November 29, 2020
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
ONE YEAR, FOUR WINTERS
Psalm 37:3-9, Romans 5:1-5
The first in a series of four.
Chris Stapleton has released a new album. He calls it, “A Very COVID Christmas.” One of the songs is, “Disinfect the Halls with Sanitizer. Fa-la-la-la-la. La-la-la-la.”
Advent is a season of waiting, and this is a unique season of Advent. Because we’ve been waiting all year. Waiting for answers. Waiting for understanding. Waiting for a cure. Waiting for healing – physical, emotional, economic, racial, political, spiritual, interpersonal. Waiting to come back to church. Waiting to get rid of these silly masks. It’s been a long, difficult wait.
There is a group called “Unspoken” that released a song last year. This was before anyone had heard of COVID-19. I’m going to send it tomorrow with my Monday Musings. There is a great video that goes with it. Here are some of the lyrics to the song: “This year’s felt like four seasons of winter.” Indeed it has.
I have four Advent sermons this year. Most years I have three, because I am in Madras for my dad’s memorial run one of the four Sundays, but this year the run has been cancelled. Guess why. All four of my Advent sermons this year are going to be about waiting.
So how many of you enjoy waiting? Not me. I want my stoplights to be green, my computer to be fast, and the line at the checkout counter to be short. I like instant noodles, instant oatmeal, instant coffee, and instant gratification. I don’t like to wait, and I’m guessing you don’t either. But these are silly, trivial examples, compared to the serious, difficult waiting we often face in life.
There is the waiting of a single person to meet that special someone. There is the waiting of a childless couple wanting so much to start a family. There is the waiting of an unemployed person to find a job. There is the waiting of a spouse trapped in an unhappy marriage. There is the waiting of a depressed person to wake up one morning wanting to start the new day. There is the waiting of an elderly person in a nursing home, all alone, health gone, not even able to see family due to COVID, nothing to live for, just waiting to die.
Lewis Smedes said it well:
Waiting is our destiny. As creatures who cannot by themselves bring about what they hope for, we wait in the darkness for a flame we cannot light. We wait in fear for a happy ending we cannot write. We wait for a “not yet” that feels like a “not ever.”
He also said, “Waiting is the hardest work of hope.”
Over and over in the Bible we are told to wait. Psalm 37 is but one of many examples. It says, “Be still before the Lord, and wait patiently for him . . . those who wait for the Lord shall possess the land.”
It means the Promised Land. The Israelites had no home. They were slaves in Egypt for 400 years. They were vagabonds in the wilderness for 40 years after that. And even when they finally possessed the Promised Land, it wasn’t theirs for long. Not long after the first Christmas came the Diaspora. The Jews had no home, scattered all over the world for nineteen centuries, until 1948 and the creation of the modern state of Israel. That was 72 years ago and the waiting continues for peace and security in that land.
It says in verse 5, “Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him, and he will act.” But you have to ask, “Lord, how long must we wait before you act?” Some of us have been waiting a long time.
So why does God make us wait? Why doesn’t God just do it now? Why does a loving God make us go through this unpleasantness? Maybe it’s something like this: What God does in us while we wait is as important as what we are waiting for.
Paul tells us to expect suffering while we wait. But then he tells us that “suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope” (Romans 5:4). So God is building these wonderful, positive qualities in us – perseverance and character and hope – while we wait.
Instant gratification is what we think we want. We think we want what we want right now. But maybe right now is not what we need. It’s the struggle that builds character. It’s when things don’t go our way, not when they do, that God the potter goes to work to shape us into the masterpiece he had in mind all along.
John Roberts is Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court. Amy Coney Barrett isn’t the only one with school age children. Justice Roberts was planning to attend his son’s Middle School graduation, sitting with the other parents, but he didn’t get to. They asked him if he might possibly give the commencement speech. He did. Here is part of what he said:
From time to time in the years to come, I hope you will be treated unfairly, so that you will come to know the value of justice. I hope that you will suffer betrayal, because that will teach you the importance of loyalty. Sorry to say, but I hope you will be lonely from time to time so that you don’t take friends for granted. I wish you bad luck, again, from time to time so that you will be conscious of the role of chance in life and understand that your success is not completely deserved and that the failure of others is not completely deserved either. And when you lose, as you will from time to time, I hope every now and then your opponent will gloat over your failure. It is a way for you to understand the importance of sportsmanship. I hope you will be ignored so you know the importance of listening to others, and I hope you will have just enough pain to learn compassion. Whether I wish these things or not, they’re going to happen. And whether you benefit from them or not will depend on your ability to see the message in your misfortunes.
Waiting feels like misfortune, but really it’s a blessing. Good things come from it. Good things are worth waiting for. When we wait on God, we trust in God. Waiting is patient trust. It has to be patient, because it’s a long wait. If we trust that God has a good reason for making us wait, the waiting gets easier. But it’s never easy.
Maybe you’re single. We live in a society where marriage is the norm and singleness is an aberration. So maybe you feel the pain of that stigma. Even as you trust God, the waiting is hard. There might be a relationship that could be, but you know it isn’t right. You know it wouldn’t honor God. Maybe this person doesn’t share your faith or your values or really much of anything at all. Maybe your loneliness is speaking so loudly it’s hard to hear God’s whisper of caution. Maybe you’re tempted to say, “I don’t care. I’ve waited long enough.”
If you find yourself in a situation like that, will you wait on God? Will you say, “God, even though I don’t know what you have in mind for me, even though no one in the world understands how hard this is, I’m going to trust you. I’m going to wait.”
Patient trust. It’s believing that God has a long-range plan for your life that is far better than whatever seems to us best in the moment.
Henri Nouwen has a great description of what it is like to wait on God. He wrote in one of his books (Sabbatical Journeys) about his circus friends. They were trapeze artists. He was talking to them about how they did what they did. They explained that there has to develop a special relationship between the flyer and the catcher. The flyer is the one who lets go. The catcher is the one who catches. This is an important relationship, especially to the flyer. When you are flying through the air, a hundred feet above the ground, you really don’t want the catcher to let you down. Literally.
Here’s how it works. The flyer knows the precise moment to let go. He arcs high into the air. And instead of trying to do anything to avert disaster, he simply lets inertia do its work. His job is to remain as calm and still as possible, waiting for the strong hands of the catcher to pluck him out of the air. The most common mistake is for the flyer to panic and try to catch the catcher. That’s when things go terribly wrong. The flyer must wait in patient trust. The catcher will catch him. But he must wait.
Some of you are like a trapeze flyer in midair. You have let go. That was good. Sometimes we have to let go. You did it. Good for you. That took courage. But God’s strong hands haven’t caught you yet. And it’s really scary flying through the air. You want to start flailing around. That’s what comes naturally. But flailing around only makes things worse. You have to wait in patient trust. It isn’t easy. Can you do that?
Waiting on God is patient trust and it is also confident humility. Which seems a strange combination of words. Confident humility. Because confident people are usually not very humble. And humble people are usually not very confident. But waiting on God is both – confident and humble. Here’s why. Waiting on God is confidently believing that God will act and humbly recognizing that it’s going to be on God’s timetable, not ours.
We seem to correlate waiting with status. Common people wait in line. Important people get someone else to wait in line for them. Common people take forever to go through security at the airport and miss their plane. Important people are driven right out on the tarmac where their private jet is waiting. Ordinary people sit in the waiting room. Important people don’t have to wait.
Next time you go to your doctor, try this. Try walking right past the receptionist, go down the hall, find your doctor, and explain that you are a very important person, you don’t have time to wait. You demand to be seen immediately. See how that works out for you.
Waiting is a reminder that I am not in charge here. That’s why doctors never sit in the waiting room. Patients sit in the waiting room. And why do you think they call them patients?
Waiting takes confident humility. And confident humility is a perfect description of prayer. You pray with confidence that God hears, that God cares, that God will answer. You pray with humility, because you know that you are not in charge. God is. Prayer is a form of waiting. One of the great things about prayer is that it allows us to wait without worry.
We all worry. At least I haven’t met anyone yet who doesn’t. Some worry a lot. For some it is a mental illness that interferes with life. Some are more carefree. But, as long as we have a pulse, I don’t think there is such a thing as a totally carefree human being.
One of the great stories in the Bible is the one that seems to suggest that Jesus may have been the one exception. There’s a storm at sea. The disciples are in a boat with Jesus. They are scared to death. So what is Jesus doing while they panic? He is taking a nap. He does not have a care in the world. He says, “Be still.” He says it to the storm and to the disciples. “Be still.” And everything is peaceful and calm again.
Maybe there is one person who didn’t worry like you and I worry. I know that’s not the way we are taught to think of Jesus. He experienced everything we experience. Joy, sorrow, pain, tiredness, anger, hunger, laughter, and yes, worry. I actually do think Jesus worried, but not like we do. He never seemed to get frantic with worry. He always seemed to have an inner peace.
Which tells us something important about God. God is never frantic. God never panics. God is never in a hurry.
So how do we recognize the voice of God when we pray? Well, how do we recognize anyone’s voice? Every voice has a certain unique tone to it. Apple takes advantage of this with Siri. Speaker Dependent Voice Recognition Software. I have no idea how they do it. But we knew about this back in the dark ages, long before the name of the person who is calling pops up on your phone. You hear the voice, and you know who it is. If they try to trick you and say they are somebody else, you know better, because every voice is unique. So too with God’s voice. And one thing we know for sure about God’s voice – it is never frantic.
So if you are praying and all you can hear are desperate, panicky thoughts, that’s not God. God’s voice doesn’t sound like that. God’s voice will never lead you into panicky desperation.
Jesus said, “My sheep know my voice” (John 10:27). It’s the voice of the shepherd who cares for the sheep. There is a certain tone to that voice. We can recognize it. It’s a peaceful voice. It’s a voice that calms us down.
I have shown this video before. I never get tired of it. This is Michael Jr. the comedian and his newborn baby girl. We forget how scary it was when we first came into this world. But all it takes is a certain calming voice, and we know it’s going to be OK.
(YouTube: Michael Jr. Delivery Room) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TU0f8a3Cizo
Psalm 37 has a refrain. Three times it says, “Do not fret” (verses 1,7,8). It’s also translated, “Do not worry, or get upset, or be annoyed.” Of course, that’s easier said than done. Especially this year. People are making money selling T-Shirts that say, “I SURVIVED 2020.” So far. The year isn’t over yet. It’s been quite a year.
We always tend to think we’re the first ones to ever face anything like this. So it’s always good to know a little history. That silent night when Jesus was born was a time of hope, peace, joy, and love, right? Those are the traditional words that go with the four Sundays of Advent. But the historical record indicates that Jesus was born into a world of political turmoil, economic instability, racial strife, constant danger, and paralyzing fear.
And all through the Bible it’s the same. God’s people are always facing something difficult and always waiting for things to get better. With patient trust. With confident humility. 2020 is the same song that been sung for centuries, just a different verse.
Oscar Hammerstein is best known for his collaboration with Richard Rodgers on memorable musicals. He said, “I cannot write anything without hope in it.” People would point out that there is a lot in the world that is ugly and evil. So why not write about that? He would answer, “I know all about those things, but I choose to align myself with what is true and good and beautiful.”
So in 1943, in the middle of a terrible war, he wrote the lyrics to Oklahoma. “O what a beautiful morning, O what a beautiful day, I have this wonderful feeling, everything’s going my way!”
And in 1945, as the war was ending and the horror of the war’s carnage was being revealed, he wrote these words to Carousel: “When you walk through a storm, hold your head up high, and don’t be afraid of the dark.”
Finally in 1949, the war was over, the bomb had been dropped, and the world faced a really scary future. That’s when he wrote South Pacific, which included the song, “I’m stuck like a dope on a thing called hope and I can’t get it out of my heart.”
Still we wait. It’s been a long wait. And it’s not over yet. Our fourth season of winter could be followed by a fifth. We just don’t know. There’s a lot we don’t know.
But we do know at least these two things: God will act. “Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him, and he will act.” And what God is doing in us while we wait is as important as what we are waiting for.
Because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given to us.
Teach us dear God to wait. It’s the hardest thing in the world for little kids to do, and it’s not much easier for adults. We’re waiting for some good things. We’re waiting for your kingdom to come and your will to be done on earth as in heaven. So we pray for an end to the waiting. But we also pray for patient trust and confident humility while we wait. For Christ has come, Christ is coming, and Christ will come again. Thank you God for this hope which does not disappoint us. Amen.