“For you I wait all day long,” the Psalmist says. But we 21st century Americans are not very good at waiting. You have no doubt noticed—and many of you have complained about—the encroachment of Christmas earlier and earlier in the year. Thanksgiving is nearly overrun; Halloween is in jeopardy; and only they stand in the way of Christmas carols decorating starting shortly after the end of back to school sales and the opening kickoff of football season. We just can’t wait.
To point out our restless eagerness for happy season is one thing. That is an understandable and forgivable impatience, and only a superficial symptom of our times. But there is an impatience that is much deeper within us, the impatience of a people so blessed with material abundance that we’re convinced we can have what we want when we want it. Walmart is there for us 24/7; Amazon Prime will have it to you in 2 days; Crosstown Kroger finally getting ClickList so we won’t have to leave our cars; Tupelo 2 Go means you don’t need to leave the house for supper; ESPN, except for the announcers, is more comfortable than the stadium; Twitter is faster than the newspaper; Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat will put your filtered face in a thousand friends’ hands; buy your ticket at the right time and you can fly to Nashville for 19 bucks. What a time to be alive! It’s all perfect and convenient–and so we think that we do not have to wait.
I will confess to you that I am not the best at waiting. Before my oldest daughter Emmy was born, Jessica and I were anxious to know if she would be a girl or boy. And so we got an early ultrasound—not from our doctor’s office but from an imaging center catering to impatient potential parents like us. When we went for our “official” ultrasound, we were a little red faced at our over eagerness, and so we faked that we were discovering for the first time that Emmy was a girl.
Harmless, I suppose—but there is a darker side to our impatience. This week you may have heard about the two Chinese twins born after their DNA had been altered with a technology called CRISPR (that’s Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats). Scientists and ethicists have roundly criticized the experiment. Francis Collins, the head of the National Institutes of Health, called it ‘a “profoundly unfortunate,” “ill-considered,” “epic scientific misadventure” that “flout[ed] international ethical norms” and was “largely carried out in secret” with “utterly unconvincing” justifications.” The story conjures fears of eugenics and designer babies. But we should be surprised that human beings, who can scarcely wait for their groceries, who want what they want now, would find in themselves a rationale for hastily experimenting with human life itself and cavalierly disregarding the cost of our impatience?
But the darkness of our own impatience tells something of why we are impatient. We are in deep need. Our impatience—even when it is unhealthy—points to something true. There is something in us that knows that the world is amiss. We live in a world of scarcity. The grocery store may be full, but if we do not regularly eat we will soon eat no more. And, indeed, no matter how many regularly meals we get, no matter how much medical technology we access, all of us, eventually, die. We are impatient because we only have so much time, and the time that we have is full of things that ought not be. And so the Psalmist cries out to God against the enemies who exult over him (v. 2), the wantonly treacherous (v. 3), and even his own sins and transgressions (v. 7). He knows that something is wrong. And do we not know it too? Do we not see our own enemies? Our world is full of rampant and pervasive evil. You know this when your heart is moved hearing about, say, the 88 people now dead from the California wildfires. Or the tens of thousands dead from the civil war in Yemen, where as much as a third of the country is at risk of famine. Or the more than 70,000 dead last year in America from opioid addiction (compared, just for reference, to around 42,000 deaths from AIDS in 1995, the worst year of that epidemic). Or the two children shot this week in front of the University of Mississippi Medical Center. And each of you I’m sure can point to tragedy and heartbreak and wrongdoing and disease and death in your own life and among your family and friends—situations that seem utterly hopeless, desperate, godforsaken. For many of us, all of us at some point or another, it’s like C. S. Lewis describes Narnia under the rule of the White Witch—“always winter but never Christmas.” We cry out with the psalm, we pray with the psalm, “Do not let me be put to shame; do not let my enemies exult over me” (v. 2). We cannot wait. We cannot wait for God to do something.
This all may seem too dark as people are starting to set out Christmas lights. But it’s important for us to look reality fully in the face. Fleming Rutledge puts it like this, ‘Hope is a central key to the meaning of Advent, but hope is a very meager concept if it is not measured against the malevolence and godlessness of the forces that assail the creation and its creatures every day in “this present evil age” (Gal. 1:4).’ The Psalm is not embarrassed or reticent about the reality of evil. Neither should we be. It is why we call out to God, why we wait for God.
But we do not wait without hope. Sometimes when we think of waiting, we think of something pointless—a waste of time—something with no guarantee on the other side. That’s not the waiting of Psalm 25. It’s not like Waiting for Godot—when Godot never arrives. Nor is it even like waiting for a call from the doctor—when you don’t know what the diagnosis will be. This is waiting with trust in God to make things right. It’s a waiting that has taken full stock of the painful reality of the world, but then said to God, “To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul. O my God, in you I trust” (vv. 1-2). Think about the implied motion there. The Psalmist, adopting the traditional Hebrew posture of prayer with uplifted hands, bears his soul itself up to God. The Psalm will call upon God to remember who he is—“be mindful of your mercy, O Lord”—but that’s a reminder that is assured of God’s “steadfast love” that has “been from of old” (v. 6). Another way you could translate “steadfast love” is “covenant faithfulness.” God has revealed who he is in his relationship with his people. The terms here—God’s mercy, God’s goodness, God’s steadfast love or covenant faithfulness—are very close to the description of God in Exodus 33 and 34. Moses asks to know God’s ways and see God’s glory. And so God tells Moses, “I will make all my goodness pass before you” (Ex 33:19) and as he does, the Lord proclaims, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness…” (Ex 34:6). God has revealed to head people a promise rooted in his very identity, and God will be faithful to that promise. And as we stand between the revelation and the fulfillment, that same God is present with us, hearing us, inviting and enabling us to call upon that covenant.
Because not only do wait not wait hopelessly. We do not wait alone. After all, it’s not as if we have run ahead of God and are waiting for God to catch up. Or that God has run so far ahead of us that he’s left us behind. According to the Psalmist, God is present. Moses asked to know God’s way, and God revealed himself to Moses; the Psalm asks God to be faithful to that same covenant identity, and then the Psalm says that God “instructs sinners in the way” (v. 8) and “leads the humble in what is right” (v. 9). There is a path to learn, a path to follow. Our waiting for God, then, isn’t just sitting still. It’s walking in the way of the Lord who has made himself known to us.
And, indeed, God has made himself known to us—and made himself known to us in a way more present and powerful even than when God passed before Moses. How does God instruct sinners, lead the humble, and demonstrate his steadfast love, his absolute faithfulness? He does it in Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us. The God we are waiting on is the God who has been with us in Jesus Christ—the one whose birth we are preparing to celebrate and whose life, death, resurrection, and ascension has shown us the promise of God’s future. It is the God we know in Jesus Christ who we wait for and call to and lift our souls to. We wait for the God we know.
Christina Rossetti’s poem “Advent Sunday” (the first selection in Malcolm Guite’s Waiting on the Word, one of our recommended Advent devotionals) captures this beautifully. Here are the first few stanzas of the poem, which draws from the imagery of the parable of the Ten Virgins in Matthew 25, a parable about Jesus’s own arrival and judgment:
“His Hands are Hands she knows, she knows His Side.” We are not waiting on an unknown, distant, detached god—a god removed from human life. We are waiting for a God who knows what it is to be us—a God with hands and a side, hands and a side that are wounded on the cross for us.
The God we know in Jesus isn’t just a God that we wait for; the God we know in Jesus is a God who waits for us and waits with us. God waits for us and with us in the cross, where he faces the full reality of the world’s evil and hopelessness godforsakeness, because God himself becomes godforsaken on the cross. All our waiting is not enough; we cannot solve the evils of the world, because as the Psalm reminds us our sins and transgressions are part of the problem. “Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me.” We need God to separate our wrongdoing from ourselves. Our waiting won’t get us there. But God’s waiting for us is all sufficient, and so when we wait for God we are anticipating the faithfulness of the God who has already proven faithful to us—Jesus’s past in his death and resurrection and Jesus’ future return meeting us with hope in the present. That’s what we remember in Advent. We return to Fleming Rutledge: “The hope that we meet coming toward us in Advent, then, is the hope that lies beyond any possible good news that could arise out of the human situation. It must come to us out fo the future of God or not at all.”
God waits for us and with us to deal with the reality of the world. There is a beautiful picture of this right now in St. Paul’s Cathedral in Melbourne, Australia. Or, more accurately speaking, there is a beautiful sculpture of this called “Not A Creature Was Stirring” by Ben Quilty. The sculpture is a Christmas tree and presents made from the life vests of Syrian refugees scavenged from the beach on a trip that Quilty took with World Vision International. Quilty says that the goal of the sculpture is to “reignite compassion” to respond to crises like that of the Syrian refugees. If we’re going to be instructed in the way of the Lord, we would do well to listen to that message. But here too in the sculpture we have another image of what it is to be met by the God we’re waiting for. The dark reality of the world—lifejackets worn by refugees from a savage war—meets the bright hope of tomorrow, imaged in a Christmas tree. Andreas Loewe,the dean of the Melbourne cathedral, put it this way: “Ben’s tree of life-jackets is a sign what it means to be saved – literally being snatched from death to be given a new life.”
We are snatched from death and given new life by the one whose paths are steadfast love and faithfulness, the steadfast love and faithfulness of God revealed to us in Jesus. That’s what we’re waiting for. That’s what we’re lifting up our souls to God for. That is the hope of Advent. That is the promise of the Gospel.