The waiting is the hardest part. At least that’s what Tom Petty famously told us. There is a lot of truth in the observation.
We hate waiting. If you want to see a fury with the heat of a thousand suns, just see what happens when a restaurant tells their patrons waiting on a table that it’s going to be another 30 minutes, or a corralled herd of weary travelers at the gate just informed that their flight home for the holidays is going to be delayed until the next morning, or . . . You get the idea.
But in God’s infinite wisdom, he seems to have chosen to make extensive use of waiting in his sovereign purposes. Indeed, the common experience for the people of God in every generation has been characterized by waiting. Indeed, we are reminded of this reality every time we sing some of our most beloved Christmas hymns and carols. For example, consider the opening stanza of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”:
“O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here,
Until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.”
The Christian season of Advent is one that deliberately builds into calendars, into the rhythm of time, a reminder of our waiting. Just as God’s people waited, generation after generation, for the promised King who would one day come to sit on David’s throne forever and redeem Israel, so we now await his second coming.
You can, if you choose, just rush right into Christmas, skipping right through the hectic pace of the holidays and completely miss out on the liturgy of waiting. But doing so comes at a cost.
Waiting on the Lord Is Dependent on the Promises of God
Just start reading in the beginning chapters of your Bible and you’ll quickly be struck by how much waiting there is. Of course, we could go right to that very first promised grace in Gen. 3:16, struck by God’s guarantee that there would come a day when the seed of the woman would crush the head of the serpent. The story of redemption is, in some sense, the story of waiting for the fulfillment of that promise.
The Christian season of Advent is one that deliberately builds into calendars, into the rhythm of time, a reminder of our waiting.
Pretty quickly though, we encounter larger-than-life figures who were called to wait on the Lord. Noah was given a command to build an ark and he obeyed in faith, waiting for confirmation that what the Lord had spoken was true. Of course, when those first raindrops began to fall, God confirmed his promise of judgment on the earth, and gracious provision of salvation for Noah’s household and all those creatures aboard the ark. And the waiting did not end there.
Consider Abraham, or when we first meet him, Abram. God establishes a covenant with him, promising to make a great nation of him and to bless all the nations of the earth through him. But those promises did not come to fruition overnight. Instead, Abraham spent years waiting — waiting for the arrival of that promised son by Sarah, waiting for their small little family to expand into a great nation, waiting for rest in their land.
For his part, David knew something of waiting. He’d been anointed to be king by the prophet Samuel while still very young, but it would be a long time until his eventual rise to the throne. Until then, his life was marked by all sorts of ups and downs, including having to run for his life.
Fast forward a bit in the Old Testament and things get rather quiet. Israel’s return from exile is only partial, the glory of the old days seems lost, and God seems to have gone silent. But the underlying question in the period between the Old and New Testaments is not whether God is silent. Far more significantly, the haunting question is, “Has God abandoned his promises?” Is hope for salvation lost? Will the righteous king promised long ago every come to establish his perfect eternal rule? Will sin and death have the final say over the children of men?
A bloody cross and an empty tomb cast a long shadow backwards over the pages of the Old Testament, as if to say to us, “Promises kept!”
And then, an angel appears to Zechariah the Levite in the temple, promising a son to him and his wife that would be dedicated to the Lord. A young woman is visited by an angel, telling her she is most blessed among women because she will bear a son conceived by the Holy Spirit who will save his people from their sins. And then, one night in Bethlehem, that child is born just like millions of babies had been born before. But his birth is heralded and celebrated by a choir of angels on a hillside, announcing the good news to a band of shepherds. God keeps his promises, every one.
This Advent, perhaps you are tempted to doubt the Lord. Perhaps you are weary, worn down by fear, hurt, anxiety, or some combination of them all. It may be that you see very little reason for hope when you look at the world, or even in your own life and family. It may be that leaders you once respected have broken your trust or disappointed you beyond repair.
But Advent calls us to renew our hope and confidence in the promises of God. It is a call to renewed faith in the God who never changes, who pledges himself to his people eternally, and who has publicly demonstrated his covenant faithfulness at Calvary. A bloody cross and an empty tomb cast a long shadow backwards over the pages of the Old Testament, as if to say to us, “Promises kept!”
And so now, in our waiting, we trust in the promises of God. We trust that God is with us and will never leave us or forsake us. We trust that there is now no condemnation for those of us found in Christ. We trust nothing can separate us from the love of God. We trust that this momentary suffering is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory. We trust that Jesus will indeed return one day, just as he left. We trust that at his final judgment, we will find refuge in the blood of the Lamb. We trust that in his new creation, we will experience unbroken fellowship with God, completely absent of any sin, suffering, pain, sorrow, or death.
Waiting on the Lord Trusts in the Character of God
A promise is only as good as the character of the one making the promise. The season of Advent is a snapshot of the general Christian life, as we live between the times, awaiting the fullness of Christ’s kingdom. Our hope in the Lord is not impersonal or abstract, but entirely dependent on his character, on his faithfulness.
Here’s the thing. You might be tempted to believe that God keeps his promises but that he does so almost grudgingly, out of a sense of obligation. But God delights in covenant faithfulness. He experiences joy in fulfilling his promises to his people.
“Therefore the Lord is waiting to show you mercy,
and is rising up to show you compassion,
for the Lord is a just God.
All who wait patiently for him are happy.” (Isa. 30:18, CSB)
God delights in covenant faithfulness. He experiences joy in fulfilling his promises to his people.
It would be the height of foolishness to patiently wait on someone to keep their promise who has a record of lies and broken promises. Nor would it be any wiser to wait on someone to keep a promise that they simply lack the power to fulfill. But when it comes to the promises of God, Christians have absolute assurance that God not only possesses the power to keep his promises, but that he also has the inclination of heart to do so. In fact, God delights in keeping his promises! That is why Isaiah can boast that waiting on the Lord patiently actually produces happiness among the people of God.
The Advent season reminds us that God was indeed pleased to fulfill his covenant promises to send a Savior, one who would redeem his people from sin and death and would establish his perfect reign forever.
Waiting on the Lord Produces Growth in Godliness
It may surprise you, but it seems that God most often uses periods of trial and waiting to produce the greatest growth in us.
Consider how James describes the value of trials:
“Consider it a great joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you experience various trials, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking nothing.” (James 1:2-4, CSB)
Some trials indeed come in the fiery hot furnace of acute suffering and hardship. But so many of the trials you and I experience in the Christian life revolve around this dynamic of waiting, of enduring seasons of uncertainty, hardship, or discouragement.
But God assures us that waiting is not in vain. Of course, our waiting is only redeemed if it is marked by faith — we are waiting on the Lord. And when he is the object of our faith, the one on whom we wait, we can have full confidence that He is at work to accomplish his good purposes in us by his grace.
Although often mysterious to us, this experience of waiting--and the way in which God uses it to mature us in Christ — is according to his infinite wisdom. J.I. Packer captured this better than anyone in his wonderful book, Knowing God:
“God often keeps us waiting. He is not in such a hurry as we are, and it is not his way to give more light on the future than we need for action in the present, or to guide us more than one step at a time. When in doubt, do nothing, but continue to wait on God. When action is needed, light will come.”
So this Advent, wait on the Lord. Trust that He is at work in and through your present circumstances to accomplish his perfect will for you.
Waiting on the Lord Is Temporary
As sojourners and exiles, Christians anticipate a coming day when there will be no waiting. Think about that. In the new heavens and new earth, when God establishes his perfect, eternal, and consummate reign over the universe and establishes his dwelling among his people in fullness, there will be no more waiting, no more anticipation of promises yet to be fulfilled.
That is an extraordinary reality, one infinitely beyond the grasp of our own human imagination and experience. In heaven, there will be no distance between the redeemed people of God and their King. There will be no more mystery, no more uncertainty. This is the picture given to us in Revelation 22.
“Then he showed me the river of the water of life, clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the city’s main street. The tree of life was on each side of the river, bearing twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit every month. The leaves of the tree are for healing the nations, and there will no longer be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will worship him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. Night will be no more; people will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, because the Lord God will give them light, and they will reign forever and ever.” (Rev. 22:1-5 CSB)
This vision given to John is a distillation of the fulfillment of all the longings and hopes of God’s people throughout redemptive history, going all the way back to Gen. 3. There is coming a day when every one of God’s promises will be fully and publicly demonstrated in their absolute fulfillment in Jesus Christ.
And so it is that now, as we await his return, we do so anchored in hope. Things may look bleak, as they surely did before Jesus’ first coming. They may often tempt us to lose heart or even wonder if God is still at work. But John’s vision of what is to come is for us a call to wait in hope, seeing by faith what is to come at the end of this age.
C.S. Lewis captured this hope in a way that only he could in the closing pages of The Last Battle, the final installment in his Narnia series.
“And as He [Aslan] spoke, He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”
This Christmas, we await the end of this story and the beginning of the Great Story to come. May the roar of the Lion of Judah strengthen your heart this Advent season.