Fourth Sunday in Advent, December 21, 2014
Most of us complain about having to wait when we go visit the doctor. It doesn’t seem to matter if our appointment is at 8:00 A.M; we know we are going to wait 30 or 45 minutes before the doctor appears.
Not long ago, an agency working for my primary care doctor called with a survey and the call ended by asking if I would be willing to pay my doctor $1300, $2300, or $3300 a year out of my pocket to guarantee that when I went to see my doctor I would have no waiting time at all. The doctor would see fewer patients in such a system, devote more time to each one, and guarantee no wait times.
I told the lady that I already paid enough for health insurance and one, two, or three thousand dollars more a year was not going to happen for me. All of a sudden, I don’t mind waiting as much.
Now I will have a totally different mindset when I’m sitting by myself on that fine piece of white butcher paper. I’ll be thinking, “I’m actually saving money waiting here.”
Sometimes we have to find the light in our waiting because it’s not always apparent. Most of us don’t like waiting for anything, but waiting isn’t all bad.
Ladies, what if you went to the doctor and she said, “Well, you are going to have a baby—in five minutes!” What if this were the way babies always came, quickly, unexpected, with no waiting?
Well, there’s an upside for sure, but you aren’t prepared for the arrival and can you imagine that phone call to the father? He asks, “Honey, how was your day?” You say, “Well, our day went fine. Your son dropped in unexpectedly today.” He says, “I don’t have a son.” You say, “You do now.”
No waiting. No nine months. Just, boom, there you are, a new member of the family.
Sometimes we wait with great excitement. Children wait for Santa. Someone says, “Close your eyes. I have a surprise for you.” We can’t wait to see what it is.
Let’s be honest. Waiting is usually difficult. We are impatient people. When we wait our anxieties are heightened. Will the doctor say “malignant” or “benign?” Will the list of company layoffs include my name?
We wait to hear whether the college we want to attend has accepted us. We wait to hear who is going to get custody of the children. We wait to hear whether the person that broke our heart will call to apologize. We wait to hear how serious the injuries are from the accident our family member was involved in. We wait to hear whether we made the cheerleading team.
Sometimes we even wonder where God is in the midst of our waiting.
You’ve been there. Some of you are there now. Our adjectives for these times are usually dark, difficult and depressing. Waiting for answers can feel like you are carrying around a backpack of weight, with no idea of when you can set it down.
In 587 B.C., the Babylonians came to Jerusalem and destroyed the city. Walls that protected the city were torn down and the temple was left in ruins. Thousands of people were carried away to Babylon and forced to live in a foreign land. Many died in Babylon, never again returning home. Many were born in a land of foreign people. They grew up being told of their beautiful city by their parents and grandparents. All hoped they would be able to return one day.
Then the word of Jeremiah the prophet came to the exiles:
10 For thus says the Lord: Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. 11 For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” Jeremiah 29:10-11
Well, this was both good news and bad news. The good news was that the exiles knew they would one day return to their home. The bad news was that they’d have to wait for 70 years. That’s a lifetime for many people.
At least by being given a timeframe, the exiles could set aside any thinking of an immediate return. They could either see his words as words of hope or words or despair. It was their choice.
In our waiting, we always have a choice in how we respond. That’s why there are magazines in waiting rooms.
Here are three things we can learn from Jeremiah’s words to the exiles.
Don’t be paralyzed by your waiting. Be productive. Don’t be consumed by your waiting. Think of others. Don’t be lost in your waiting. God has a plan for you.
Let’s start with the first one. Don’t be paralyzed by your waiting. Be productive.
The lives of the exiles had been traumatized. They had been kidnapped in masses, forced to relocate and to assimilate into another culture. Before they could accept their fate of being forced to live in a foreign land, they had had to deal with grief, anger, disillusionment, and discouragement.
Jeremiah’s word came to them after the initial shock of this event had occurred and some time of adjustment had occurred. He then encouraged them to make the best of a bad situation. “Be productive while you wait,” was his advice.
Even though we know we are going to have to wait when we go to the doctor, most of us go unprepared to be productive. While we don’t have a choice about waiting, we do get to choose whether we will be productive in our waiting. Being productive could be as simple as allowing our thoughts to center on God or our prayers to focus on others. We don’t always have to be doing something with our hands to be productive.
Secondly, the exiles could have been consumed by their waiting. Who could have blamed them?
Jerusalem was destroyed. The temple where they worshipped God was in ruins. That meant their faith system, the way they worshipped God had been taken away. Now Jeremiah told them it would be seventy years before they could hope to return to Jerusalem, so many of those he was speaking to would die before that time came.
Life can be consuming and devastating. Tragedy happens. I cannot stand here and tell you how I would react if certain tragedies were to come to my house. I can only tell you that only by the power of God can I do all things through Christ who strengthens me. That is what will keep me from being consumed.
The exiles needed God’s strength to do what Jeremiah told them to do. It kept them from being consumed. Jeremiah said to them, “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf.”
Jeremiah told them to work for the good of the very people who destroyed their city and lives. While they were waiting for their lives to be restored, they were to work to make the lives of their captors better.
Jeremiah has given us a great insight and a great gift for our Advent season. The reason we don’t like waiting is that it is so passive.
Here’s some good news: Jeremiah tells us we don’t have to do that. While we are waiting, Jeremiah says, we should think of ways to help others and serve them. Jeremiah wants us to work for the good of others and to pray for them. For the exiles, that was the people they considered their enemies.
If this sounds familiar, Jesus said the same thing. In Matthew’s gospel the words of Jesus: “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44 NIV).
While this sounds crazy, the secret to this command is that it actually keeps us from being consumed in our waiting.
All our waiting typically does is give us more time to get angry and plot our revenge. This attitude will consume us. It eats away at our insides like a cancer. In order not to be consumed
by the pain, hurt, and anger caused by others, we eventually need to shift our focus to something more positive. We eventually have to start thinking about what we can do to help others.
Even Jesus, while being crucified on the cross, was directing his disciple John to take care of his mother. He was concerned about the thieves who were being nailed next to him. He was asking the Heavenly Father not to hold the sins against those who had nailed him to the cross.
This brings me to the last point. Don’t become lost in your waiting. God has a plan for you.
Waiting can seem so useless. It can seem like such a waste of time. In our waiting we can feel useless. We can become lost in those empty spaces, wondering, “Why am I here? What am I doing? There is no purpose in any of this.” We can easily become disillusioned.
This is when temptation comes and the Evil One fills our minds with doubt. Our waiting time can become filled with destructive behavior. We need to resist these temptations and realize that God has a plan for us in our waiting.
Jeremiah told the exiles: God has “plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”
In those times when we see no purpose in our waiting, we need to believe that Jeremiah’s words are also for us, that God also has a plan for us and that our waiting is not in vain.
We see that plan unfolding when the exiles returned to Jerusalem under the leadership of Nehemiah. Later the temple was rebuilt and years later in that rebuilt temple, Joseph and Mary carried eight-day-old Jesus to be circumcised.
While there, they met a man who had been prayerfully waiting for God to send help for Israel. The Holy Spirit was an old man named Simeon who believed God would show him the Messiah of God before he died. When he saw Mary and Joseph with the baby Jesus, he knew that Jesus was the one he’d been waiting for and he blessed them.
When you are in the midst of your waiting, God wants you to trust Him. God has a plan for you.
If we do not trust God in our waiting, we run a great risk of being consumed by our waiting, of allowing our anxieties to dominate our emotions and squelch our hope.
We can lose hope that nothing good is coming in our future, and that will cause despair. We will become so totally focused on our own problems that we will become blind to the needs of others and unable to help them or ourselves.
Advent is a season of hope because we celebrate that in Jesus, God did a new thing. God is still bringing newness to hopeless situations. God can do that for you.
If you are paralyzed in your waiting, being consumed by your waiting, or lost in your waiting, will you trust God this morning to help you? He has a plan for you. Pray to Him right now. Pray a prayer like this.
God, I don’t like to wait for anything, not even a traffic light to turn green. So much happens that I don’t understand and sometimes I cry out to you and I don’t even know if you are there. I confess that I get confused. I don’t know what to do, where to turn. I believe that you hear my prayer.
It’s easy for me be consumed by the situations I find myself in. I feel lost. I think that my life will turn around when the situation changes. But the situation doesn’t always change. When it does, I still don’t seem to change.
Today, your word is teaching me that even when the situation doesn’t change, you can change me. God, will you change me? Even as I wait, show me how to be productive. Save me from myself. Show me how to focus my life on loving others, even those who don’t love me in return. Help me believe and help me begin to see that you have a plan for me, because I can wait if I know you are not finished with me yet.
Begin to reveal your plan for my life. Help me to see you working in my life. Even now, during this Advent season, be real to me.
I’d like to know if you prayed a prayer like that. Send me an email. Text me. Send me a card. Share your journey me. Of course, our invitation is a time for you to come and share that kind of good news with me and our church family.
© Copyright 2014 by J. Michael Helms