The “Marshmallow Test” is one of the most famous experiments in social-science research. A researcher brings a child into a private room, sitting them down in a chair, and places a marshmallow on the table in front of them. Then the researcher offers the child a deal. The researcher was going to leave the room, and if the child did not eat the marshmallow while he was away, then they would get a second marshmallow. Then the researcher left the room for 15 minutes. So the choice was simple: one treat right now or twice the treats later.
As you can imagine, the footage of the children waiting alone in the room was rather entertaining. Some ate the marshmallow as soon as the researcher closed the door. Others wiggled in their chairs as they tried to hold on, but eventually gave in. And some of the children did manage to earn their second marshmallow.
In other words, waiting is hard.
Our readings for this First Sunday of Advent are about anticipating the coming of the Messiah. The second reading from Saint Paul’s letter to the Romans, and our reading from the Gospel of Matthew, put us in the spirit of watchful waiting for the return of Christ, which may happen at any moment, or thousands of years from now. But he is coming, and he will expect his people to be doing his work, loving God and one another with all their being. While there is an element of fear in the waiting, because we don’t presume that we’re anything more than unprofitable servants, yet our waiting is marked by joyful anticipation, for we recognize in God the fulfillment of all of our hopes, and the healing of all our needs. These New Testament readings of our hopeful waiting, and anticipation of the second coming of Christ, are to help us experience the position of Israel, in our Old Testament readings, who were hopefully waiting and anticipating the first coming of the long-awaited Christ, the Messiah, the Anointed One
Isaiah is the great prophetic book of the Bible, and is rivaled only by the Psalms as the most-quoted Old Testament book by the New Testament authors. The early Church called the Book of the Prophet Isaiah “the fifth Gospel,” because it contains so much prophecy about the Messiah and the hopes of the Messianic age.
For much of the period when Isaiah was writing (700 years before Jesus), the northern kingdom of Israel was near to being annihilated, and the southern kingdom of Judah had been reduced by the Assyrians to a tiny state consisting of the area around the capital city of Jerusalem. Sincere worshipers of the LORD were few, and the culture was dominated by corruption and religious compromises with paganism. It was a discouraging time for the faithful, who found themselves outnumbered, powerless, and culturally impotent, even in Jerusalem.
Nonetheless, Isaiah provides a vision of hope: “In days to come, the mountain of the LORD’s house (The Jerusalem Temple, on Mount Zion) shall be established as the highest mountain and raised above the hills. (It’s not the highest mountain, but it will be the highest in significance). All nations shall stream toward it (all the gentile nations will come to the Temple and worship the one true God. And where will they worship? In the Temple’s court of the gentiles, which at the time of Jesus, had been turned into a marketplace); many peoples shall come and say: ‘Come, let us climb the LORD’s mountain, to the house of the God of Jacob (God renamed Jacob as Israel, whose sons were the heads of the 12 tribes of Israel, so the house of the God of Jacob is the Temple of the God of Israel)… For from Zion shall go forth instruction (the Hebrew word Torah, which is the name given to the first five books of the Old Testament; Torah literally means “instruction,” but by extension it also means the Law, which is for all humanity, to live according to our call to holiness and righteousness) and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. (in Greek, “word” is “logos”; remember the beginning of the Gospel of John, “In the Beginning, the Word (the logos) was with God, and the Word was God… and the Word became flesh!) So Isaiah is anticipating the glory of God and the splendor of God’s Word, spreading out from Jerusalem and across the world. Which it does, in a way, because Jesus is God’s divine word, and Jesus’ Church spread from his death and resurrection in Jerusalem through the Apostles to all the world.
“He shall judge between the nations, and impose terms on many peoples.” Like Moses judged the Israelites the Exodus, settling the disputes between them with authority, all nations will recognize the authority of God, who will settle their disputes with perfect truth, and so there will be no need for war or the weapons of war. “They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; one nation shall not raise the sword against another, nor shall they train for war again.” So that’s how we kick off the season of Advent, by joining ourselves with the holy prophets and the people of Israel, enduring their daily persecution, waiting with long-suffering hope in the deliverance of God in his Messiah, his anointed one, who will set all things right and usher in the new age, the glorious and New Jerusalem.
Just to touch on the other readings, our Psalm reflects the singing of pilgrims making their way to Jerusalem and its Temple. “I rejoiced because they said to me, ‘We will go up to the house of the LORD.’ And now we have set foot within your gates, O Jerusalem. Pray for the peace of Jerusalem! May those who love you prosper! May peace be within your walls!” It’s a travelling song for pilgrims making their way up to the Jerusalem Temple, imagining its glory, the destination they’re heading for. Which ties into that overriding theme of Old Testament waiting and being directed toward the fulfillment of Israel’s expectation and hopefulness.
Then the New Testament set of readings, from St. Paul and the Gospel. St. Paul writes to the Romans, “it is the hour now for you to awake from sleep. For our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed; the night is advanced, the day is at hand.” We are in the end times, Christ can come at any moment, we are waiting, anticipating, keeping watch, all the while, being the prudent servant, wisely building up our treasure in heaven. Like Jesus says in the Gospel reading, “As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. In those days before the flood, they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day that Noah entered the ark. They did not know until the flood came and carried them all away. So will it be also at the coming of the Son of Man.” We cannot remain spiritually asleep, like the people in the days of Noah. We have the Light, it’s time to work, and bear fruit, and harvest. We have to wake the others! Souls are at risk! Live by the Torah, the Instruction, that God gives us for holy and eternal life! Notice that the people in Noah’s time weren’t necessarily sinning, “eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage,” but they weren’t paying attention. They wouldn’t heed Noah’s call to be watchful and prepare for the day that was coming.
And finally, besides the anticipation of Israel for the long-awaited Messiah, and the anticipation of the Church for the second coming on the Day of Judgment, we have the annual cycle of the church year, beginning today in Advent, when we prepare ourselves to enter into the annual celebration of the birth of the king, the dawn of divine light into our fallen world, and more deeply into our fallen hearts.
And so, as St. Paul says, “Let us then throw off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us conduct ourselves properly as in the day.” Let us awaken our hearts, our souls, our lives, to once again prepare the way of the Lord. Happy Advent.