by Pastor Doug Kings
One of the most challenging themes of Advent is waiting. While some of us do it better than others, none of us like to wait. “Patience is a virtue” because impatience is the norm. Waiting in line at the store or for a ride at Disney. Waiting in traffic, for the check to come, or for test results from our doctor. Veterans joke about the military being a life of “hurry up and wait.”
If you search in the Bible for the question “how long?”, you will find many instances of it directed to God by the people of Israel. In frustration and desperation, they appeal to God to intervene in their sufferings. An exasperated Isaiah cries out, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.”
But just as often the sentiment is expressed by God, who is also frustrated and impatient.
How long, you people, shall my honor suffer shame? How long will you love vain words, and seek after lies? (Psalm 4:2)
O Jerusalem, wash your heart clean of wickedness so that you may be saved. How long shall your evil schemes lodge within you? (Jeremiah 4:4)
And then there is Jesus’ heart wrenching cry of despair over Israel’s holy city.
Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! (Matthew 23:37)
As I said last week, Christians have often longed for Christ’s return to bring an end to this evil world. God would destroy the evil powers the way a child gleefully knocks down a tower of building blocks. Despite those hopes, the world of good and evil is still here.
Such expectations miss a quality of God often on display in the Bible: infinite patience. Story after story tells of Israel’s life of faithlessness and injustice. And prophet after prophet tells Israel they deserve nothing but God’s wrath. Yet each story ends, not with the total and final destruction, but with new experiences of God’s compassion and forgiveness.
In Luke, Jesus tells a parable about a landowner who sees that one of his trees has no fruit. “Cut it down,” he tells his gardener in frustration. But the gardener urges patience.
“Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.” (Luke 13:8)
Yet in the context of the whole Bible, it’s obvious this is a ritual the landowner and gardener have performed many times. There is always one more year of manure, one more year of grace.
“How long” is a question we have often asked this year. After nine months of closures, restrictions, lockdowns, distancing, and mask wearing our patience is worn to a frazzle. Many are frustrated, angry, sullen, or depressed. We are hopeful and excited that the first vaccines are about to appear. Yet we also know that a project of this scale will take many more months, even without hiccups or delays.
In the case of Israel, they understood neither their problem nor the solution. In response to their appeal for God’s intervention, God’s delay said in effect, “Be careful what you wish for,” for their problems were largely of their own making. God’s patience was in the hope that they would come to their senses and see their need to repent, to change their thinking, and adopt the ways of God’s righteousness.
It’s hard to see any value in waiting, especially when we’re convinced that we know what needs to be done. “Cut it down” we say of a barren tree blocking our way. But perhaps a clearer perspective would show that, like the cartoon, we would be sawing off the limb we’re sitting on.
“How much longer? What are we waiting for?” In the mystery of God’s kingdom, time is never wasted. Time, in fact, is a gift of grace. It is the realm in which we experience growth, renewal, discovery, healing, and love. Haste often is an attempt to escape our emptiness, to get out of this seemingly pointless Now for an imaginary better future.
But Now is what is real. Now is the only place we can be, because Now is where God is to be found. This time may seem barren to us, like the parable’s fig tree. But for God there is always hope, and if God is patient, how can we not be? Perhaps our time, and our lives, only need some helpful digging and manure.
Blessings in your life and ministry, Pastor Doug
P.S. Due to the ongoing time constraints of “pandemic church, I’ve decided that Reflections will be appearing a little less often. But rest assured, it’s not going away! PD