Sermon for 12-20-09: Joyful Waiting

December 22, 2009

Sermon Text: Luke 1:39-55

At the beginning of the service, I asked the question, “Did you ever try to find out what your Christmas gifts were before Christmas?” Based on your text messages, the overwhelming answer is, “yes,” with various numbers of exclamation points. One of you said you did so yesterday. Someone said, “I went through everything, including my parents’ car trunks and closets. It turned out they kept the presents at a neighbors!” Someone else said, “Yes. My dad is the worst at closing windows on the computer where eBay is pulled up.” I guess I’m not alone, then. When I was a child of nine, ten, eleven, I made it my mission to identify all of my Christmas presents before Christmas Eve, when my family exchanged gifts. I would look in closets, under beds, in drawers, in the trunks of cars—wherever my parents might have hidden things. I only had a brief window of time, however, in which to find presents before they were wrapped up and put under the tree.

After they were wrapped up, when no one was around, I would take the present from under the tree and hold it underneath a bright lamp light to see if I could make out any words or letters or pictures beneath the wrapping paper. Thank heavens for cheap, thin, nearly transparent wrapping paper! I would never unwrap the present and re-wrap it; I didn’t know how to wrap presents back then. I didn’t like that expensive kind of paper—it was too thick.

The point is, I was not a very patient child. Tom Petty was right 25 years ago when he said that the waiting is the hardest part.” I hate waiting. I haven’t yet gotten one of those EZ Pass stickers for Georgia 400, but I don’t know why. Two times recently, I had to wait in the correct change lane while the car in front of me couldn’t find change, and I had to wait for the attendant to come over and help. I shop online, when possible, because I do not like waiting in traffic, waiting for parking spaces, waiting for assistance from a sales clerk, waiting in line behind other customers. Finally, while I’m not criticizing the quality of food itself, I don’t like eating at Wendy’s because they make you get in this queue to order your food. It reminds me of waiting in line for the Mindbender at Six Flags! I don’t like waiting!

Whether we like it or not, waiting is one of the great themes of scripture. Waiting, in fact, is a trait that characterizes the lives of God’s faithful people throughout history. God tells Abraham to leave his family of origin and his hometown for a promised land and promises that God was going to bless him and Sarah with descendents as numerous as the stars. Never mind that Abraham was 75 years old and that he and his wife had probably spent many anxious years waiting and hoping for a child—I suspect at their age they had given up on the idea. But Abraham and Sarah do what God says, only to wait 25 more years before they give birth to a promised heir. Waiting!

Moses is called by God to set God’s people free in Egypt so that they can take possession of the land promised to Abraham. There are many obstacles to making this happen, but, finally, once the children of Israel are set free, they would wait 40 more years, the rest of their lives, for God’s promise to come true. Waiting! And most of them didn’t make it. Their children and children’s children would inherit the land. Many centuries later, when Babylon defeated what was left of Israel and sent many of its citizens into exile, prophets told the people, “Wait! I know it seems bleak; I know it seems like God has forgotten about you and that God’s promises will be unfulfilled; but just hold on!” And then it was 70 more years—after Babylon was defeated by the Persians—that Jews were allowed to return to their homeland. Waiting!

But even after the Jews returned, they would still wait: while one pagan world power after another threatened their existence and way of life. During this time, prophets like Isaiah and Daniel and others prophesied a different kind of future, not only for Israel, but for the world—one of peace and love, not violence and war; one ruled by a king, a Messiah, descended from the house of David, who through his own suffering and death would defeat God’s enemies and establish God’s kingdom of justice and love. Of this king, Isaiah wrote: “He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” [Isaiah 2:4]. This day is coming when God will make the world to right, but God’s people would have to wait.

In today’s scripture, Mary and Elizabeth were waiting, not only for the fulfillment of God’s ancient promise, which they knew was going to come true through Jesus, but they would still have to wait 30 more years or so before John the Baptist and then Jesus began their ministries. So much waiting! I know it’s a cliché, but it’s still true: God’s time is not our time. For some reason, waiting is part of God’s plan for us. It must be good for us. I think of my own experience being called into ministry. Sometimes I think how much different my life would have been—in many ways easier—if God had called me when I was 20 or 21, rather than 30 or 31. I was happily an engineer. I liked my job. We liked our home, and we were doing well, financially. Then God turned our lives upside down. But you know what? I’m a very different minister because of all that life experience in between than I would have been if I hadn’t had that earlier career. And I think and hope I’m a better minister.

The point is that God was preparing me for ministry even while I was doing something else. Waiting is like that: God uses that time to prepare us. Even when it comes, for example, to unanswered prayer. It could be that while we wait for God to answer prayers, God is using that time to prepare us for what God is going to do.

The world, in general, knows the heartache of waiting. There’s a song by John Mayer called “Waiting for the World to Change” and it expresses very effectively the gaping distance between what we want the world to be and what the world is. Mayer sees a world that is very far from beating its swords into ploughshares and its spears into pruning hooks. He sings:

Me and all my friends

We’re all misunderstood

They say we stand for nothing and

There’s no way we ever could

Now we see everything that’s going wrong

With the world and those who lead it

We just feel like we don’t have the means

To rise above and beat it

So we keep waiting

Waiting on the world to change[1]

In the song, he describes how easy it is to give into the despair of fatalism: that the world can’t change, no matter what we do. The forces of evil are too great, too overwhelming, for any of us to defeat. He sings, “It’s not that we don’t care/ We just know that the fight ain’t fair.” And you know what? Mayer is exactly right. The fight isn’t fair. It’s a fight we can’t win on our own. If we’re going to win this fight, it’s going to take God’s intervention.

And this was exactly this is the kind of divine intervention that Mary and her cousin Elizabeth are so excited about in today’s scripture. In her beautiful poem, the Magnificat, Mary connects what God is doing through this child inside her to that ancient promise God made to Abraham, so many centuries earlier, that through his descendents the world would be blessed. That promise would be fulfilled through the life, death, and resurrection of God’s Son Jesus Christ. Like the song says, we’re waiting for the world to change; but we’re waiting the same way that Abraham and Moses, Elizabeth and Mary were waiting: with hope. It’s a little bit like when I was a kid, and I would hold that gift-wrapped package under the lamplight—and I could see what it was: “Great! It’s that electronic Pac-Man game I was hoping for!” Knowing what Christmas Day held in store for me made the waiting easier. Through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, we have seen our future—and the world’s future—and it is good. This is the very source of our joy—that same joy that’s expressed so beautifully through today’s scripture when the baby inside Elizabeth’s womb literally “leaps for joy” in the presence Christ.

It’s a joy I first experienced when I was 14 years old, on a youth group retreat in Black Mountain, North Carolina, when I was overwhelmed by a sense that God loved me and that God wanted me to be a part of God’s family. I was aware that I was a sinner, but I also sensed that in Christ I was being offered forgiveness. I made a profession of faith on that retreat and was later baptized. I knew at that time—and I’ve known ever since, through good times and bad—that God loves me, and that nothing, as Paul says, “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate” me from this love in Christ Jesus our Lord [Romans 8:38-39].

Have you experienced this joy? I want to tell you something that I haven’t heard many preachers come right out and say, but I believe with my whole heart: Being a Christian ought to make us happy. I’m not saying that we’ll be happy all the time: we’re going to know heartache, suffering, disappointment, and grief. Of course! But we still have this abiding sense of joy, a deep-down kind of happiness, when we consider what Christ has done for us. We’ll have an abiding sense of joy as the Holy Spirit bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.

For those of us who have already experienced this deep-down happiness and joy in Christ, we’re not so different from Mary. Like Mary, we have been chosen to be a part of God’s mission. Like Mary, we have been filled with God’s grace. Like Mary, we have been asked to share Christ with the world.

May we, like Mary, be faithful.

[1] Accessed 18 December 2009.

One Response to “Sermon for 12-20-09: Joyful Waiting”

  1. […] based on Luke 2:1-20. You might recognize that this homily is mostly a Reader's Digest version of last week's sermon in Vinebranch. […]

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