Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and the late rains. You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand.
Sunday will be the fourth Sunday of Advent. The fourth Sunday of what must be for modern Christians who follow the historic Church calendar a season of strange frustration. Nothing in our hi-speed Wi-Fi, drive-thru, Insta[nt] gram, tweeting, expedited shipping world is as completely onerous as waiting. We do not tolerate waiting well, if we tolerate it at all. Certainly when we have things to do, waiting seems much like labor, a grueling arduous task that drains endurance and prevents us from accomplishing all that demands to be done. All that has at different times been labeled without celebration as busyness.
A considerable temptation exists (to me, who works with the youthful perpetually texting generation, at least) to lambast the expedient and helpful technology which enables so little waiting and so much accomplishing. Or perhaps turn on the inner cultural eye and perceive the weaknesses within our culture that love progress, practicality, and efficiency and have for so long despised the patient plan, the slow reveal, and the doctor’s waiting room. The tempted lie is that man has at some time been a happy waiter. But alas, as the Bible makes very clear, it has always been “when?” and “how long?”
For illustration, consider the story of Abraham for a mere moment. God makes several grandiose promises to him, the simplest being a son. It only takes 25 years for God to fulfill this promise. The question that Abraham and Sarah continue to ask and even try to answer with Hagar is “when?” But of course Sarah had already been waiting to become pregnant before God’s promise. The Bible describes Sarah firstly as barren. Twenty-five years was but a quarter of her waiting, since she didn’t actually have Isaac till she was in her nineties.
We like to chide Sarah for laughing at God’s promise to her at 90 that she’d become pregnant. Yet God’s promise is laughably ludicrous. Why would Sarah still be waiting?
Yet this is the entire laughable, ludicrous plot of the Bible. God makes promises—fabulous, grandiose, impossibly good promises. The simplest being He will come and dwell with us. And we ask, when? How long, O Lord? But if 90 years of barrenness makes God’s work seem laughable, certainly the whole of human history up to the recently departed nanosecond pushes right past laughter to utter despair. When will you come again, Lord? You came once. You said You would return. So how long?
And here is that strange season called Advent. We await His coming, which has already happened and still hasn’t happened. We’ve seen the day of God’s salvation and tasted joy but seen it darkly and tasted briefly. Still waiting to find our full salvation and our full joy. And trying as James admonishes us, to wait with patience.
But patience is the rub. In a desperately impatient world, patient waiting is odd and suspicious. For patient waiting surfaces the deep problems, and who wants to bring those up? The hidden doubts and fears so well beaten to the back corners of our mind by busyness begin to interrupt. Here in waiting, the true desperation gnaws. In all our accomplishing, we’ve accomplished little, and worse, we’ve done much wrong. Perhaps in being busy and impatient we had imagined our hearts less dark then they are. Now in waiting we realize our need for the light. We see all the places unfit for a King. All that will not please Him. A King who is as surely coming as He has already come. Yes. Waiting seems like much hard labor. One would be desperate to keep busy. But it is this waiting that is the Christian life. The Psalmists and the Prophets constant refrain – wait on the Lord – reminds us not so much that God is coming but that we need Him to come. We must wait, because in the end waiting upon God is all we have.
One of the last of T.S. Eliot’s great poems, “East Coker,” has always struck me as an Advent poem, especially these lines:
“I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.”
In Advent, we wait because in the waiting these three remain: faith, hope and love. We wait for Christmas because without it, all is darkness. We wait for His return because without it, it is only dawn and never the full day. We wait in patience because in the waiting the dark makes us know our need for the light. And soon, the darkness shall be light for the light will be the Lamb. And those who have waited will rejoice.