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Waiting, but not Loitering

 

Isaiah 25:6-10
Psalm 40:1-3
Hebrews 10:11-18
Luke 2:22-38

Loitering is illegal. Loiterers can be jailed. Why? What harm can there be in standing around? Police departments are quick to tell us how much harm there is in standing around. Police departments know that the person who stands around for no reason, with nothing in mind, is someone who won’t be merely “standing around” for long. Someone merely standing around is someone who is readily drawn into whatever disturbance might boil up around him. Idleness is readily co-opted by evil. The empty-handed, empty-headed loiterer who claims he’s only standing around readily becomes an accomplice of whatever evil is lurking.

Advent is a time of waiting, but not a time of waiting around, not a time of loitering. To wait, in scripture, is always to wait for, to anticipate, to expect. To wait, in scripture, is always to be on the edge of your seat in anticipation of something that God has promised.

The Hebrew verb “to wait (for)” is derived from two Hebrew words meaning tension and endurance. If we are waiting for something momentous, waiting eagerly, longingly, expectantly, then we live in a tension as great as our endurance is long.

I am always moved at the people in the Christmas story who wait in such tension with endurance.

Elizabeth , for instance; she had been childless for two decades. In Israel childlessness was the worst misfortune that could befall husband and wife. Each year’s barrenness found Elizabeth waiting, her endurance tested.

Zechariah, Elizabeth ’s husband; he was unable to speak from the time he learned of his wife’s pregnancy until their son, Yochan, “gift of God”, was born. Nine months may not strike us as a long time to wait for speech to return, but it’s unimaginably long when you don’t know if your speech is ever going to return.

Simeon had spent years looking for, longing for, the Messiah of Israel.

Anna had been married only seven years when she was widowed. Now, at 84 years of age, she lived on the temple precincts, “worshiping with prayer and fasting, night and day,” Luke tells us. When she finally beheld the infant Jesus she knew that what she had waited for for 60 years had appeared at last.

These were godly men and women. And like all godly folk they knew how difficult it is to wait; how difficult it is to wait for God. It is difficult. No wonder the psalmist exhorts us, “Wait for the Lord. Be strong, and let your heart take courage. Yes, wait for the Lord.”

At the same time we must remember that to wait, in scripture, is never to “wait around.” To wait is never to loiter, doing nothing, available for whatever evil looms up. To wait, in scripture, is to wait knowing that we don’t wait alone; God waits too. God waits for us, his people. The prophet Isaiah tells us that God waits for Israel to bear fruit. When God waits, and waits specifically for his people, it’s never the case that God is “waiting around,” doing nothing. God always waits for Israel by working in Israel . God waits by doing.

Think of the diverse pictures scripture paints of God’s involvement with Israel , God’s working among his people.

  • a mother nursing her infant. The mother nursing her infant is waiting in one sense; she isn’t doing anything else, can’t be washing the kitchen floor. Yet in nursing her infant she isn’t “doing nothing.” What could be more important than the wellbeing of her babe?
  • a father helping a young child to walk. The father is waiting for the child to grow up even as he does something about it.
  • a heartbroken husband (we’re still talking about how the bible portrays the waiting God) resolving not to leave the wife who has disgraced herself and humiliated him. Such waiting, replete with resolution, is a long way from doing nothing.

In none of this could God be said to be waiting around, loitering, up to no good at all. As a matter of fact, the one word that characterizes God’s involvement with Israel is passion. And since God waits for Israel to bear fruit by doing whatever he can with Israel , it’s plain that God’s waiting for us is his impassioned involvement with us. God waits by hastening.

Then our Advent-waiting must never be waiting around, loitering. Our Advent-waiting must be marked by impassioned involvement.

But impassioned involvement with what? What exactly are we waiting for?

I: — The apostle Paul says that the entire creation is “waiting with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.” In other words, the entire creation is waiting for, longing for God’s deliverance from anything and everything that stands in the way of its fulfilment. Right now the entire creation is frustrated; it doesn’t unambiguously serve the purpose for which God fashioned it.

[a] For instance, the earth was created to sustain all of humankind. To be sure, bodily good isn’t the only good. There are also an intellectual good and a cultural good and an emotional good and a spiritual good. At the same time, unless the bodily good is maintained; that is, unless physical need is met, the remaining goods never arise. No intellectual good or cultural good or spiritual good is going to appear in the person who is starving to death or merely malnourished. For centuries the earth yielded enough food to feed the world’s population many times over, even as malnutrition and starvation consumed millions of people. So far as feeding people is concerned, the earth has been frustrated in serving the purpose for which God created it.

And then in the twinkling of an eye a corner was turned. In the twinkling of an eye a new situation has arisen: as of today, for the first time in human history, more people will die prematurely from overeating than will die prematurely from undereating. Once again so far as sustaining people is concerned, the earth is frustrated in serving the purpose for which God created it.

[b] Physicians tell me that the most sophisticated aspect of all the growing edges in medicine (and medical science has many growing edges) pertains to fertility. For decades infertility was deemed a female problem. The new growing edge pertains to male fertility. Huge advances are underway here. Good. Millions of couples will conceive otherwise never could have. And right next door to the fertility clinic, in any hospital, we can find the abortuary. The contradiction here leaves me speechless.

[c] Billions of tax-payer dollars are spent each year on public education. The end result is that the level of adult illiteracy in Canada has slowly risen from 35% to 47%. Yes, as much as is spent on public education, it can always be argued that not enough is spent, since other jurisdictions spend more than we do. At the same time, social problems are never remedied simply by throwing more money at them. Trillions of dollars have been poured into slum areas of American cities, and the slums are no closer to disappearing.

[d] And then there are the people who continue to approach me; the chronically mentally ill. Twenty-five years ago the development of neuroleptic drugs was heralded as a breakthrough inasmuch as the new drugs would permit ill people to live outside of institutions. Undoubtedly some ill people have benefited. A great many, however, have not. Many defenceless people were put on the street with a bottle of pills. In two days they had lost their pills, or traded them for something else, or had forgotten how frequently to take them. They couldn’t return to the institutions from which they had been discharged, because these institutions had been replaced by carriage-trade condominiums. Many of these people are in worse condition than ever they were when they were institutionalized. When Maureen and I were in Washington four weeks ago we were startled at the number of psychotic people found in downtown Washington . It’s the same in every major North American city.

The entire creation is frustrated, says the apostle. It waits – and we who are part of it wait too – for its restoration.

But waiting never means waiting around. Waiting for God’s deliverance of the creation entails our impassioned involvement with it, entails our zealous doing on behalf of it, wherever it is frustrated and for whatever reason. Unless we are doing something about the world’s frustration we aren’t waiting for God at all; we’re merely waiting around, loitering, soon to be part of the problem instead of its alleviation.

Remember: God waits for Israel to bear fruit by spending himself unreservedly for Israel .

II: In the second place, says the apostle, we ourselves wait for adoption as daughters and sons of God, “the redemption of our bodies”, as he puts it. But aren’t we sons and daughters of God by faith now? To be sure, scripture insists on the distinction between creature of God and child of God. Every human being is a creature of God, made in God’s image, loved and cherished by him. Children of God, however, are those who have heard and heeded the gospel invitation, and who now cling in faith to the Incarnate One, Jesus Christ, their elder brother. Believing people are God’s children now. We are born of God and have been granted a new nature from God.

Then why is it said that we are waiting for adoption as God’s sons and daughters? The apostle’s point is this: while we have been made new at God’s hand, we don’t appear very new. To be sure, sin no longer rules us; Jesus Christ does. But while sin no longer rules us, sin continues to reside in us. Martin Luther used to say, “Yes, we are new people in Christ; but the old man, the old woman, won’t die quietly. The corpse twitches.”

The apostle is puzzled about the gap, the undeniable gap, between his new life in Christ and his contradiction of it every day. On the one hand he knows that all whom Jesus Christ draws to himself are made new in him; on the other hand he’s surprised at how much of the “old” man seems to hang on in him. Listen to Paul as he speaks of himself in Romans 7. “I don’t understand my own actions. For I don’t do what I want, but rather I do the very thing I hate. Wretched man that I am, who will deliver me from this body of death?” Still, he knows that his ultimate deliverance is guaranteed: “Thanks be to God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

When Paul speaks of himself as ‘wretched’ he doesn’t mean primarily that he feels wretched. He’s not telling us how he feels; he’s telling us what he is. No doubt he didn’t feel good about it; still, he’s telling us primarily of his condition, not of his feeling. His condition is this: there’s a dreadful contradiction within him. He recognizes that his practice falls abysmally short of his profession. Until he was apprehended by Christ he wasn’t aware of any contradiction within him; now he knows that Christ has rendered him new even as everyone around him finds him entirely too ‘old’. It’s his condition that’s wretched. “Wretched man that I am, who will deliver me from this body of death?”

The ancient Romans devised a terrible punishment for criminals; namely, strapping a corpse onto a criminal’s back. Imagine the sheer weight of it. Imagine the odour, the leaks, the overall hideousness. It must have been ghastly beyond description.

Did I say “ghastly beyond description”? But such ghastliness is my spiritual condition; such ghastliness is my outward life compared to my inward truth and my Christian profession. Who will deliver me from this hideous contradiction, this body of death?

In our sober discussion of this topic we must be sure to notice something profound. The apostle dares to admit his own innermost contradiction, dares to raise the question, only because he already has the answer. “Thanks be to God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” He’s going to be delivered from the walking contradiction he is. The burden of the ‘old’ man that seems strapped to him is going to be lifted. He knows it. He’s waiting for it. We wait for it too.

But we don’t wait around. We don’t loiter. We genuinely wait for our deliverance only if we are doing something about our self-contradicted discipleship, only if we are doing something about the inconsistencies in us that are so glaring that many people wonder if there aren’t two of us.

We must remember, in this season of Advent-waiting, that God waits for Israel to bear fruit by sparing nothing of himself to have Israel bear fruit. We wait for the final, full manifestation of our adoption as God’s sons and daughters by sparing nothing of ourselves to shed that corpse, repudiate it, which renders us grotesque at this moment. And “thanks to God through our Lord Jesus Christ”, we shall one day be rid of the burden on our back and perfectly reflect that image of God in which we were created, which image our Lord is now, and which image we cannot fail to display.

III: — Lastly, we wait with our Lord as he waits himself. We stand by him in his waiting. The book of Hebrews tells us that after Jesus Christ had offered up himself for us, “he sat down at the right hand of God, and since then has been waiting until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet.”

The reference to footstool in Hebrews 10 is borrowed from Psalm 110. Psalm 110 – about footstool and enemies – is the most frequently quoted psalm in the New Testament. This fact alone tells us that the apostles, and all Christians after them, know that enemies abound. Enemies are enemies; that is, enemies can do enormous harm.

When I was a youngster I couldn’t grasp why the psalmist spoke so very often of enemies. Was he unusually nervous, even paranoid? Now I understand. Enemies are anything that hammers us, anything that threatens to undo us, anything that assails us from without or wells up from within.

Enemies from without are easy to identify. Jesus had enemies in the religious hierarchy of Jerusalem ; he had enemies in the civil government of Rome ; enemies in the dark depths of the spirit-world; enemies among his followers (Judas, traitor), even enemies among his closest friends (Peter, whom Jesus described as satanic, on at least one occasion.) As I have read church history, I have learned that every forthright Christian spokesperson has been flayed at some point by all the enemies just mentioned.

In addition there is one enemy which you and I must contend with that our Lord never had to contend with; namely, himself. Of all the enemies who might assault us, there seems to be one who always assaults us: our very own self. More often than not we are our own worst enemy. For this reason a principal enemy, always lurking, is the enemy within.

Whether our enemy exists inside us or outside us, however, enemies are enemies. We need to identify them and resist them.

But we never have to resist them alone. Even now our Lord is at work, resisting those enemies who molest his people. To be sure, even our Lord is waiting for that day when all the enemies of his people are made his footstool. But until that day, he isn’t waiting around, loitering. On our behalf he resists those enemies he has already defeated, waiting for that day when defeated enemies are dispersed forever. We genuinely wait for our Lord only as we wait with him as he continues to resist everything that molests his people, and all of this in anticipation of that day when his enemies (ours too) have been dispersed.

Elizabeth waited during that first Advent, as well as Zechariah, Simeon and Anna. They all waited for the one who was to be the Messiah of Israel and the ruler of the cosmos. But they didn’t wait around, loiter. They were as impassionedly engaged as the God of Israel whom they knew. Therefore the only form our waiting can take is an impassioned doing of the truth.

In Advent we wait for him who came once for the world’s redemption. We wait for him who continues to come to us unfailingly day after day. We wait for him who will come again to vindicate all who are about his business now.

Victor Shepherd Advent 2006