I hate waiting. I especially don’t like waiting in lines. That’s why I avoid Black Friday. I don’t care how great the deals are–they aren’t worth the lines.
Perhaps you feel the same way. You might not mind lines, but you probably can’t stand some sort of waiting. Our modern culture forms us for immediacy, and so waiting is perceived as aberrant. Waiting is out of step, out of date, out of touch. Waiting is so last year.
I suppose this is why the modern church’s experimentation with Advent is so awkward. Advent is a time to celebrate waiting. During Advent we are called to remember what it meant for Israel to await the first coming of Christ, and learn from Israel how to wait for Christ’s second coming. But is waiting really something worth remembering, let alone celebrating? Is it not a condition to be avoided, a problem to be solved? We don’t really wait during Advent. We rush, we hurry, we eat, we plan. But we don’t wait. Or at least we don’t wait well.
This Advent I invite you to wait with me. This is the first in a series of four Advent posts, each of which will explore what it means to wait. I am going to try to overcome my distaste for waiting. I am going to try to identify what makes waiting good and explore how to wait well. Please join me in searching the Scriptures for guidance on what to wait for and how to wait well.
Let us begin with the story of a man who was waiting for the right thing, but who did not wait well.
The man’s name was Zechariah. He was a priest. He and his wife were very old. But they were also infertile. So they had been waiting a long, long time for a child.
At this point in the story they were both waiting well. The Scripture says they were upright in God’s sight and that they followed all of God’s commandments. They were waiting for the blessing of God, but they were not waiting to obey God. They knew that while we wait, we can still obey. The Scriptures also say that they had been praying to God, asking for a son. They knew that the best thing to do while waiting is praying. So while they waited, the obeyed God and prayed to God.
So, at the beginning of the story, Zechariah was waiting for God, and he was waiting well.
One day, while it was his group’s turn to serve in the temple, the lot fell to him to burn incense. While waiting for the incense to burn, the angel of the Lord appeared. It turns out Zechariah was waiting in the right place at the right time! The angel told Zechariah that his prayer had been heard: Elizabeth will bear a child! And not only that: he will be great, for he will bring many people back to God, preparing the way of the Lord!
But here is where Zechariah’s waiting went awry…
Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in year.”
It is clear from the text that this was not a good question. The angel strikes him mute because of it. But what’s wrong with this question? It seems a perfectly reasonable point to highlight the fact that his age is a significant obstacle to the fulfillment of this prophecy. Not to get ahead of ourselves, but Mary points out a similar obstacle (namely, her virginity) to a similar prophecy to the same angel, yet she is favored by God and blessed by all generations. What gives?
I think it helps to contrast their two questions — a contrast which the text invites with its juxtaposition of two similar stories. Both identify an obstacle to the angelic promise. But the questions differ ever so slightly. Mary asks, “How can this be?” whereas Zechariah asks, “How can I be sure of this?” Mary believes the promise; she just wonders how it will happen. Zechariah wants to believe the promise, but he asks for a sign to shore up his faith. He asks for some assurances, so that he doesn’t get his hopes up. Mary asks how God will work. Zechariah asks whether God will work.
This is our constant temptation when waiting on God. We ask for a sign. We ask God to make waiting easier by giving us assurances that we do not wait in vain. We are willing to wait, but we want the waiting to be a little easier. Now God gives signs from time to time. In fact, Gabriel offers the case of Elizabeth as a sign to Mary that nothing is impossible for God. But demanding a sign from God is a different matter. When we demand signs and assurances while we wait, we are not waiting well. We may be waiting for the right thing but we are not waiting in the right way. Zechariah waited on God, but he did not wait well.
Moralizing moment: don’t demand signs! It just makes this worse! He looses his voice and so is barred from sharing the prophetic promise with others. Zechariah is a warning to us of the consequences of not waiting well: when we try to make waiting easier, it just gets harder.
The grace in this story, however, is that Zechariah still received the promise. God did not take it away from him — for to do so would be to take something away from Israel. God had a bigger plan in place. But Zechariah was kept from sharing the prophecy with others. Unlike Mary, who signs her song before her promise is fulfilled, Zechariah has to wait to sign his song. But he still got to sing!
If you have demanded a sign, if your waiting has gotten worse not better, God still has something for you. The most important thing about waiting is for whom we wait. We wait for God, for his will and his blessing. When we wait for God, waiting is worthwhile. What makes waiting good is when its object is God. Zechariah got this most important thing right.
Of all the many things we await this Advent, be sure you are waiting for God above all else. We will explore in the next few posts how to wait well. We will see some other figures in Scripture who waited better than Zechariah. But at the very least we can join Zechariah in waiting for the right thing. When we wait for God, our waiting is worthwhile.