August 12, 2018 | By Rev. Dr. Fritz Ritsch
Psalm 130 & John 6: 35, 41-51
“Waiting on God requires the willingness to bear uncertainty, to carry within oneself the unanswered question, lifting the heart to God about it whenever it intrudes upon one’s thoughts.”
― Elisabeth Elliot, 1926-2015, American Missionary and Lay Theologian
Waiting. Easily everyone’s least favorite occupation. Whether sitting in the doctor’s waiting room or being put on hold by a mechanized voice, waiting is an unpleasant reality that we try to avoid as much as possible. In our modern age, one huge goal of technology is to reduce waiting as much as possible, but waiting still happens, and we still hate it.
Right now, of course, St. Stephen is waiting for a new organist and director of Music Ministries. The search committee is hard at work, but we don’t have a real timeline. And so we wait. While we wait, we do things one does during an “interim,” or “in-between” period—we hire substitutes, we push forward with the program as best we can, we depend on the kindness of long-time friends like today’s organist, Arlene Small. Having someone like Arlene there when we need her points to one of the treasures that can attend times of waiting—people upon whom we can depend, or unexpected pleasant surprises, or discovering that you have resources within yourself or developing new skills and talents you might otherwise not have developed.
Still, waiting is no fun.
On the other hand, in our passage from the Gospel of John, Jesus is proclaiming that what people have been waiting for has arrived. “I am the bread of life,” he says. “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” But the religious leadership, the keepers of the faith, the ones who’ve been waiting for God’s kingdom for centuries, they are not happy with this news. “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know?” This is another all-too-common experience—the thing for which we’ve been waiting happens, or the person for whom we’ve searching has finally arrived, and it’s not what we expected at all. We may not have liked the waiting, but we don’t like the fulfillment either! It seems like there’s no pleasing us.
I had an interesting conversation with my son Bennie the other day. Bennie is studying art at college. He spends a lot of time there and at home working on paintings and collages. I asked him, “How do you know when you’re finished?”
He sighed. He said that often his biggest problem is overworking his paintings. He works them past the point where he should have stopped. It seems like this is a perfect illustration of the problem—that in some ways, the problem is not the waiting itself so much as it is our expectations. We imagine things will be some certain way, some set way that perfection ought to look; then when the moment arrives, we aren’t satisfied. We want something more—we want something better—we want something different—we want something else. And so even when we have it, we still want it. We don’t know how to recognize fulfillment when it arrives and we still want more, until we ruin what we have.
Bennie says the solution he’s come up with that is “to forget.” “I just put it in a stack of other unfinished pictures and then forget about it. Then one day I happen to look at the bottom of the pile, and there it is! But I’ve forgotten whatever my original idea was. I come at it with fresh eyes.”
In our psalm today, the psalmist cries “Wait for the Lord!” and in the process the psalmist talks about forgetting. He doesn’t use that word forget but nonetheless forgetting is important:
If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities,
Lord, who could stand?
But there is forgiveness with you,
so that you may be revered.
The psalmist says that God does not “mark,” or as some translations say, does not “remember” our iniquities. We take that as an assertion of God’s love and forgiveness, and it is. But isn’t it also an assertion that the psalmist herself is having a hard time forgetting her own sins? Isn’t it true, for all of us, that we ourselves have a hard time believing that God could forgive us—because we have such a hard time forgiving ourselves? We wait impatiently for some sign of hope—some sign of forgiveness—some sign that all will be well—when in fact what we believe as Christians is that forgiveness has already come in the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ; that Jesus came not simply to be Lord of the future, but Lord of the present. We are unhappy with these answers, and so our waiting becomes extremely impatient and starts to become disappointment, dissatisfaction, what Jesus calls in our scripture “complaint.”
Our tendency to distrust or disbelieve God’s forgiveness is actually a symptom of our larger tendency and desire to have control. I can’t forgive myself, so certainly God can’t forgive me. You realize who, in that statement, we are making more powerful than God: ourselves.
Likewise, our dissatisfaction with the answer when it comes, and our desire that it be a “better” answer than the one we get, is symptomatic of our desire for control. The fulfillment of our hope should look exactly like I picture it. We’re like a child who wants something for Christmas really badly, like a fire truck that honks its horn and makes siren noises, but on Christmas day we get a police car that honks its horn and makes siren noises, and we’re like, This isn’t what I wanted! Even though your parents gave it with the same amount of love, and even though it may have cost them more money.
And the other thing we need to forget, is what we THINK that fulfillment will look like. That’s a lot of what my son the artist has to do. He has to forget what his original expectation was, let that painting rest at the bottom of the stack for awhile, until he pulls it out again and can look at it with fresh eyes.
That is what waiting is for. I keep thinking about Great Britain during the Second World War. When the Germans started pounding London with bombs, many Brits thought that peace would be coming through the war whole and intact, more or less the same nation they were. Many therefore thought the answer was peace at any cost with Germany. Just get us back to our old idea of how things ought to be. That would have been a mistake.
When Winston Churchill became Prime Minister, many of those same folks thought that he was the worst possible choice for peace. He had warned about Hitler and Germany for years and seemed itching for a war. They didn’t recognize him for what we know him to be now—their best hope for salvation.
Through six long years of war, the English fought bravely and waited patiently. The civilian population spent a lot of time in bomb shelters and suffered a lot of losses. They waited. And the waiting changed their expectations. Where once they thought that peace would look one way, they gradually began to realize that peace would look like something different. When it finally came, they would no longer be what they once were—no longer the Empire of whom it was said, “The sun never sets on England.” But they were whole and safe and free again, and remained a world power. It was not the peace they might have envisioned at the beginning, but over the time of waiting they learned to moderate their hopes. Waiting taught them to let go their old expectations and to find satisfaction, even if it was grudging satisfaction, with their new reality.
One role waiting plays in our lives, perhaps the most important one, is that it is the ultimate reminder that we are not in control. We don’t set God’s stopwatch.
Christian missionary Elisabeth Elliot once wrote that “Waiting on God requires the willingness to bear uncertainty, to carry within oneself the unanswered question, lifting the heart to God about it whenever it intrudes upon one’s thoughts.” It is the unanswered question that makes us most uncomfortable. What will the future look like? What will be my role in it? Will I like it? We like answers, and we don’t like waiting.
So God makes us wait. So that we can understand that the answers are not in our own hands, but in God’s hands, and have always been. What makes that waiting tolerable is our confidence:
A: that the future is in God’s hands;
B: that God knows what God is doing;
And C: that God is a good and loving God.
These are not things we easily come to believe or to trust—but these are the lessons of waiting.
My family will tell you I’m not good at waiting. When I preach a sermon like this, I stand as much under the Word of God as anyone. So I invite myself, as I invite you: the next time you are stuck in traffic on the way to Denton on I-35—the next time you have been put on hold—the next time you discover that your appointment at the Genius Bar is a Thursday in December at 2:30 am—consider that an opportunity to practice the spiritual discipline of waiting—of letting go—of forgetting your need and desire to control and instead putting things in the hands of God. These little moments are our training for the big moments: when we’re waiting for the test results from the doctor’s office—or whenever it seems like the answer you’re awaiting could be a matter of life or death, hope or despair. Our ability to practice patience in the little things will teach us better how to wait for the Lord in the big things, how to trust in the Lord when the Lord is literally our only hope.
Let us learn how to wait.