A few weeks ago I arrived home from leading the Sunday service to find an email waiting for me. In the service we had sung “Strength will rise as we wait upon the Lord.” and I had prayed using a phrase something like “we want to wait on You this morning, Lord”. The person who emailed me had been stuck by these phrases, and was asking some questions about what we mean by this idea of waiting on God – is it to be understood as “serving the Lord” (as in the sense of a waiter) or as meaning that we depend on the Lord for renewal? Or, to put it another way, are we waiting on God, or waiting for God?
I thought that these were some really interesting questions, and I did reply to the email at the time, but when I read the passage from Paul’s first letter to the Christians in Corinth that we are looking at this morning, and saw that phrase, “eagerly wait”, it seemed to me that we had an opportunity to explore some possible answers together.
In many ways 2020 has been a year of waiting. As news of this new virus started to trickle in, we waited to see what kind of impact it was going to have on our lives. In the lock downs, we’ve been waiting to get out.
We’ve been waiting for a vaccine to be developed. We’re now waiting to see what kind of Christmas we’re going to be able to have. Many of us are still waiting to see loved ones, friends and family, that we haven’t seen for months – especially if they are in care homes. We have had months of waiting, and it looks like we have months more of waiting ahead of us.
In the church’s year, the season of Advent has always been one of thinking about waiting.
We remember the way in which the people of God were waiting for the promises of God to be fulfilled. This morning we particularly remember the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, the ancestors of Jesus, to whom those promises were made, and who looked forward in faith to when they would be fulfilled. They had to wait. Abraham and Sarah had to wait many decades, into their old age, beyond all reasonable hope, for their waiting for a son to come to an end.
We remember Mary and Joseph as they waited for the imminent arrival of their new son, conceived in miraculous circumstances, with angelic visits and big promises. They had not only the normal, nine months, slowly swelling, wait of pregnancy but also the wait to see how all these promises would be fulfilled.
As well as looking back, in Advent we look forward as well, to Jesus return. We bring to mind our own waiting. As we look forward to that return, we remind ourselves, and each other, to be alert, to be ready, to eagerly wait for that return, when Jesus will come and put everything right.
So, what does it mean to eagerly wait for Jesus? What might we learn from our experience of waiting from this year, and what might our experience of waiting for Jesus have to teach us about our waiting for other things?
The first thing that I want us to notice from this passage in 1 Corinthians is the bookends. The introduction and the conclusion. Eager waiting is in the middle – in verse 7, but where do we start and where do we end? We start with “Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” We end with, “God is faithful, who has called you into fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. This is true of everything we do in our Christian life – We are surrounded by the grace, peace, faithfulness, call, and fellowship of God.
How might these things help us in our waiting, I wonder?
Grace. I know that it’s a bit corny, and that I’ve said it before, but I love the phrase that I think sums up grace perfectly, “God’s riches at Christ’s expense.” We have been saved, adopted into God’s family, made heirs of the Kingdom of God all completely freely, with Jesus having paid the price for all this on the cross. Such grace has been shown to us. Reflecting on this and inhabiting it, frees us to live out that grace towards others, to sacrifice, to absorb their pain, to forgive.
Peace. As the Holy Spirit works in us, so the fruit of the Spirit grow, and one of those is peace. As we open our hearts to the peace of God so we can be at peace in our waiting. This isn’t easy, and I don’t want to minimise the challenges of living with deep seated anxiety and fear that we sometimes have no control over, but I do believe that God’s peace can fill us, and help us to face those anxieties and fears.
Faithfulness. I believe that God is faithful. We see it in Scripture, in the fulfilment of those promises to the matriarchs and patriarchs. We see it in the whole history of the people of God. We see it in the birth, ministry, life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus. We see it in the growth of the church. We see it in our own lives. God is faithful – reliable and trustworthy. Whatever else happens, God will work all things for the good of those who love him.
Call. We are all called by God. God has prepared good works for us all to do. Each of us has a vocation. We are where we are. We might not like it, more than that, it may be deeply painful or uncomfortable. We may not be able to see the way forward, maybe we can’t wait to get out. But we are where we are, and God is there with us. As we wait, we can be listening and looking for the thing that God is calling us to do and be here and now, that is a step on the path towards what God is calling us to be and to do in the future.
Fellowship. In Greek there are two ways of saying “you”, one plural and one singular. Here Paul uses the plural. I suppose that a possible equivalent in English would be
“you lot” So, to retranslate Paul, “God has called you lot into fellowship with his Son”. We don’t wait alone, we wait together, in the body of Christ. We have been made members of one body, that’s a fact, as followers of Jesus, we do not have a choice about that. The only thing we can choose is how we relate to each other in this body. Fellowship is harder than normal at the moment to realise, it’s one of the things that we’re waiting for – to be able to meet again, but it is still real – we need to continue to find new ways of expressing and strengthening this fellowship. Phone calls, letters, garden visits, Zoom calls.
With all that in mind, what does it mean to do what Paul commends, to wait eagerly for Jesus to be revealed?
I wonder if circling back to the question that came in that email might help us to understand this. Do we wait for Jesus or wait on Jesus? It seems me that the answer to this question is yes. We do both. Eager waiting is both waiting on and waiting for.
Psalm 123:2 says “As the eyes of servants look to the hand of their master, as the eyes of a maid to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the Lord our God, until he has mercy upon us.”
It seems to me that here we see what it means to wait eagerly, attentively, actively. As God’s servants, we watch God’s hand, we go where we’re sent, we stand where we’re put, we do what we’re instructed to do. We are waiting on God. We are not just sitting back, passively waiting for God. But we are waiting for God. We cannot solve everything on our own.
We have things to do, but we cannot do what only God can do. We are waiting for God to have mercy on us, and on those around us. We are waiting for Jesus to return. We are waiting for God to fulfil all those promises. We depend on the Holy Spirit, and in all our waiting we welcome him to work in and through us, so that we may keep firm to the end and be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.