Waiting for God’s Promise.
December 28, 2008
(Luke 2, 22-40)
We human beings are not very good at waiting!
Recently I took a funeral. As normally happens, one of the relatives of the man who had died came and told me stories about his life to use in the eulogy. One of the things I was told was that, when the man was a child, his parents used to hide his Christmas presents in their bedroom – some in the wardrobe and some under their bed. One year he got tired of waiting for Christmas Day to come, and decided to find out what he had got for Christmas. So he went searching for his presents in his parents’ room. Unfortunately he took a lighted candle with him in order to see under the bed. I wasn’t told whether he found the presents or not! What I was told was that he got into an enormous amount of trouble for scorching the mattress and the bedding of his parents’ bed with the candle!
We certainly don’t have to wait for Christmas these days. The Christmas decorations go up in the shops earlier and earlier, and the advertisements on the TV for gifts and food start in early December. And whereas once upon a time, you had to wait until after Christmas for the sales, now many shops start their sales while the decorations are still up!
We live in an age of instant gratification, where people no longer expect to wait for things they want. When I was young, if you wanted something expensive, you had to save up for it. You saved up for holidays, you saved up to get married, you saved up for the furniture on your house, and unless you were willing to risk hire purchase, you didn’t get them until you had the money. Nowadays, as the advertisement says, credit cards “take the waiting out of wanting”. I am not so sure that is such a good thing.
We are also not so good now at waiting for our lives to develop, waiting till we have the maturity and experience to take on certain responsibilities. The emphasis in job adverts now seems to be on energy, and innovation and youth, and people expect to get to the top of their chosen career ladder very quickly. I am not so sure that is such a good thing either. Some of the decisions that have led to the present financial crisis seem to have been prompted by wanting everything now. And what is there left to achieve in the rest of life, if success and gratification come so early?
So I find the story of Simeon and Anna comforting. Luke tells us that each of them had spent their whole lives waiting for the coming of God’s Saviour. We know that it was a long time in the case of Anna; we assume that Simeon was just as old. Each of them believed and trusted that God’s promise of salvation would be realised in their lifetimes. They didn’t worry about how long it would take. They just waited, patiently and expectantly, for the moment to come.
They provide a pattern for how we should live our lives, a pattern for our waiting.
They didn’t get discouraged when things didn’t happen quickly. We all know how easy it is to try to hurry things along when developments don’t go as we expect – and how often that leads to disaster. We do it in our daily lives – and we do it also in our church lives. We launch new initiatives in evangelism and mission – and sometimes we abandon them because they are not apparently succeeding. At other times we are tempted to use secular methods which seem to promise quicker success, instead of waiting for the results in God’s time.
Simeon and Anna weren’t tempted to try to do God’s work for him. Sometimes well meaning people think they can help God along a bit, by doing things their way, rather than God’s way. it may seem to succeed, but inevitably the results are not lasting. We need to cultivate the patience as well as the perseverence that Simeon and Anna showed if we are to serve God faithfully.
Simeon and Anna listened to God. They were open to the Spirit, which prompted them when to speak and when to stay silent, when to wait and when to be active. They didn’t wait passively. They lived out a normal family lives, they read and thought and encouraged others. They exercised a ministry, while they waited for God’s Saviour to appear, rather than leaving it all to divine intervention.
Some waiting is good – but some is unhealthy. The sort of waiting that is always expecting the future to bring something better – a better job, a bigger house, a more perfect pattern – is not healthy. It means we are living in the future – and missing the delights of the present time.
The sort of waiting that expects God to intervene and change things is another unhealthy sort of waiting. God has made us stewards of the earth, and it is our responsibility to care for it, not wait for God to make a new heaven and earth. Christ sent us out to preach the gospel, and we should not be waiting for Christ’s second coming to change people’s hearts and minds – we should be working to bring God’s Kingdom on earth now, especially in relation to those who are despised and neglected by the secular world.
Simeon and Anna teach us to live in the present moment, in the expectation that it is in the here and now, in the ordinary and the everyday that we will find salvation and abundance of life. That way we will always be ready to be surprised by our encounters with the Holy Child, wherever and whenever they come, and by and the wonderful realisation that we are we are suddenly in the presence of God.
However, most of us will get to a time in our lives when we are no longer able to be so active. Perhaps illness or increasing frailty limits our ability to undertake any activity at all, and we become dependent on others. Most of us dread this period in our lives. It is sometimes characterised, especially by the young, as “Just waiting to die”. Perhaps some of their younger contemporaries regarded Simeon and Anna like that.
Many people in our busy age feel that “just waiting” is a waste of time. But it shouldn’t be, in the Christian view. In 1983 the theologian, W H Vanstone wrote a book called “The Stature of Waiting”. In it he argued that the moment when Jesus revealed most fully the glory of God was not at his Baptism or at his Transfiguration, nor when he was preaching or performing miracles, but after he had been handed over for trial and crucifixion, and able to do nothing but wait for whatever might happen to him. So, we can reveal God when we are passive, when we are dependant, when we are ‘just waiting’. Most particularly, the divine glory was revealed when Jesus was nailed, utterly helpless and exposed, to the cross. That, Vanstone argued, showed the depth of the divine love. For, he says, “where love is, action is destined to pass into passion: working into waiting”.
It is that turning point from action to passion, working to waiting that we mark today in the Candlemas liturgy, when we pass from the celebration of the birth of Christ to the anticipation of his death and passion.
May we all learn to be ‘good waiters’ as Simeon and Anna were -and may we be rewarded as they were by the deep peace of knowing that in Christ, God is come among us.