Recently, someone was explaining to me how much faster the latest generation of computers are. In response, I asked an embarrassingly uncool question: “Why? Why do they need to be that fast?” But even a technological dinosaur like me complains if a computer is too slow.
Despite my rather low expectations of technology, I should confess that I am not a very patient person. My wife recently pointed out to me how often I say to her when we go to a store together: “Dear, let’s do this quick!”
Many of us aren’t very good at waiting. And we do a lot of waiting at this time of year. Waiting in long shopping checkout lines. Waiting to find a parking spot at the mall or at Costco. The younger among us can hardly wait for Christmas to come! And many dislike waiting through what the Church has historically called Advent.
Last week, I saw a cartoon entitled “Drive Through Christmas.” Underneath the golden arches, there’s a big sign: “McChristmas.” The caption: “One ‘Christmas Joy Combo’ — super-sized. Hold the Advent.”
You see, in the ancient Church, Advent was a time of abstaining from public festivity in order to prepare for the holy day of Christmas. The twelve days of Christmas, so called, didn’t begin till Christmas Day. One author complains: “We have our Christmas early and create a drive-thru Christmas.” But it’s hard to wait, isn’t it?! It’s hard to wait for God.
We are often in an incredible hurry. But God is not. Have you discovered that? We want things to happen now if not sooner. God seems to take His time.
Some people may be saying: “Yeah, but I’ve waited long enough for God to act! And I don’t see anything good coming out of all this waiting!” Some of you are waiting to see if chemotherapy or radiation will work. Some of you are waiting on news which will dramatically impact your future. Some of you are waiting on job applications. Some of you are waiting for your prayers to be answered — at least to be answered in the way that we think God should answer them.
All this waiting is difficult. But even in the waiting, God is at work in our lives. Can we accept that? Can we trust that is true?
But there’s nothing quite like waiting for the arrival of a baby. Even while the expectant mother waits, God is at work within her forming and shaping the life of that baby. As much as a mere 54 year old man can feel it, our first grandchild has given me a heightened sensitivity to what it means to be pregnant and waiting for a baby. From the time that our daughter and son-in-law made a special trip to Seattle to give us news that they were expecting, we, along with them, waited for this first grandchild.
Conception is the promise. Delivery and birth fulfill that promise. But between promise and fulfillment, there are months of waiting, expecting and planning, along with months of developing discomfort, uncertainty and even anxiety. Waiting is hard. You recently pregnant mothers and fathers know this. Luke’s story of the first Advent is about two pregnant couples, two sets of parents-in-waiting. But we’ll get to that story in just a minute.
First, let me take you to a generation or so after Jesus. Here’s one of His brothers. James, now leader of the church in Jerusalem, writes to believers, specifically to Christian Jews scattered among the nations of that world. They had probably been scattered by persecution. Mostly poor people, these Believers had experienced injustice from the wealthy. The rich of that world misused the poor for their own benefit. The affluent wanted to preserve and expand their assets at the expense of the poor. Does that sound at all familiar?
In James’ day, it wasn’t easy to be a believer in Jesus. Jesus had promised to return soon. But disciples of Jesus were still waiting for that promise to be fulfilled. “Be patient, then, brothers and sisters,” writes James. “Be patient until the Lord’s coming.”
“What time is it?” That’s the question we’re asking during this Advent season. I hear James saying: “It’s time to wait!” It’s time to learn waiting with patience.
Now James doesn’t use the stories of Zechariah and Elizabeth or Joseph and Mary to illustrate the importance of waiting. James uses other Old Testament illustrations. But James could have used these stories of the first Advent to support his exhortation: “Be patient, then, brothers and sisters….” For here in Luke 1 are these two pregnant women waiting and learning patience in their waiting. I’m sure they waited like all pregnant women wait. For them, it was even worse than for most because these were at-risk pregnancies. One of them was an older, post-menopausal woman named Elizabeth. The other was an unmarried teenager at the time of conception. And it was unclear to most people who the father was. Both of these life-situations make for complicated pregnancies.
First, here are Zechariah and Elizabeth, New Testament counterparts of Abraham and Sarah. Zach and Betty, as I sometimes call them, have not been able to have children. Year after year goes by without a baby. They wait and they just keep on trying to have a child. That’s what couples did before the days of high-tech fertility procedures. But at some point in their lives, they pretty much gave up hope of children. They’re old now — both of them.
I can’t prove it, but I imagine Zechariah and Elizabeth continue to be positive and hopeful people. They can’t have a baby. That’s sad! But that isn’t all there is to life. Furthermore, I don’t see Zach and Betty fussing, grumbling and complaining to each other. I don’t see Zach blaming Betty or vice versa. I see them growing older gracefully. I see them continuing to treat each other with consideration and care.
It was in this God-oriented home that, despite delay, God acted to accomplish His purposes. “Your wife will bear you a son,” the angel tells the old priest. “But I’m an old man and my wife is an old woman,” Zechariah exclaims to the angel. It’s a promise so amazing, so unusual, that Zach can’t believe it.
And because of his unbelief, Zechariah is unable to speak for the whole time of Elizabeth’s pregnancy. Because he can’t say anything, people probably think he isn’t all there, that he’s a little touched in the head, you know.
Imagine how hard this waiting time is for Zechariah. But the promise begins to come true. Elizabeth does become pregnant. “The Lord has done this for me,” she exclaims.
This great story of waiting comes to fulfillment when John, later known as the Baptizer, is born. And finally, old Zechariah can speak again. “Be patient, my bothers and sisters,” writes James.
I. Wait for the Lord despite delay
That is one of two messages from James lived out in the stories of the first Advent. Wait for the Lord despite delay.
“Here’s a farmer,” says this brother of Jesus. “No farmer can rush the harvest. The farmer watches and looks and waits for the seasonal rains. Sometimes, the rains don’t come right when you expect or hope they will come. And even when the rains do come, it still takes time for the harvest to mature.”
“Like the farmer,” says James, “be patient even in the face of delay.” Be patient as you continue to look for the Lord’s return. Also, be patient in the midst of trials because they can build character and maturity into the Believer’s life.
One theme of this little book is our hope of becoming mature and complete in Christ. Set your heart on becoming mature and complete, all the while awaiting the final fulfillment of this good desire in the return of Jesus. When He returns, He’ll complete whatever is lacking in our maturity. So wait for the Lord despite delay. Keep your eyes fixed on Him and His promised return.
In light of that reality, the difficulties you experience will become more bearable because you know they’re not forever. There is light at the end of the tunnel even though the tunnel seems to go on and on. One of the great sayings of the Bible is: “And it came to pass….” And what will patient waiting despite delay look like in practice? “Don’t grumble against each other,” says James. “Don’t complain against one another and condemn one another.”
One writer makes the application: “Christians lose patience with each other under…pressures, and the Church becomes infected with a readiness to criticize and blame.” When things get difficult, when the fulfillment of God’s promise seems to be delayed, it’s easy to turn against one another. But that’s not the kind of waiting God desires for us. Wait for the Lord despite delay. And wait patiently, without grumbling against one another.
Here’s the other pregnant couple in Luke 1 — Joseph and Mary. In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sends the angel Gabriel to Nazareth in Galilee. Here’s this teenage girl, betrothed to be married to Joseph, the town carpenter and the angel announces: “You will be with child and give birth to a son….”
“But,” she exclaims “how will this be?! I’m not an old woman like Elizabeth. But I’m still a virgin! Angel, sir, don’t you understand biology?!”
“It will be a God-thing,” the angel tells Mary.
But imagine young Mary, soon after she becomes pregnant. “Morning sickness, Lord? The angel didn’t tell me that would come! And I’m so tired! How come You aren’t delivering me from the unpleasant side-effects of bearing Your child?”
Then, think of all the stuff that goes on in Mary’s family. Think of the heated family conferences between Mary and her parents. Think of the anguished interaction between Mary and Joseph, her betrothed. Think of averted faces and judging looks Mary must have received in small-town Nazareth, where rumor ran wild and people made quick judgments about her.
“Lord, I thought I was just going to carry Your child. You didn’t tell me this would be so complicated, so hard!”
Then, there’s the census, requiring that exhausting, dangerous trip from Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlehem in Judea, some 90-100 miles by the most typical route. There are no planes or trains, no buses or cars. Most pictures have Mary riding a donkey. But there’s no donkey in the Bible narrative that I can find.
Mary may have had to walk many of the long miles. This was a late-term, pregnant woman. And that wasn’t easy for her or for Joseph.
In Bethlehem, “no vacancy” signs are everywhere. As Mary goes into labor, their only refuge is in a cattle barn. “Lord, is this the reward I get for agreeing to be Your servant?” Mary might have inquired. “Lord, is this what I get for being submissive to Your will?”
Do you think Mary lamented the trouble she went through in giving birth to Jesus? If so, she was in good company. David and other psalmists lamented the hard things they experienced. We could paraphrase some lines in the psalms of lament with this exclamation: “Lord, this just plain stinks!” But these suffering poets usually came to the place of saying: “What’s going on stinks! Yet Lord, I trust you anyway.”
One day, Teresa of Avila, a 16th century Spanish nun, was protesting to God over the seemingly unjust suffering of a good person. God seemed to say to St. Teresa: “That’s how I treat all My friends.” To this she replied, “Well Lord, now I understand why You have so few of them.”
Waiting for God through difficult situations is hard, very hard. And during the time of waiting, we do well to resort to the tried and true pattern of lamenting to God — not complaining to other people, but lamenting to God.
The first lesson from James against the background of the wonderful Advent stories of Luke 1 is Wait for the Lord despite delay. Here’s the second:
II. Wait for the Lord despite difficulty
James’ readers knew all about difficulty. They were the poor of that world. They were the persecuted of that world. “Think of the prophets,” James reminds these readers. “Take the old prophets as your mentors. They put up with anything, went through everything and never once quit, all the time honoring God” (The Message).
And think of Job! Watch the hurricane of horrible happenings hit him. Despite all the trouble which befell Job, and despite well-meaning, but misguided so called “comforters,” Job persevered in keeping his life turned toward God. Job refused to curse God.
In the prophets and in Job, there’s a three-fold progression. There’s difficulty or suffering. That led to the human response of perseverance, which, in turn, led to the outcome of blessing. “We consider blessed those who have persevered,” says James.
Use these characters as examples and mentors as you face difficulty. James is barely into his little book when he declares: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds.” Wow! What a way to look at trouble!
Why should we take such a radically counter-cultural view of trouble? Because difficulty can develop perseverance, and perseverance can lead you to the blessing of maturity and completeness. Difficulty, perseverance, blessing.
Someone has warned: “Be careful of praying for patience.” For patience only comes through tribulation. Think about that next time you pray to be patient! Wait for the Lord despite delay. Wait for the Lord despite difficulty. That’s what James tells us. That’s what the stories of Zechariah and Elizabeth and Joseph and Mary tell us.
Maybe our stories need to parallel theirs. What do you think? Could it be that when we try to rush the fulfillment of God’s promises, we can actually short-circuit what God really wants for us? Could it be that even in the uncertainty, even in the confusion associated with delay, God is developing our character? And that character development is more important than what it is we’re waiting for?
The process is often more valuable than the end product. Think about that. God is in the business of developing character, not just in giving us what we think we need and want.
Could it be that through the difficult circumstances that sometimes accompany waiting, in fact, only through those difficult circumstances, we can become the people our God wants us to be? Could it be that through waiting, we can learn to trust God more completely?
So what are the story-lines of our lives these days? Do we sometimes feel like our story is stuck on the pause button? Maybe we feel like we’re stuck on the button marked suffering? Are we weary of waiting? Are we tired of adversity? Maybe you’re having a hard time dealing with the atmosphere of good cheer and happiness at this season because of what you’re personally going through? Sometimes, during this time of year, we put on a happy face while inside, we cry.
Remember this: Advent tells again how important it is to wait patiently for God, to wait even through difficulty. But Advent also points beyond the waiting to receiving the fulfillment of God’s promise, and to experiencing the wonder of God’s blessing.
“Be patient, then, brothers and sisters, until the Lord’s coming.” It’s time to wait for God — despite the delay — despite the difficulty.

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