ready for the next phase that I wasn't concentrating on the ministry I was doing there and then. I had this realization: “I’m here now.” That shift alone moved me from a place of being somewhat dissatisfied as I looked forward to what I expected to be a very happy future, to be extremely happy in the present. It was a shift in happiness, yes, but more importantly, it was a shift in my own sense of call: where I was supposed to be and what I was supposed to be doing; living in a moment instead of living for a future that was unknown.

Are we unhappy? Do you realize where we are right now? Does any of this echo with you, this idea of looking forward to that next stage, that next job, that coming retirement, that next meeting, whatever it is that might take us to that next stage?

I don't think it needs pointing out, but I will anyway: there are real differences in life sometimes. There is a big difference between looking forward to surgery and looking forward to vacation. But: if happiness is in our neurochemistry, within us, can we live into this moment, into this phase where we are right now in our lives?

In our New Testament text, Jesus is standing before Pilate. He has already been arrested and has been brought to trial and has faced betrayal. He stands before Pilate with crucifixion and death looming. But Jesus doesn’t seem to be in any hurry to get this over with. Even though he knows what is coming after the pain of crucifixion and death is the joyous resurrection, he is not in any hurry to get there. Nor does he sit before Pilate and say, “Hurry up and do what you gotta do, ‘cuz we gotta get this story moving along. I’m ready for the next thing.”

Even in that moment, he stands there before Pilate because he still has something to teach. He’s not trying to get it over with to get onto that “real ministry” of salvation for the entire world, as important as that might be. He is there to speak to Pilate about what true power, what kingship, what truth is. Even for this king, this Jesus, who is letting Pilate know that his kingdom is not even of this world, he is as much in the moment there and he is anywhere else in the gospels.

There is, at the heart of our faith, this incarnational reality, God in the physical reality of Jesus. It imbues everything that we believe and everything that we read. Here we are in the Gospel of John. Jesus, as God-incarnate, standing before Pilate, and there he is, being as much Jesus then as he would be Jesus in the days and weeks and years and the eternity to come.

I don’t have a neat way of wrapping up the conversation, except say they were just getting started. What I'd like to suggest to you is that you take this opportunity over the next month, as we move for Christmas in this season of Advent, of expectation, of longing, of waiting, to think about where it is that you are. Explore it fully. Open yourself up to the possibility that this may be where you're supposed to be right now. Think about what it might mean to live into that more fully.

This is no less true for each one of us as individuals than it is for us as a church. In the past couple of years, Session and staff have worked very hard to discern with you a vision for the future of Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church. It's a marvelous and a compelling vision. But: it doesn't mean that we're any less the body of Christ at this moment. We are the Church. Christ is our midst. The Spirit is moving through us as individuals and as a community. Is there something great to come? I believe so. But I also am convinced that we are called to be where we are right now, to live into this moment as fully as possible, trusting that God is at work.