December 13, 2020
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR?
The third in a series of four.
“Waiting is the hardest work of hope.” Lewis Smedes said that. Waiting isn’t easy. It’s hard. And it’s not just hard. It’s not just harder. It’s hardest – the hardest work of hope.
But there is one thing that makes this hardest work just a little easier. That one thing is the thing you are waiting for.
For example, in 1977 the Portland Trailblazers won the NBA Championship. There is no more fanatic fan of the Portland Trailblazers than me. So when it was announced that a limited number of tickets would be made available at a certain time, in a certain place, I was there. I was there at 4 o’clock in the morning, if memory serves. So you would think I would have been first in line. I wasn’t. I was behind a lot of people. As a matter of fact, after hours of waiting, when I finally got to the front of the line, the guy in front of me got the last ticket. Which was disappointing, but do I regret waiting in line all that time? No. Because the possibility of being in Memorial Coliseum to see my favorite team on the way to their one and only championship made it worth it.
Last month, I voted. I was one who waited until election day. Most years, it takes about 5 minutes. No line at all. But, as you know, this was not most years. It was a long line. It was a long wait. Like an hour. But I didn’t mind too much. And I didn’t see a single person who was waiting in line with me give up and leave. Because we were waiting to exercise our cherished right to vote. What we were waiting for made the wait worthwhile.
There are many stories in the Bible about waiting. We’ve already mentioned Anna and Simeon, and Sarah and Abraham. There is also the story of Jacob and Rachel. It’s a love story, but it’s also a story about waiting.
Because when Jacob falls in love with Rachel, he doesn’t get to marry her until he has worked for her father, Laban for seven years. That’s a long time to wait. Especially when you’re in love. But it says the seven years “seemed like only a few days to him because of his love for [Rachel]” (Genesis 29:20).
It turns out Laban is pretty much the worst father-in-law ever. Because after seven years of waiting for Rachel, Jacob thinks he is marrying Rachel. But he isn’t. He is marrying Rachel’s sister, Leah. She has a veil over her face. Or maybe it was a mask. Maybe they had a mask mandate back then.
Laban had the whole thing planned. Then he acts so innocent about it. He says, “Oh I thought you knew. Our custom is that the younger daughter marries first. But if you still want to marry my older daughter, Rachel, you can. Just seven more years.”
Seven plus seven is fourteen. Fourteen years of waiting! But Jacob is willing to wait, because Rachel is worth waiting for.
This question, “What are you waiting for?” is an important one. So, what are you waiting for?
One of my favorite quotes comes from Reinhold Niebuhr. It’s about what is truly worth waiting for and what we need while we wait:
Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime;
Therefore we must be saved by hope.
Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in the immediate context of history;
Therefore we must be saved by faith.
Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone;
Therefore we must be saved by love.
No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint;
Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness.
Some things are worth waiting for. In fact, some things are worth building your life upon. That’s what we’re going to talk about today. We’re going to take this question, “What are you waiting for?” and look at it through the lens of another deep question: “What is the purpose of my life?” We’re going to get at this through this passage from Psalm 33.
No king is saved by the power of his army; no warrior escapes by his great strength. A horse is a vain hope for deliverance; despite all its great strength, it cannot save. But the eyes of the Lord are on those who fear him, on those whose hope is in his unfailing love, to deliver them from death and keep them alive in famine. We wait in hope for the Lord; he is our help and our shield (33:16-20).
In other words, who gets my trust? God or me? When you boil it down, it’s really that simple. We can make it a lot more complicated, and we usually do. But whatever rabbit hole we might think we need to explore first, it comes back to this. There are two alternatives. Just two.
Alternative one: It’s all about me. My gifts, my talent, my ability, my work, my intelligence, my determination, my achievements, my money, my good deeds. We might call this the “do it yourself” approach to life.
I’ve always admired people who can do it themselves. The spring on our garage door broke awhile back. Someone had told me that this is one repair you don’t want to attempt yourself. You can die. So I called in an expert who put in the new spring for me.
Then I was talking to David Healea. The spring broke on his garage door. He didn’t call in an expert. He fixed it himself. He didn’t die. If you can do it yourself, you can save a lot of money. “Do it yourself” works in many areas of life, but “do it yourself” does not work very well at all in life itself. And yet a lot of people live that way. Alternative One has a big following.
Think of it this way. People who wouldn’t think of doing it themselves on a home repair, or a car repair, or even doing their own taxes, don’t have any problem at all with doing it themselves when it comes to their one and only life.
David Brooks says that most of us care more about what it says on our résumé than what will be said about us in our eulogy. Our résumés list our skills, our strengths, our successes, our degrees, our awards, what we have done, what we are capable of doing, what we will do for you and your company if you hire me. It’s all about me and how great I am.
We live for our résumé, and then we die, and our résumé doesn’t mean so much. You don’t want someone reading your résumé at your funeral, I don’t think. You can have a really good résumé and live a really awful life. Your eulogy is about who you were, not what you did. It’s about your inner character. How you treated people, how you helped people, how you how you left this world a better place.
There is a lot in the Bible about “do it yourself résumé salvation.” Sometimes called “works righteousness.” The wisdom in the Bible is that “works righteousness” doesn’t work. Not in the long run. We can have it all – wealth, education, accomplishments, looks, talent, connections, fame. It might be nice while it lasts but it doesn’t last. Jesus said, “What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his own soul?” (Matthew 16:26) One day I am going to stand before God, and really don’t think God is going to be very impressed by my résumé.
But there is another way. Alternative Two. Not armies and horses and power and my amazing ability to make things happen.
But the eyes of the Lord are on those who fear him, on
those whose hope is in his unfailing love, to deliver them
from death . . . We wait in hope for the Lord (Psalm 33:18-20).
The opposite of “do it yourself salvation” is grace.
For by grace you have been saved, through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God – not because of works, so that no one can boast (Ephesians 2:8-9).
Two alternatives. As different as night and day. What are you waiting for? What is the purpose of your life? Your amazing works or God’s amazing grace?
We even find this in the Christmas story. You know these words by heart: “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled.” The most powerful man on earth. No one had a résumé that came close. Did you know Caesar Augustus was actually called “Savior of the World?” So what is he up to in the Christmas story? He is taking a world-wide census. And why is he taking a world-wide census? So he can collect more taxes. He had plenty of money, but he needed more. So he could have a bigger army, stronger horses, better weapons. But remember what it says in Psalm 33? “A king is not saved by the size of his army.”
Then we have some shepherds. You remember them, “out in the field, keeping watch over their flocks by night.” They do not have impressive résumés. They are the lowest of the low. Shepherds in that day could not testify in court. Who would believe a common shepherd? They were considered dishonest. And dirty. They didn’t count for much in the eyes of most in that day.
Caesar Augustus needs money for his army. That’s how the story begins. But that’s not how it ends. Angels don’t come to him. They come to these humble shepherds so they can be first to hear the good news:
For unto you is born in the city of David a Savior who is Christ the Lord.
A Savior? I thought Caesar Augustus was Savior. How could this be? A poor baby lying in a manger, next to farm animals, next to shepherds, in a world ruled by Caesar. But today, nobody calls Caesar Savior. Billions of people call Jesus that. And the number is growing every day.
He’s the one we are waiting for on this Third Sunday of Advent. His way is “the Way and the Truth and the Life” (John 14:6). His way is the way of grace, not the way of works.
I mentioned Henri Nouwen two weeks ago; he’s the guy with the circus friends. He learned from them how the flyer, the one who lets go of the trapeze, flies through the air in patient trust waiting for the catcher to catch him. Here is another story he tells.
He was getting tired of living among the highest of the high achievers, teaching at Harvard and Yale. He found himself doing what everyone else was doing, living a “do it yourself” life. He has to get away. So the final years of his life were lived in a community with people who were living with cognitive and physical challenges. I think of our Simply Worship community here at church. This was not Harvard. This was not Yale. This was a community called Daybreak.
It was there that he learned what salvation by grace really means. He learned how to stop trying to earn love from God and to just live in God’s love. The story is told in a book he called Life of the Beloved.
Shortly before I started a prayer service, Janet, a handicapped member of our community, said to me, “Henri, can you give me a blessing?” I responded in a somewhat automatic way by tracing with my thumb the sign of the cross on her forehead. Instead of being grateful, however, she protested vehemently. “No, that doesn’t work! I want a real blessing.”
I suddenly became aware of the rote quality of my response to her request and said, “Oh, I’m sorry. Let me give you a real blessing when we’re all together for the prayer service.” She nodded with a smile. I realized something special was required.
After the service, about 30 people were sitting on the floor. I said, “Janet has asked for a special blessing. She feels she needs it now.” As I was saying this, I didn’t know what Janet really wanted, but Janet didn’t leave me in doubt. As soon as I had spoken, she stood up and walked toward me. I was wearing a long white robe with long sleeves covering my hands as well as my arms. Spontaneously, Janet put her arms around me and put her head against my chest. Without thinking, I covered her with my sleeves so that she almost vanished in the folds of my robe.
As we held each other, I said, “Janet, I want you to know that you are God’s beloved daughter. You are precious in God’s eyes. Your beautiful smile, your kindness to the people in the house, all the good things you do, show us what a beautiful human being you are. I know you feel a little low these days and that there is some sadness in your heart, but I want you to remember who you are, a very special person, deeply loved by God and all the people who are here with you.”
As I said those words, Janet raised her head and looked at me, and her broad smile showed she had really heard and received the blessing. When she returned to her place, Jane, another handicapped woman, raised her hand and said, “I want a blessing too.” She stood up and before I knew it had put her face against my chest. After I had spoken words of blessing to her, many more of the handicapped people followed, expressing the same desire to be blessed.
The most touching moment, however, came when one of the assistant staff members, a 24-year-old student, raised his hand and said, “What about me?” “Sure,” I said, “you come.” And I put my arms around him and said, “John, you are God’s beloved child. Your presence is a joy. When things are hard and life is burdensome, always remember, always remember you are loved with an everlasting love.”
That’s grace. You don’t bring a résumé. You don’t bring your credentials, or your list of accomplishments, or a letter of recommendation from somebody else. You just bring yourself, including your sins and regrets and failures. God loves you just the way you are.
For by grace you have been saved, through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God – not because of works, so that no one can boast.
And the great thing is there is no line when it comes to grace. There is no wait. It is there for you, it is there for me, it is there for all, right now. Even in these days when we cannot hug each other, God has a hug for you. So stop living a “do it yourself” life. Accept God’s grace. What are you waiting for?
God, we just want to be still in your presence for a moment . . . We are so busy living our lives, we seldom take time to look at our lives. But whenever we do, whenever we are honest, we don’t like what we see. We are so stuck on earning and performing and deserving. We want to be loved because we are loveable. We want to turn over a new leaf and do better. We want to add to our resume. Help us God to accept that we are accepted. By grace. Sheer grace. The grace we see in that Bethlehem manger. Amen.