God gives us times of Holy Waiting
Sermon preached at St. Peter & St. Paul, Marietta, GA
by The Rev. Tom Pumphrey, December 15, 2019
Third Sunday in Advent (year A): Matthew 11:2-11, James 5:7-10
Matthew 11:2-11 When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
James 5:7-10: Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near. Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged. See, the Judge is standing at the doors! As an example of suffering and patience, beloved, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.
When we moved here six years ago, I finally bought a fancy smartphone. I got the Samsung Note 3, with the big screen. It is a great phone, but six years later, if I want to look at an email, I have to wait several seconds for it to load. If I want to watch a video, I have to wait for the app to gear itself up. Now I’m the sort of person that thinks that things should last, so when people tell me that my six-year old cell phone is just too old to handle the updated software, I get pretty frustrated! Of course, I’m not at all grateful to have all these features that my old flip phone could never dream of offering six years ago. Now, waiting those extra seconds for my 21st century luxury is downright intolerable!
We’ve become impatient about many things. Some of them as trivial as cell phones, others more important. We are impatient with relationships, impatient with our health, impatient with ourselves and impatient with God. The expectation of instant results has starved us of the virtue of patience and all the blessings that God can bring while we are patient. We easily forget that while we are patient, God is active.
In Advent, however, God gives us a season of waiting. We celebrate nearly four weeks of pent-up demand for greenery and poinsettias and angels and nativity scenes. We remember the waiting of our ancestors for the coming of the Messiah. We remember how we ourselves await the final arrival of Jesus in glory, and we practice the gift of waiting on God’s presence and God’s timing. Advent reminds us that while we are patient, God is active.
I wonder if John the Baptist and his disciples were anxious while waiting for the Messiah. While he was in prison, John sent his disciples to ask Jesus “are you the one to come, or should we wait for another?” John was eagerly awaiting the coming of the messiah, but I wonder if John and his disciples grew a bit impatient in their waiting.
In today’s New Testament reading from the letter of James, we read “Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord.” James is certainly pointing to the time when Jesus will return to end the challenges of waiting and the hardships of life. But James has other motives for writing these words. The sentences just before this call to patience challenge those who live too much for the day and too much for themselves. They exploit others to get what they want and get it now, disregarding the presence of God and God’s call to righteousness.
“You have lived on earth in luxury and pleasure,” James writes, “you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous one, who did not resist you. Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early rains and the late rains. You also must be patient.” James knows that while we are patient, God is active.
With these words, James paints a contrast between those who cannot wait, and those who have hearts set on the one for whom they wait. James shows us the farmer who waits for God’s blessing of rain to provide precious crops. In the Middle East, as elsewhere, rains come in two cycles rather than all year long. So, farmers wait to receive the spring rains and the autumn rains so that their crops may fully grow.
James writes “Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near.” God does give the early rains and the late rains. Though the farmer may go through dry seasons in the heat of the summer, God will give the late rains, and the time of waiting will be blessed.
As the farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, we also must be patient—not begrudgingly, but with a sense of vision about what is possible with God. This call to patience is a way of finding God’s blessing while we wait. That time of holy waiting is a gift from God. We are so often in a rush in the weeks leading up to Christmas. In Advent, however, God gives us a season of holy waiting.
Of course, our patience is a virtue all year long. We don’t wait for crops like farmers. Our holy waiting comes in other forms. Expectant parents wait for the birth or adoption of a child. Students wait for the end of exams and the beginning of vacation. Friends wait by the hospital bedside of a loved one. Patients wait for the end of treatment; workers wait for the final whistle before the weekend. We wait for things to change, or sometimes we wait for things to stop changing. Though most of us are not farmers, most of us know the sense of being parched with thirst for a long awaited day or a long awaited outcome.
Years ago, my Spiritual Director was trying to help me to rest with God and to be attentive for God. He gave me this metaphor. He said that prayer can be like a hunter or a nature photographer. If you run around the woods looking for a deer, the deer will stay in hiding and you will never find it. Instead, the hunter or photographer will sit in place, sometimes all day long, waiting for the deer to walk by. However, you can’t be lazy as you wait. If you just fall asleep or don’t pay attention, you will also miss the deer as it comes by. No, you must be quiet and peaceful, but attentive, listening to the wind and the birds and the squirrels, attentive to what sounds are new or different. So it is in being patient with God.
We wait patiently with God, not anxious and reactive, but also not giving up on looking for God. Rather, we wait attentively, listening and learning more simply by being open to what God gives us in this moment, and open to what God will bring in the next moment.
Over the years I’ve spoken with people who struggle in relationships, especially in marriages. Several men have come to me frustrated with what feels to be an impossible situation. Then I’ve watched over time as they find the peace and the patience, not simply to endure hardship, but to continue to be the best husband and father that God calls them to be. With patience, and over time, they find new insights, they see more of God’s grace, they find new openings in their relationships, and in time, they see how God is cultivating new life in their marriage. It is not perfect, and it is not cell-phone fast. But while we are patient, God is active.
God gives us opportunities of waiting and patience—opportunities to watch for God’s hand at work. Those vigils by hospital bedsides can serve to reconnect us to the blessings of a life lived and the gifts of a close relationship. Struggles to understand God carry with them the blessing of finding God there, struggling with us. The long months of pregnancy carry the blessing of mystery; school offers the blessing of discovery—even in exam week. Months of training and rehearsal and years of preparation and anticipation carry with them the sanctification of time—the lesson that growth and renewal is never complete and that each day is a day the Lord has made.
We wait for an outcome, but as we wait, God is active. We wait for the Lord’s return, but we wait already changed by his resurrection. Like a couple engaged to be married, we wait for something yet to become, but we wait amid the joy of the relationship that is real today. Like a couple newly married, we know the fullness of marriage, yet we know we have a lifetime to fully know marriage’s gifts.
The good news of great joy this Advent is that the coming of the Lord is near, and that the presence of the Lord has come. The kingdom of heaven has broken into this world. While we are patient, God is active, changing us, directing us, empowering our patience, showing us peace and joy in the waiting. Advent gives us practice in the sanctification of time, finding God active and with us in every moment. God bless you this Advent, and may God show you how active he is in your life, even while you wait.