The Long Wait in Hope

By Shannon Vowell –

Art by Gerd Altmann, Pixabay.

The darkest part of the year sets the stage for our annual celebration of the Light of the world, dawning.

“Earth stands hard as iron,” the beloved carol keens, “water like a stone.” But the baby is born, nonetheless. And the heavens split open with ecstatic jubilation. And the humble ones gather, silent in awe, gazing at a miracle brought forth in a dim corner of this dirty world, somehow … the newborn King of kings, the incarnate Lord of lords, somehow.

Every year, the same story. But every year, too, somehow not quite the same. New morning mercies, new life, new hope – sufficient to the day – He is always a new thing even in the same thing every year, our Jesus. “O come, let us adore him!”

Our own stories can skew the sameness. Some years the procession to the manger has to be made on our hands and knees. Personal cycles of grief, of illness, of unchosen changes snatch our feet from under us and render what should feel cozily familiar suddenly, powerfully poignant. “Blue Christmas” isn’t just a country western ballad.

And some years the story of the world shakes us so thoroughly that rejoicing in anticipation of Christmas requires not just faith but audacity. Only a scrappy, defiant belief can stand in the midst of catastrophic wreckage and declare, “This is still the Truth, this Christ child, come for us!”

What about this year? What about 2020, when so many find themselves struggling through personal crucibles and global cataclysms, simultaneously? Such a collision of horror stories stretches spirits too thin; the one-two sucker punch has us winded, reeling, drained dry.

“This year’s felt like four seasons of winter / And you’d give anything to feel the sun…” The musical group Unspoken didn’t know they were penning lyrics to a new holiday classic when they wrote “Reason” mere months ago: “Always reaching / always climbing / always second guessing the timing…” It’s an updated version of the ages-old lamentation, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel – and ransom captive Israel – that mourns in lonely exile here…”

Advent 2020 begs two questions: how do we muster up momentum for a season of waiting and preparing when we are already spent with our long-standing struggles to endure? Beyond that, when we get to Christmas morning and encounter the Christ child again in all his perfect holiness, will we have room for him in our hearts, already so crowded with weariness and pain?

In a sense, Advent 2020 is a continuation of a strange new status quo rather than a shift in the liturgical calendar. We have been waiting all year. Waiting for answers, waiting for understanding. Waiting for a physical cure for a physical virus. Waiting for spiritual healing for that human condition (sin) for which we already have the cure (Jesus) but from which we cannot seem to recover. Waiting for the chaos and confusion our condition has caused to subside. Waiting for a lull, in which to go out and sweep up the rubble; waiting for safety in which to rebuild. Waiting for separation. Waiting for unity. Waiting.

The circumstances of 2020 are unprecedented, at least in modern history. So the weight of our waiting can tempt us to believe that our burden, too, is unprecedented … something never before suffered … something God has never asked of anyone else, any other time. But that temptation is a trick, a ruse to cheat us of connections to our heritage. Because this suffering – this waiting – this longing – is more fundamentally a repetition of ancient patterns than a novel curse. And our response to this suffering, when powered by connections to those ancient patterns, can refresh us with the comfort of God (old as time and new every morning).

Our suffering as we wait is, definitively, the same song, different verse, and Israel’s hymnal voices the timelessness of our dilemma:

“I wait for the LORD, my soul waits, / and in his word I hope; / my soul waits for the Lord / more than those who watch for the morning, / more than those who watch for the morning” (Psalm 130:5–6).

“For God alone my soul waits in silence; / from him comes my salvation… / For God alone my soul waits in silence, / for my hope is from him” (Psalm 62:1, 5).

To be God’s people has always meant waiting … for God.

Granted, David wrote psalms in which waiting pointed to the arrival of a Messiah as the fulfillment of waiting. But Jesus wasn’t the endpoint. Jesus himself had to wait. Born, like all humans, into an infancy that limited him, Jesus had to wait to grow up. Once grown, and baptized, Jesus had to wait to begin ministry – had to endure fasting and temptation in the wilderness, first. Preaching and healing for three years, persecuted and misunderstood and maligned, homeless and ultimately friendless, Jesus had to wait even to be nailed to the Cross. And (oh, what a comfort!) Jesus himself chafed at waiting, multiple times. He lamented over Jerusalem, “How often have I longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks…?” (Matthew 23:37). He angrily asked clueless followers, “How long must I put up with you?” (Mark 9:19). Finally, Jesus’s last instructions to his disciples (Acts 1:4) were to “wait for the promise of the Father” in Jerusalem. We want so much to see Jesus as the end of our long wait – and he is! But there is more waiting to do.

The apostle Peter walked beside Christ, witnessed Christ in his resurrected form, and carried the flame of faith into Christ’s church, at Christ’s command. Peter obeyed Jesus’s last instructions, “wait,” with the result that Peter and Pentecost became conduits of Holy Spirit power, birthing that Church. But Peter persisted in waiting, for a lifetime. Indeed, Peter identified waiting as an integral component of Christian (i.e., Christ-like) character. Peter – the illiterate, uneducated fisherman – masterfully re-articulated the waiting process of faith as a now / not yet paradigm rooted in the person of Christ and continuing until the return of Christ:

“But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance… Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire? But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home… Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation” (2 Peter 3:8–15, emphases added).

Peter, so intimately acquainted with messianic power incarnate in Jesus and so full of Pentecostal Holy Spirit power himself, points to waiting as a salvation activity.

Peter, like David, acknowledges the longing that is both process and purpose for God-followers. Unlike David, Peter confidently designates waiting – in itself – as an intrinsic, ongoing characteristic of Christian salvation. When we hear Peter’s words, we understand that the waiting continues… and will continue to continue.

Peter clarifies the truth we already experience: the waiting is made more bearable by the presence of God-with-us, but the waiting is heavy and hard just the same. As it always has been. Dare we name it? As it is meant to be…?

Entering Advent and looking to Christmas in the midst of unprecedented circumstances, we are bent with the same burden of waiting and longing that David and Peter experienced and described millennia ago. We are not exceptions to the rule or aberrations in the pattern of salvation history – we are integral parts, links in an unbroken chain, the people of God living God’s story today!

Matt Redman’s remix of “Joy to the World” begins, “Hearts waiting / waiting on a Savior / Come, O come, Emmanuel / Hear the Prophets / speaking of the promise…” The verse resolves in the assurance of the chorus “Joy to the world! / The Lord has come to us!” The tension is there, embedded in the music. We are waiting. And the Lord has come.

Eventually, this year – unprecedented and exceptional and extreme as it has surely been – will be absorbed into collective memory and relegated to that same distant place, “the past,” as the years in which David penned his psalms and Peter dictated his epistles. In the meantime, living out the remainder in hope is a holy obligation.

This year demands more than rote repetition of rituals if we are going to honor the One who is the same yesterday, today, and forever even as He is doing new things and offering new mercies daily! This year demands a both/and model for us: both honesty and trust; both surrender and hope; both lamentation and anticipation. To be authentically part of the continuous song of our faith, Advent 2020 must both name the big hurts and deferred hopes that this calendar year holds, and also celebrate the all-sufficient comfort of the Christ who came for us and continues to abide with us, even now.

In another both/and of our present day, there is a unique opportunity, this year, to experience Christmas in a context that resembles that of Jesus’s historical nativity. Political turmoil, economic instability, ethnic strife, no place of comfort to rest weary, aching selves… this was the reality for Mary, Joseph, and the shepherd witnesses. This was the reality on the night when angels briefly flooded the darkness with light and declared that the wait was over! Because this is our reality, too, we have the chance for a unique depth of intimacy on Christmas morning. We can know, down deep in our bones: Jesus came, into this mess, into this broken-ness, on purpose, for us. Amazing! Amazing. Grace.

So, come, all ye faithful, even if the joyful and triumphant energy of the season is less ascendant this time around. Come, adore the One in whom we can hope – in whom we must hope! – even now. Especially now. Come, and claim the precious ties that these difficult days provide for us, ties to the truths of our faith and our forebearers in it. Claim the songs of David, and the truth of the Savior to whom they point, and the end of the waiting that is our long-expected Jesus, born to set his people free!

“To you I lift up my eyes, / O you who are enthroned in the heavens! / 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” (Psalm 123:1–2).

“Be strong, and let your heart take courage, / all you who wait for the LORD” (Psalm 31:24).

Shannon Vowell writes and teaches on loving Christ and making disciples.

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