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Those of you who have been in the service know what I mean. You remember the old slogan, "Hurry up and wait." There is the story of a young soldier who, along with a number of others, was about to get his discharge papers. As it came his turn, the sergeant looked up from his desk. "Well, boy, I'm finally rid of you. I never liked you; you never liked me. I'll bet you can't wait till I die so you can come back and spit on my grave."
The boy replied, "Don't worry about that, Sarge, after today I will never STAND IN LINE again." Dream on.
Some people constantly MAKE others wait. Just a week and a half ago, the Bill Clinton's new Presidential Library was officially opened in Little Rock. You probably saw snippets of the dedication ceremony on the news. Former President Jimmy Carter was among those who spoke. He said,
I am...here to express my admiration for the great leader whose name it bears and whose records it holds. There is a special tie that binds those of us together who have lived and served in the White House and then moved on to other things, retired either as required by the Constitution or involuntarily as a result of elections. My life has been closely intertwined with Bill Clinton's. The first time I met Bill was exactly 30 years ago when I was governor and charged with helping Democratic candidates throughout the nation. I came to meet an unknown Congressional candidate in Little Rock, in a Little Rock hotel. It may be a surprise to some of you to learn that he was late for the appointment.(1)Everyone laughed. Bill Clinton is NOTORIOUS for keeping people waiting. "Clinton time" is how he reads a clock.
An editorial in Time magazine a ways back called waiting a form of imprisonment - "one is doing time - but why? One is being punished not for an offense of one's own but often for the inefficiencies of those who impose the wait...Aside from boredom and physical discomfort, the subtler misery of waiting is the knowledge that one's most precious resource, time, a fraction of one's life, is being stolen away, irrecoverably lost."(2)
Waiting is particularly tough on children. How many times have we heard our kids whine from the back seat, "Daddy, when will we be there?" This time of year the query is, "How many days till Christmas?" Perhaps those questions are good preparation for the waiting that unavoidably lies ahead.
Waiting is a way of life. There is no way any of us could ever be rich enough or powerful enough to control time to such an extent that we never ever have to wait.
In terms of our faith, there are sometimes terribly long waits for God. We pray for deliverance from some disastrous illness or family situation for ourselves or some loved one, but that deliverance seems to take forever to arrive. We wait. We pray for food for starving Africans one year, donate money and technology to help wipe that famine out, then a couple of years later, see those same people starving again. We wonder why...and we wait. We pray for peace and justice in the world, try to do our part, but then look around to see that nothing much has changed. We wait some more. One could get very discouraged with a God who makes us wait so much.
Of course, that problem goes back a long way. Centuries ago the Psalmist cried out, "How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long?"(3) Waiting was just as tough for the ancients as it is for us.
But then the words of Galatians jump out at us: "when the time had fully come, God sent his son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons." WHEN THE TIME HAD FULLY COME. WHAT time? GOD'S time. Granted, we would prefer that God work according to OUR schedule, but that rarely seems to happen.
Why? Is God just inconsiderate like some celestial Bill Clinton? Or perhaps God is terribly inefficient like the temporary clerks hired for Christmas by department stores. Maybe God is just mean!
No, we would not want to say any of those things. We do not believe them. We believe in a God who loves us so much that we have been invited to be a part of the divine family, to be adopted as children, as Paul says. And to that end, God sent Jesus...WHEN THE TIME HAD FULLY COME. Perhaps God expects us to develop that virtue called patience.
A minister's wife asked the young girls in her Sunday School class to define patience. One of them raised her hand and said, "Patience is when you are sitting in church and the preacher is preaching. You're just sitting there and he is preaching. He keeps preaching and you keep sitting there. That's patience." Well, perhaps.
According to Mr. Webster, patience can be defined in two ways. First, it is "the power to WAIT for a hoped-for good." Waiting again. That hoped-for good might take any number of forms. It could be the power to wait for Christmas to come, or for the plane that is bringing the love of your life in for the holidays, or any number of good things.
The second thing Mr. Webster says about patience is that it is "the power to suffer and to endure." That is the kind of patience we think of whenever old Job comes to mind. Here was a man who suffered and endured FAR beyond anything most of the rest of us will ever experience - the death of his children, the loss of his property, the ruin of his health, and on top of that, the snide barbs of his closest friends. Even his wife advised him to "curse God and die." But Job hung in there. He was willing to wait. In the midst of all his pain and trouble he was able to say, "The Lord gives and the Lord takes away; blessed be the name of the Lord." He even said, "Shall I receive good at the hand of God and not evil?" He affirmed that everything did not have to come to him "right side up," that he could trust God not only in prosperity but in adversity as well. That is why we talk about Job as the paradigm of patience. He had "the power to suffer and endure."
But the question arises, "Why bother?" What is such a big deal about waiting for a hoped-for good? What is so special about any power to suffer and endure? Is there any real value in it? Most people think so. Shakespeare wrote in Othello, "How poor are they that have no patience." Kafka wrote, "The greatest sin is IMpatience." The Apostle Paul even called it one of the lovely products of that garden of a Christ-filled life: "The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience..." There MUST be value there.
Truth is that patience is essential to success in virtually every area of life. Think how patient a man like Columbus had to be to search for a new route to the East. Think how patient Thomas Edison had to be to have 50,000 experiments fail before he finally developed the storage battery. Think how patient a man like Robert Frost was who wrote poetry for more than 20 years before ever selling a volume of his work. Think how much patience it takes to properly raise a child. Patience is one of the keys to success. "Good things come to those who WAIT," and all that.
All right, if patience is such a virtue, how do we go about acquiring it. First of all, we must to WANT it. Patience is a child of the desire. Some folks do not want it. I recall an old Charlie Brown comic strip that has Lucy on her knees in prayer asking for more patience and understanding, then jumping up abruptly, dashing into the kitchen for a glass of milk and explaining that she quit so quickly because she was afraid she might get what she prayed for. Lucy equated patience with being a doormat. Scripture would not agree with that. After all, the writers of the Bible looked upon the achieving of patience as something greatly worthwhile. The author of Hebrews tells us to "run with PATIENCE the race that is set before us."(4) Paul instructs us not to "grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest-time, if we do not give up."(5) We have already said that the Bible teaches that patience is one of the fruits of a Spirit-filled life. If we would cultivate patience, we first must WANT it.
Patience is also a child of prayer (although not Lucy's kind of prayer). If we would really be patient, we will spend time in sharing our anxieties, our frustration about having to wait, with the Lord. It does not have to involve a lot of time. It might be minutes rather than hours; it might consist of odd moments throughout the day. But those brief moments can tell us not to worry, that everything really IS on course whether it might be obvious or not. As the hymnwriter has it:
Oh, what needless pain we bear,
All because we do not carry
Everything to God in prayer.(6)
But, most importantly, patience is a child of faith. If we would develop patience, we will remember in whom we ultimately trust. For old Job, of course, faith was the KEY to his legendary patience. What finally got Job through all his troubles was the confidence he had in his Lord. Do you remember what he said? "Though he slay me, yet will I trust him." Now that is faith.
Isaiah understood that. That is why he could urge patience to a nation in captivity in Babylon. That is why he could say "Those who WAIT for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not grow weary; they shall walk and not faint."(7) The Psalmist understood it. In the face of the assaults of enemies from all sides, he could write, "WAIT for the Lord; be strong and let your heart take courage; WAIT for the Lord."(8)
Have faith in God and wait;
Although He linger long,
He never comes too late.(9)
Yes, waiting is a part of the human experience. It is a part of the Christian experience. It is a part of what we feel during the season of Advent...COME ON, CHRISTMAS! Despite what we might wish, God has never been some sort of heavenly butler ready to respond to our every wish. To be sure God DOES respond..."when the time had fully come." But we are forced to note that the response often comes in ways that we do not expect. For generations, the people of faith had prayed for the promised Messiah - God sent a baby. They had prayed for someone who could overwhelm their enemies - God sent them to a manger. They had prayed for a conquering hero riding on a white horse and wearing a golden crown - God sent someone on a donkey who would wear a crown of thorns.
Was it worth the wait? Some did not think so and thus rejected the claims of Christ. But millions of others HAVE thought so, and we have cast our lot with the God who occasionally has us wait, because we know that one day, the time will fully come, the questions will be answered, the waiting will be over, and we shall see Jesus face to face.
2. Lance Morrow, "Waiting as a Way of Life," Time, July 23, 1984, p. 65
3. Psalm 13:1-2a
4. Hebrews 12:1
5. Galatians 6:9
6. Charles C. Converse, "What a Friend We Have in Jesus"
7. Isaiah 40:31
8. Psalm 27:14
9. Walter B. Knight, Knight's Master Book of New Illustrations, (Eerdmans Publishing, Grand Rapids, 1956), p. 458