How should we wait?
Back in fourth grade, I could not wait for some new legos to come in the mail. I had saved my allowance and birthday money to purchase some specific legos. They were what I needed for whatever lego project I had going on at the time. I was huge into legos when I was a boy and played with them all the time. I recalled this memory not long ago when I found a notebook from fourth grade. At the top of many pages, I had written a countdown of how many days until the legos came in the mail.
As I flipped through the countdown, I discovered something I had forgotten: the legos were late. They were supposed to take three weeks: an eternity when you’re nine years old. Each day past the 21st day, I lost more and more patience, writing exasperated things at the top of my page like “when will they come” with a question mark and many exclamation points. When they finally did come, I had mixed emotions. I was happy they had finally arrived but I was also still fuming about how long they had taken.
Fair to say, I was not waiting well.
And to this day, I still do not wait well.
Just a few months ago, I went to Green Bough, the Methodist prayer retreat center located just an hour northeast of here. During a time of listening and prayer with one of the leaders of Green Bough, I asked the question, “how do you wait well?” noting that I knew I needed to grow in patience. I have things in my life that I’m waiting for currently and I was finding myself in that pattern just like when I was in fourth grade: growing increasingly agitated and anxious in the waiting such that the waiting itself, or better said the poor way I was handling the waiting, was preventing me from enjoying the things of life.
Waiting can do that. It’s very hard to be patient. And in my reading and prayer life since that conversation at Green Bough, I have found that patience is much more than I thought it was. Where I had once thought of patience as simply another word for waiting, I have found that the Christian virtue of patience is much deeper, richer, and more meaningful than simply waiting around for something to happen.
And thus we embark, together, on this five-part sermon series. I hope that it’s helpful to you as we learn, together, what it means to be patient.
To begin, we look at the apostle Paul, sharing his story about patience in his first letter to Timothy. Let’s hear that now. It comes from 1 Timothy, chapter 1, verses 15 and 16.
How should we wait?
Paul’s faith journey is a remarkable one. Born as a Roman citizen to parents of some prosperity, he demonstrated a talent for theology at an early age. He was raised up in the faith to become a pharisee and, upon completing his training, became one of the most zealous of all pharisees. He traveled the region, including Palestine, to encourage fellow Jews to uphold the faith. This gradually included persecuting a brand new sect of Judaism that was also attracting Gentile believers; a sect known at the time as The Way, the one that would eventually become Christianity.
Paul, then named Saul, gained a reputation as one of the most vigilant of the persecutors of Christianity. Famously in the book of Acts, he looks on as Stephen, the first Christian martyr, is stoned, approving the proceedings. He does so as one of the most zealous proponents of the movement to extinguish this new form of Judaism, which he considered a direct threat to the true form of Judaism the pharisees promoted and enforced.
So, here in Timothy, when Paul says that Jesus Christ, through him, showed mercy and “the utmost patience,” we can see why. Jesus put up with much persecution, much bad behavior on Paul’s part, before finally appearing to him on the Damascus Road; the moment of Paul’s conversion. That is tremendous patience on Jesus’s part. Many Christians suffered at the hands of Paul and his pharisees. They lived under fear of what these zealous religious leaders would do. Jesus tolerated much suffering on the part of his people, waiting to convert Paul.
Which leads us to ask why Jesus waited? Why not convert Paul sooner, save the persecution of these early Christians, and indeed perhaps have saved Stephen’s life? Yes, there’s tremendous patience shown, especially patience with Paul’s behavior. That’s what he reports here to Timothy as a way of encouraging Timothy and those who would read this letter: Jesus is patient with you, too. No matter how bad your behavior and no matter for how long, Jesus has patience and will forgive you.
That’s a powerful message of grace that leads others to find eternal life in Jesus Christ. It’s a beautiful message of divine patience: that no matter what we have done in this life, and no matter for how long, and no matter how much we’ve wronged God, Jesus has patience with us, forgives us, and receives us into eternal life.
That’s the message Paul shares here; one he can share because of his experience. But we’re still left with our question: why did Jesus wait so long to convert Paul? In the waiting, Christians suffered persecution at Paul’s hand. Why not convert him sooner?
It’s a good question to ask, especially as we are setting upon this journey of learning how to wait well; how to practice patience.
How should we wait?
As we seek an answer to that question, today consider, what are you waiting for?
We’re all waiting for something. Sometimes, it’s for things to happen, like how many of us eagerly anticipated the national championship game last Monday.
Sometimes, we’re waiting for people or circumstances to change. There are irritants, people who do wrong to us, things that harm us, uncomfortable situations, and there’s nothing to do but grin and bear it.
Sometimes, we’re waiting for our suffering to end. We’re dealing with health issues, like the many of us who have been sick lately, or perhaps we have more severe and longer-term health issues. Maybe our suffering is emotional, the result of family or friendship or job issues.
Sometimes, we’re waiting for our work to pay off. We’ve been laboring and moving toward something, working hard to achieve a goal, but the goal is still yet far off. Or even sometimes, we’re laboring just hoping it pays off, feeling no guarantee that it will.
Fair to say, we’re all waiting for something.
And in the waiting, it’s all too easy for that waiting to give way to impatience, marked by being irritable and, when waiting through suffering of bearing a hard burden, anxiety. In long-term health issues, in our finances, in family members who continually cause us trouble, in work that never seems to pay off, in so many of the ways that we wait we find ourselves irritable, anxious, stressed, grasping for a sense of control over things. It’s easy to get that way, especially if we’re suffering or having to grin and bear it or laboring with no guarantee of anything coming of it. And as our anxiety and irritation grows, impatience can take over our lives, scheming for how we can get things to happen sooner, or end the suffering sooner, or somehow just not have to wait; at least, not wait as long.
Bring to mind when you’ve had to wait and grown agitated, irritable, totally impatient in the waiting. Maybe there’s something right now in your life: waiting for someone to change, waiting for suffering from health or finances to end, waiting for suffering from someone else’s bad behavior to end, waiting for your laboring to finally pay off, waiting for the circumstances of your life to change; waiting, impatiently, irritably, anxiously; waiting.
Waiting is hard. We hear the voice of wisdom in our lives say that good things come to those who wait. But that doesn’t make it any easier to wait.
And then, in the waiting, we might ask what’s taking God so long to make things right or to bring our waiting to an end. Just like we were asking with Jesus, as to why he didn’t convert Paul sooner while Christians suffered, we might ask God why God doesn’t act sooner to end our suffering.
How should we wait?
Throughout the Bible, we see God waiting over and over again. In fact, from the very beginning, we see God waiting. When Adam and Eve sin, God says in the garden, “where are you?” waiting for Adam and Eve to present themselves. In the sinning of the people prior to the flood, God is waiting to see if they’ll repent. And then, when it’s clear they will not, God waits even longer before instructing Noah to build the ark. When the Tower of Babel is being built, God waits a while before destroying the tower and dispersing the people.
God shows patience with Abram’s lack of faith before he becomes Abraham and Sarai’s lack of faith before she becomes Sarah and becomes pregnant with Isaac. God waits for generations while the people are enslaved in Egypt before acting through Moses to save them. God waits while the people wander in the wilderness, building a golden calf when they decide that God isn’t acting the way he should. God is patient with the people once they’re in the land as they sin over and over again.
Throughout scripture, God demonstrates patience with the sin of the people time and time again, eventually acting in what the Bible calls “the fullness of time.” That phrase shows up again when talking about the arrival of Jesus. A messiah had been promised for generations, at least five hundred years. Scripture says that God sent Jesus, “in the fullness of time,” (Gal. 4:4) another way of saying at the right time, when God knew things were right.
The scriptural witness shows us that God is patient. God is patient in abiding suffering, for God suffers at the sin of his people and the evil in the world. God is patient in bearing the burdens of his people, especially seen in sending and allowing Jesus Christ to suffer. God is patient in not acting until just the right time, in the fullness of time. And God is patient in continuing to labor, work, for the good in the world and for the restoration of his people and individuals, just like with Paul.
God is patient.
It’s not how we usually define God, but there it is, across scripture. And in God’s example of patience, of waiting, we see the answer to our question this morning.
How should we wait?
We should wait with hope.
Things don’t happen on our timetable. Suffering doesn’t end when we want it to. The burdens we bear don’t let up when we want them to. Our labors don’t produce when we want them to.
But we see again and again in scripture that God acts when it’s the right time. And that means that God will act. Every time. Which is why we can wait with hope.
The suffering we know won’t be forever. The burdens we know won’t be forever. Our labors will produce a harvest of righteousness at some point. All because God will act. And so we can wait, with hope, knowing that God will act, turning our suffering, our labors, our burdens, our waiting, into good.
Our suffering will be turned into joy. Consider the psalmist who says, “you have turned my mourning into dancing.” God will redeem our suffering. Evil has caused it but what evil meant to harm us, God means for good. And in the fullness of time, God will redeem, will turn, that suffering into good.
The burdens we carry will be lifted. Jesus says, “my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” In the fullness of time, we will understand that. It will be our reality. God will lift our burdens and carry them for us. God will turn that burden into good.
The laboring we’re doing, perhaps not even sure if it will accomplish anything, will reap a harvest of good. When we’re living our lives in faith, God takes our actions and uses them to build the kingdom one brick at a time. Our laboring may last for a very long night, but joy will come in the morning.
God will act. Every time. In the fullness of time.
Which leaves us waiting until that fullness arrives. But we can wait without anxiety, without fear, without irritability; we can wait in peace because we have the assurance that God will act.
And so we can wait with hope.
This is what we’ll explore in the next four sermons: how we should wait knowing that God will act? But while we’re waiting for those sermons, what should we do now with our waiting? With the sufferings, the burdens, the laboring, that leads us to be impatient, irritable, and anxious? How should we handle our waiting? How can we practice patience?
I’m still learning how to practice patience; how to wait well. As I write and deliver this and the coming sermons, I’m on the journey with you. And so far on this new journey, I have discovered a powerful tool to help in the waiting. It’s a form of the prayer of examen and it works like this: take a moment, with a loved one, maybe a spouse or a close friend or a parent, and ask each other these two questions:
- What am I most grateful for today?
- What am I least grateful for today?
At first, it might feel like it’s not doing much. The power of examen is in daily practice over time. Our family has been practicing this form of examen most days over dinner since the start of Advent. And one of the many joys we’ve discovered is this: it helps us see where God is active in our daily lives. Perhaps it’s Carter pointing out something wonderful that happened to him that day. Maybe it’s Jackson in the midst of a hard day yet still finding something to celebrate. For me, I have discovered that I more readily see where God is active and am more positive, especially when I’m suffering, bearing a burden, or otherwise waiting, because this practice of examen makes me see where God is working, acting, in my life; something I would otherwise miss.
Examen helps with the waiting by showing us where God is acting. And that’s the answer to how we practice patience now, while we’re waiting. We look for where God is acting. Because when we see where God is acting around us, we are reminded that God will act and our waiting will come to an end, for God will act in the things we’re waiting for.
Where in your life can you see God moving today? Maybe not in the burden you carry, the suffering you bear, the laboring you’re doing. Perhaps elsewhere. But guaranteed, God is acting somewhere. It just takes intentionality to look and see where God is acting.
So how should we wait? With hope; a hope born of knowing that God will act in our waiting.
How should we wait? By practicing examen to help us see where God is active already, allowing that to inspire hope for the things we’re waiting for.
God will act. Every time. No matter what you’re waiting for, that’s reason to hope.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.