What do you think you’re waiting for?

[Part 2  | Read Part 1]

What we think we’re waiting for is probably nowhere near as good as what God is actually going to give us.

The people of Israel were ready for a Messiah; they were desperate for a Savior; they were crying out for a Liberator: one, like David, who would establish the kingdom of Israel in safety and security; one who would usher in a period of the blessing of the Lord that had been promised to Abraham. They were ready for a king, for a charismatic leader, to soundly defeat the Romans and kick them out of the Promised Land, to cleanse the Temple in Jerusalem, and to restore honor and dignity to the people of God.

But when we consider the lineage of Jesus in Matthew 1, we spot some familiar names, and behind those familiar names, some familiar stories. There are four women who are mentioned (which in its own right would have been unusual—ancient genealogies were usually only concerned with the male line): there was Tamar, who pretended to be a prostitute and slept with her father-in-law Judah; there was Rahab, a prostitute of Jericho, who harbored the Israelite spies and then bargained for her safety; there was Ruth, a widow and a foreigner, who secured the well-being of herself and her mother-in-law through a marriage with an older wealthy man; and Bathsheba, who’s described here as simply “the wife of Uriah,” which she was even as she slept with King David.

But there’s also Isaac, who pretended his wife was his sister so he wouldn’t get killed; there’s Jacob, who deceived his own father to steal his brother’s blessing; there’s Judah, who sold his brother Joseph into slavery, and slept with his daughter-in-law because he thought she was just another prostitute. There’s Abraham, who tried to make God’s promise happen in his own time and caused a rift in his family; and there’s David, finally king, finally the one in authority, who committed adultery, tried to cover it up, and subsequently ordered the killing of one of his most loyal friends.

If you were to imagine a Savior of the world, it probably wouldn’t have come out of the mess that is Jesus’ family history, would it? I mean, every single person in his family line is human, shares in the human affliction of sin—some are notorious, their stories widely known; others are less well known but no less sinful.

If you were to write the story of the One who would make all things new, you probably wouldn’t have started with a teenage girl, pregnant out of wedlock, whose fiancé knows he’s not the father and is thinking of divorcing her.

But what is true and what is remarkable is that God brings beauty out of every situation; God redeems everyone, regardless of their history or where they came from. In every story, in everyone’s story, God brings unexpected good out of broken, sinful, human situations. And what is even more remarkable about what we prepare for at Advent and what we celebrate at Christmas is that God didn’t keep his distance, solving problems by a wave of his hand—God put himself into these broken, sinful, human situations; he entered into the muck and the mire of creation; he became poor, he became vulnerable, he became human.

For hundreds of years, Israel had been waiting for a national liberator, a military general; but what God gave instead was the Savior of the world and the Prince of Peace. Since the fall, since the dawn of time, creation had been waiting for its Redeemer, its Restorer; and what God gave was the One who would live his life in such a way and give his life in such a way that all things would be made new.

And when he came, it was messy and it was complicated and it wasn’t what was expected. It was better.

Martin Luther said, “We pray for silver, but God often gives us gold instead.” And so again: what we think we’re waiting for is probably nowhere near as good as what God is actually going to give us.

There’s a story about a young soldier who, as a result of injuries suffered in the Civil War, lived as a cripple for the rest of his life, wrestling and struggling with God, seeking God’s purpose; and at the end of his days, he wrote this poem—some of you may be familiar with it:

I asked for strength that I might achieve;

I was made weak that I might obey.

I asked for health that I might do greater things;

I was given infirmity that I might do better things.

I asked for riches that I might be happy;

I was given poverty that I might be wise.

I asked for power that I might have the praise of men;

I was given weakness that I might feel the need of God.

I asked for all things that I might enjoy life;

I was given life that I might enjoy all things.

I have received nothing I asked for, all that I hoped for.

My prayer is answered.

And so even as we wait for that job or that relationship or that child or that next step; even as we wait for that healing and that reconciliation and that forgiveness; even as we wait for peace in conflict zones and neighborhoods, for health in disease-ridden slums, for families for kids stuck in the foster-care system, for community for single parents struggling to raise their children on their own, for the end of AIDS and poverty and violence and human trafficking and sexual exploitation and all kinds of injustice; even as we wait for the kingdom of God to come and the will of God to be done here fully on earth as it is in heaven, we can rest assured that God has all things in hand, that in the words of Mumford & Sons, “there will come a time, you’ll see, with no more tears; and love will not break your heart but dismiss your fears.” We can rest assured that Jesus, who is the greatest gift God has ever given, came to earth at Christmastime and will come again to bring heaven down to earth.

This Advent season that we find ourselves in is about waiting, and so we return to that question I posed at the beginning: what is it that you’re waiting for? Or to be more accurate, what is it you think you’re waiting for? And what is God teaching you while you wait?

I know, waiting is not easy; waiting will never be the most popular thing for us to do. And as a reality check and reminder, Ben Patterson says:

triumph and failure always go together in the wait of faith. They are the head and tail of the same coin. Show me a person who has had no struggle with waiting, whose faith has known no swings between victory and defeat, and I’ll show you a person who has never really trusted God with his or her life.

To wait on God is to struggle and sometimes to fail. Sometimes the failures teach us more than the successes. For the failures teach us that to wait on God is not only to wait for his mercy, but to wait by his mercy. (Waiting, 83)

Maybe, while you wait, you need to acknowledge that there are things outside of your control, that you are ultimately helpless to change that person’s heart; maybe in this wait, God is asking you to recognize your desperate need for Jesus, the only one who can change hearts.

Maybe, while you wait, you need to acknowledge that life is not exactly as you want it to be, that there is a striving and a yearning and maybe also an apprehension for what will come next, that you desperately want to be in a relationship or you desperately want to be married or you desperately want to have a child or to be healed from addictions or to be free from your past or that you fear being alone or living an unfulfilled life; maybe in this wait, God is asking you to wrestle with these things and struggle with these things with him, and to stop feeling like it’s all on you to make it happen–it’s not.

God knows what you need, God knows what is good for you; so wait on the Lord … he will come through.

Waiting: what nobody likes but everybody does

[Part 1 | Read Part 2]

If you were to take a poll of the least popular things to do, waiting would probably be near the top, wouldn’t it? It’s probably one of the few things that nobody likes but everybody does. Because if you think about it, we’re always waiting for something, aren’t we?

Waiting is a natural human condition.

There’s always something we’re looking forward to (or not looking forward to). Life is never exactly as we would have it, and so we wait. Sometimes for things that are coming imminently: a loved one is coming into town for the holidays and you can’t wait to see them and pick them up from the airport, or you’re just excited about finally getting a break! Sometimes for things that are a little way off: a wedding that’s happening next summer that you’re both super excited and super stressed about, or finishing grad school and preparing for what comes next. And sometimes for things which we actually have no idea if they will ever come: being free from the addiction that’s tied you down for so long, reconciliation with a family member or a friend, finding a life partner, having kids, figuring out what to do with your life, getting the job you really want or maybe just a job—any job—to get you through the next month. Maybe it’s waiting on someone else, hoping beyond hope that he’ll get his life together, that she’ll start making better choices.

What is it that you’re waiting for?

The story of Jesus in the New Testament begins in Matthew 1:1, with “An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” It’s interesting that the two main figures Matthew names are David, the great king, the man after God’s own heart, and Abraham, the founding father, the patriarch of the faith. Two heroes of history—and yet they were no less human than you and me, and no more exempt from that natural human condition of waiting.

In 1 Samuel, we read about how David was anointed by Samuel to be the next king of Israel when he was only a boy; but he had to wait until he was thirty years old before he came into what God had promised. And in Genesis, we’re told how Abraham, childless in his old age, was promised by God that he would be the father of many nations, that his at-the-time-non-existent-offspring would be blessed to be a blessing to others; but he had to wait twenty-five years before his son Isaac was born. Twenty-five years!

When I was about twelve years old, my uncle, who was an orthodontist, told my parents and me that I was developing an underbite, that my lower jaw was growing faster than the rest of my facial bones, that this would eventually cause problems, and that I would eventually need surgery to fix it. I would obviously need to wait until the bones stopped growing before having the surgery, and in case you didn’t know this, facial bone growth usually doesn’t stop until a person is in their mid-twenties. So I waited, knowing that at some unknown point in the distant future, I would have surgery to … well, the way I saw it was, to fix my face.

For everyone around me, for my family and close friends who knew about this, it seemed a pretty straightforward concept—there’s a problem with the mechanics of your bone structure and this surgery will correct that. But for me, it went deeper: if I was getting surgery to change something (about my face, at that!), then that must mean there was something wrong with me, because if there was nothing wrong with me, then I wouldn’t need surgery, would I? And so it tapped into my sense of self-worth, the very core of my identity, the issue of who I was. I wrestled with God over this, wondered if this was why I hadn’t yet had a girlfriend. I questioned his purpose in this—my brothers didn’t have to go through this, why me? But there was really nothing I could do about it, no way to speed up the process of bone growth so that the corrective surgery could happen and all my problems would be solved. And so I waited.

First pic post-surgery

Through middle school, I waited; through high school, I waited; through my first and second degrees, I waited; through seminary, still I waited. Until finally, three months before I graduated from Fuller, after thirteen years of waiting, the surgery happened. Finally, it was done; and it was an amazing feeling. For something that has hovered over you like a dark cloud for half your life to be suddenly removed? It was an immense load off my back.

It didn’t solve all my problems though, like I thought it would when I was a kid; and actually, by that time, I had come to realize that, of course, it wouldn’t solve all my problems (and this seems obvious when you’re thinking objectively, but when you’re in the middle of something, it can seem like the biggest struggle in the world). And, in fact, thinking about it, the dark cloud hadn’t been suddenly removed; it had been dissipating over the years, during the waiting, and the surgery was simply what had removed the last vestiges of that cloud.

In that waiting period, I came back to faith in Jesus; in that waiting period, I began my first dating relationship, putting paid to the idea that somehow my looks were a barrier to that; more importantly, in that waiting period, I discovered the passions that God had planted in my soul, enabling me to look beyond myself; yet more important than that, in that waiting period, I came to know at the core of my being, in the very depths of my soul, that who I am is more than what I look like, that my identity is found and rooted in the person of Jesus Christ, who loves me as I am.

In that waiting period, my brother gave me a book called Waiting: Finding Hope When God Seems Silent, by Ben Patterson—it’s a book that I come back to time and time again, and would heartily recommend. The central conviction of that book—what I realized through the process—is this: what God is doing in us while we wait is at least as important as what we think we’re waiting for.

While Abraham waited for the fulfillment of the promise, he learned what it meant to trust in God and what it looked like when he tried to take things into his own hands; he made mistakes, he had successes, he had moments where he essentially cried out to God, “Where’s this kid you promised?” But while he waited, he grew closer to God; he became more reliant on God; he realized that there was very little he could do. Romans 4:19-21 says:

He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.

While David waited to become king, he confronted Goliath, not in his own strength but in the strength of the Lord; he forged a deep friendship with Jonathan, who saw him for who he was and called him to greater things; he became an outlaw and an outcast, hunted by the very king he’d served faithfully. But while he waited, he grew closer to God; he became more reliant on God; he realized that his life wasn’t about being king, but about knowing God—and many of the psalms are a testament to this, including Psalm 27, which begins,

The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?

and ends with:

Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!

Which leads to the second point I want to make: what we think we’re waiting for is probably nowhere near as good as what God is actually going to give us.

(Which I’ll post tomorrow because, in a blog about waiting, of course I would! Part 2.)

Waiting

What God wants to do in us as we wait is at least as important as the things we think we’re waiting for.

– (paraphrasing) Ben Patterson, Waiting: Finding Hope When God Seems Silent, 11.

Only a few days to go …

Welcome to the fourth Sunday in Advent. In a few short days, we will celebrate the coming of the Light of the world, and the commemorative time of waiting and darkness will be over. During the last month or so, somewhat coincidentally on my brother Gabe’s recommendation, I’ve been reading Ben Patterson’s Waiting: Finding Hope When God Seems Silent. I could write much about my own journey of waiting (and I will, eventually), but that’s not what this blog is about.

Four hundred years. It had been four hundred years since anything had been heard from God. And the children of Israel languished under Roman occupation, oppressed and marginalized in what was supposed to be the Promised Land, a land flowing with milk and honey, a land of freedom and prosperity. This was not what the fulfillment of God’s promises was meant to look like.

And into that environment, into that darkness, into that uncertainty and longing, hope came, love came, justice came, grace came: the Word became flesh and moved into our neighborhood. Jesus was born: the fullness of God in a fragile, helpless baby.

It’s been two thousand years since that cosmic event and those who follow in the heritage of Israel—the followers of the Way—are waiting. Jesus came, and we wait for his return, when the earth will be made right and justice, hope and healing will reign on the earth. Still, we live in the in-between time, and we might often find ourselves thinking that this is not what the kingdom of God that Jesus heralded and inaugurated with his coming is meant to look like: conflict abounds around the world, disregarding God’s commandment to love one another; poverty and hunger continue to afflict millions, even as we move into the second decade of the 21st century, flying in the face of Jesus’ exhortation to care for the least of these; a blithe disregard for the creation shows a blatant disrespect for the Creator. And that’s just a snapshot.

But in this environment, this season reminds us of the coming of Jesus, the hope of all creation. We remember that though there is much that may discourage us or deflate our spirits, the most ultimate victory was begun with the birth of a baby boy, over two thousand years ago.

“For God loved the world in this way: that he gave his only Son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.” – John 3:16