One of those moments was hearing my friend preach for the first time. In her truly excellent sermon, my friend talked about waiting: the people of ancient Israel waiting for the coming of the messiah; us every Advent waiting for Christmas and the celebration of the birth of our Lord; Christian people through the ages waiting for Christ’s return and the establishment of God’s kingdom. My friend said that Advent—the season we are in now—is all about waiting, waiting for God, waiting as a spiritual practice.
After listening to my friend’s sermon—twice!—I began my journey home. It took twelve hours, nearly half of which I spent in the Charlotte airport. Waiting.
As I sat through those interminable hours, I was reminded once again of an ugly fact about myself: I am terrible at waiting. I hate sitting there with nothing to do. I hate it when other people control my time. I hate sitting there, thinking about how much work I have to do, or about how much I want to rest, or about what fun I might be having, and instead just waiting for time to pass.
This is not new. Many is the time poor Nicholas has begged me to wait in the car when I pick him up from school, and I just can’t do it. I always go looking for him. Now, if I pick him up, he basically runs outside in a desperate effort to keep me from coming in and being visible to his friends.
If anything, I was worse as a child. I still remember my wild impatience when I had to wait for food to come in restaurants. To this day, I am not a good dinner date, as Carrie can attest, to her misfortune.
I may be an extreme case. But I am not a unique one. Everything in our culture is speeding up. We want what we want, and we want it now. Few of us are very good at waiting.
And that may not matter too much most of the time. But it is a problem in our relationship with God because God does not work on our time-table. If we want to know God better, if we want to grow in the knowledge and the love of God, like it or not, we have to do some waiting. As Psalm 130 says, “”I wait for the Lord, my soul waits….My soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning” (130:5-6).
And—bad news for people like me—a lot depends on how we wait. We can see that in our readings for this morning.
As is often the case, we need a bit of historical background to make sense of our passage from Isaiah. Ahaz was the king of God’s people, a descendant of David ruling from Jerusalem. Two more populous and powerful kingdoms have formed an alliance to depose Ahaz and install a puppet king. Ahaz and his advisers were terrified.
God sends the prophet Isaiah to give Ahaz some good news: God will intervene to save the day. All Ahaz has to do is wait. Speaking through Isaiah, God invites Ahaz to ask for a sign of the deliverance that God is promising.
But Ahaz is not willing to wait. Ahaz has his own plans, and so he refuses to ask for a sign. It is a mistake. But surely we have all felt the same sometimes. We need help, and God seems so far away, and we simply cannot wait any longer.
In fact, God does deliver Ahaz from the immediate threat, just as Isaiah promised. But the chain of events that Ahaz set in motion was catastrophic for his kingdom. They lost their independence and were soon totally overrun. So much for the impatience that refuses to wait for God.
And that is a lesson for us. Waiting may be hard. But if we go our own way without regard for God’s will, if we ignore God’s direction and refuse to wait for God’s guidance, we are likely to go astray.
Our Psalm offers a better image of waiting for God. In this case, we do not know the specific background. But clearly things were not good in Israel. Unlike Ahaz, the Psalmist looks to God for deliverance. The Psalmist prays—three times—“Restore us, O God of hosts; show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.”
And the Psalmist cries out, “how long?” “O Lord, God of hosts, how long will you be angered?” How long will we have to wait for your redemption?
It is a good prayer, certainly better than anything Ahaz did. The Psalmist is waiting for God—maybe a little impatiently, but that is understandable enough.
We may not use those exact words, but probably all of us have prayed like that. We pray, and we wait, and we hope. We wait, maybe impatiently, but we wait for the Lord and hope that God will come to our aid.
So far so good. But our readings invite us to go deeper.
Even though Ahaz refused to ask for a sign, Isaiah gives him one: a child named Immanuel, which means, God with us. The sign of God with him should have given Ahaz comfort in his fear.
Seven hundred years later, Joseph, another descendant of David, has his own problem: a fiancée pregnant with someone else’s child. And Joseph too is given a sign, the same sign, a child named Immanuel, which means God with us. And this child, Mary’s child, is literally Immanuel, God with us.
And unlike Ahaz, Joseph accepts the sign with gratitude, and sticks with Mary, and names the child Jesus, and protects the holy family from Herod’s fury, and raises the child as his own—adopted son of Joseph, son of David.
And that sign, the child Immanuel which means God with us, is the most important lesson of all about how to wait.
Our world and our lives are not always as we would wish. We pray to God for help. And we wait. Particularly in this season of Advent, we wait for the Lord to come who will set all things right.
But in the meantime, we too are given a sign to help us wait a little more patiently. We too are given the sign of Immanuel, which means God with us. Like Ahaz 2700 years ago, like Joseph 2000 years ago, we are invited—by God!!—to take comfort in the promise that God is with us. God with us is the deep meaning of Christmas.
And God comes in surprising forms. And God answers our prayers in surprising ways. And sometimes God’s answers don’t look much like answers at all. And yet, through it all, we have the promise, we have the sign, that God is with us. And, at the very least, God’s presence with us should make us a little more patient as we wait for more.
And so, on this fourth Sunday of Advent, in this season of waiting, my prayer for us is that we learn to wait patiently for God. And that, as we wait, we remember always that God is, in fact, with us the whole time.
In the name of Christ, Immanuel, God with us. Amen.