Advent – An Invitation to Wait on God
Lectionary readings for the first Sunday of Advent (Cycle B). Isaiah 64:1-9; Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-37
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“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!”—Isaiah 64:1
Waiting is one of God’s immensely sweeping invitations. To wait expectantly and with open hands requires a relinquishment of control that gets at the roots of our motivations, fears and idols. It is where we learn that God isn’t a genie; and happiness is not a matter of God meeting our expectations. While we wait, we sense the naked vulnerability of trust. No matter how disciplined, organized and prayerful we get, we never outgrow God’s invitation to wait. The learning curve is life long.
You would think with years to practice we would get the hang of it. But many of us would rather get our teeth drilled than wait. Advent is the season to keep learning and practicing this discipline that is challenging for us all. It is an opportunity to see the good fruit waiting can produce in our lives.
Unearthing What is in Our Hearts
Years ago when people communicated by snail mail, I was waiting for what only can be called a “love letter.” Every day I would go into the front hall to pick through the assortment of bills, cards, advertisements and letters the mail carrier brought. Did I mention that I did this every day? Day after day? Each passing day it became harder to wait. My heart did flip flops. My stomach ached.
One day as I flipped through the stack of mail, I hit a bonanza. I had seven letters from dear friends on various parts of the globe! But rather than being elated, I was increasingly disappointed as I saw each return address. Throwing the letters on the floor, I knew my expectation was turning the good moment that had been given to me into a bad moment. But I did it anyway.
Waiting unearths what is really in our heart. It exposes what happens when our expectations go unmet. When my husband, Doug, was out of work for a year, when our house didn’t sell for a year, when we moved to Chicago leaving our sixteen year old son with a car and credit card to finish his junior year… each second seemed a life time of waiting. But the waiting did something. It exposed a control streak a mile wide as well as a begrudging heart. I rue all the good moments I morphed into bad ones as I clung to my demands of what God ought to do.
Growing in Discernment
Waiting is a central, unchangeable, universal fact of life. The homeless are waiting for somewhere to go. Refugees are waiting to return home. Tracts of humanity wait for lasting peace or rain or medical resources or disaster relief teams. Children wait for birthdays. The elderly wait for their savings to run out. Commuters wait in traffic. Wait. Wait. Wait some more.
Many of us get so frustrated with waiting that we’d rather make a quick decision and pick up the pieces later than hang around in limbo and wait for clarity to come. Doing “something” feels so much better than doing nothing. But waiting is not doing “nothing.” And doing something is not always better than waiting!
When an autistic child reacts in a hysterical manner, the most important thing for the teacher to do is to just stand there, still and waiting. The teacher is not to do something; she or he is not to step in. It is best for the teacher to wait and watch for what is really going on. By contemplating the child, the teacher may become aware of what precipitated the crisis. Rushing in to fix things too quickly distorts the pattern and perspective in the moment. Acting actually blurs a teacher’s discernment. Clarity comes through patient waiting in the now.
Waiting Produces Patience
Patience is a characteristic of God and a fruit of His Spirit. You would think we would want it as much as we want love, joy, and peace, which are better known fruits of the Spirit. But I don’t. I resist the particular conditions required to grow the fruit of patience. It’s embarrassing how often I beg God to “do something” so I don’t have to wait and let patience grow. As Henri Nouwen writes, “Impatient people are always expecting the real thing to happen somewhere else and therefore want to go elsewhere. ”
It is some comfort that my all too human plea for God to “do something” is found in the mouths of countless others in Scripture, including those who speak in the passages from the first week of Advent. Isaiah cries out, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence—as when fire kindles and brushwood and fire causes water to boil!” (Isaiah 64:1, 2) And the Psalmist pleads, “Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel…Stir up your might, and come to save us! Restore us, O God, let your face shine that we might be saved.” (Psalm 80:1-3)
The Holy One could vindicate his presence. He could answer us at once and then we wouldn’t have to wait. So why doesn’t He? Perhaps because the growth and development of patience in our lives is more important to him than we realize!
Crucible of Transformation
One of the main reasons God doesn’t always answer us immediately is that waiting is God’s crucible of transformation. Waiting is how God gets at the idols of our heart. Waiting addresses the things we think we need besides God to be content: money, comfort, expedience, success or control. It creates space to learn more about who God is, to receive his purposes into our lives, to move past our resistance and say our deepest yes to him.
The season of Advent is full of people waiting everywhere. Elizabeth is waiting for a baby. Zechariah is waiting to speak. Simeon is waiting to see the salvation of Israel. Anna is waiting on God’s promise. Israel is waiting for God’s promised prophet to come. Mary is betrothed and waiting to get married.
Then, after years of waiting, in one breathtaking moment an angel greets Mary, and says, “Greetings, you are highly favored!” And when Mary hears God’s plan for her, she responds to God’s invitation with “I am the Lord’s servant…May your word to me be fulfilled.” Her “yes” brings God to us in person – in Jesus. All that waiting had a purpose!
In that moment human ears hear what the human soul has been longing to hear throughout the ages. God has kept his promise. The woman and her offspring—young and innocent, without a scrap of worldly power—are here. Through them the forces of evil in our world will be defeated! They are our guarantee that waiting is worth the while. God hasn’t forgotten us. He is faithful. The Holy One comes through. In Jesus all God’s promises are “yes!”
Speak to Your Heart
So, too, our waiting has a purpose. Every moment of every day is meant to lead us out of the darkness of self and into the light of LOVE. Waiting makes us look like Jesus. It can produce purification, character and the listening wisdom that brings discernment.
Waiting doesn’t mean you are doing something wrong. It doesn’t mean God hasn’t heard you. It is not a waste of time. God is at work making you into a person with the character and integrity you need in order to participate in his dream for this world. You are in a moment where you can develop a discerning heart, contemplating evidence of the unseen hand of God and growing in trust.
So speak to your heart this Advent season. Say as the Psalmist did, “Patiently wait for God alone, my soul! For he is the one who gives me confidence.” (Ps. 62.5) As we wait expectantly and with open hearts, the Holy Spirit gets at us and gives us grace—grace to wait and to see when God answers our prayers, not if.
© 2014. Adapted from Adele Ahlberg Calhoun, Invitations from God, InterVarsity Press, 2011.
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How has God used waiting in your own life to bring clarity needed for true discernment? Where are you waiting on God this Advent season?
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