On this evening of the first Tuesday of Advent we begin a four-part sermon series entitled “Practicing Patience”. We invite you to join us following the service for soup and conversation with the preacher. The topic I’ve been asked to comment on this evening is “waiting”. I need to begin with disclosure and a disclaimer: I am not a patient person by nature and I most certainly do not like to wait. So you must all wonder if I actually know what I’m talking about. But since I’ve been asked to address the topics of patience and waiting, I shall now fulfill my obligation by talking; and you, a captive audience, must sit and wait patiently for me to finish—which I will do eventually—although you know “neither the day nor the hour”!
The early Christians seem to have believed that the end times and the second coming of Christ were just about to happen—maybe even later today or tomorrow or not much later. So the New Testament has very few references to future generations—no admonitions to “tell this to your children and your children’s children”. There would very soon be a new heaven and a new earth, so don’t get too attached to this one. The great and terrible and wonderful day of the Lord was just about to happen—Jesus would come again very soon.
For a more helpful perspective on waiting we look to the Hebrew Scriptures. Some of the best known Psalms are about waiting, waiting for the Lord, waiting for the Lord to act. Israel knew it was in it for the long haul—Abraham was promised descendants as numerous as the particles of dust on the earth. The statutes and ordinances of the Torah are for all generations to come. And the Psalmist sings, “My soul shall live for the Lord; my descendants shall serve him; they shall be known as the Lord’s for ever. They shall come and make known to a people yet unborn the saving deeds that he has done.” [Ps. 22: 29-30]
There is almost none of this sort of thing in the New Testament. A rare exception is in Mary’s Magnificat: “all generations shall call me blessed” she says, echoing the Psalms [Luke 1:48]. Maybe she knew something the rest of the early church didn’t know…
So here we are many generations later. And we’re still waiting. Israel still waits for the Messiah. Christians wait for the Messiah’s second coming. And we all wait for the great and glorious and terrible and wonderful Day of the Lord, the consummation, the fulfillment, the Kingdom of God—whatever it is that is God’s vision for this world. And we suspect that the new heaven and the new earth, the Kingdom of God in its fullness, just might be way out there in time. God, after all, thinks in big terms, long term, numbers with lots and lots and lots of zeroes.
Here we are many generations later and quite possibly many more to come—and still waiting. How are we to wait? Shall we simply sit here and wait? We could. Some do. But while we’re waiting we might notice that we can do stuff. We can make things happen. We have agency, we can be movers and shakers. Rather than be bored to tears waiting or greatly annoyed by the delay, we can get up and do stuff. While our souls “wait for the Lord more than watchmen for the morning, more than watchmen for the morning” [Ps. 130] we can be creative, we can be agents of change.
None of us knows exactly what God has in mind for the new heaven and new earth. But I suspect we all have intuitions, even visions of what this new world shall be like—the Hebrew prophets sketch this out a bit: the peaceable kingdom, justice, well-being and provision for all. For those of us who are impatient, we want all this now—we do not want to wait. We could sit and pout. Or, while we are all waiting for the mighty acts of God, we could do stuff.
While we are waiting we can actually bring into being what we are waiting for, what we envision for the future. God works through human agency to bring about the future. The future Kingdom breaks into the present through our actions, through our work to bring about justice and peace and well-being for all people. So Christian waiting does not need to be passive; Christian waiting can be active, creative–animated by Christ’s love; guided by Christ’s creative wisdom and Spirit.
What about patience? Can active and creative waiting also be patient? I believe so; but it requires some humility. And a healthy dose of agnosticism: we simply don’t know what God has in mind for the future. We don’t see the grand design of the master weaver.
We may feel called to be agents of change, participating in God’s creative work to bring about the new life of the Kingdom. We may accomplish big things, we may do important work. But we actually don’t know if, in the scheme of things, these things are important. Or we may feel called to do things that seem small and insignificant. We don’t actually know if, in the scheme of things, they are small and insignificant. I suspect that the seemingly small, ordinary kindnesses of our lives are magnified greatly in God’s design. We remember the story of the widow’s mite and the stories of the loaves and fishes. What seems like little to us may amount to a great deal in God’s economy. We do what we can, what we feel called to do, large or small—but the rest is in God’s hands.
I think my message this evening is fairly straight-forward: Waiting can be active and creative. Patient waiting adds the element of humility: in humility we leave the significance and outcome of what we do up to God. Our restlessness and impatience may very well be promptings of the Spirit to do something—but how this something fits into the larger design is not for us to know, at least not yet.
Patient waiting calls for humility and the willingness to admit how little we know about what God has in mind for the future. Patient waiting calls for trust and hope. Yes, we may be movers and shakers. But whether we move and shake a lot or shake and move but a little, we trust God to make what he will of our moving and shaking.