“Don’t say patience. I hate it when people say patience. Everyone says patience!” A wily Lutheran pastor spoke these cheeky-yet-dead-serious words to me in a 2015 job interview. He asked me what the Lord had been teaching me in the past year.
My first thought was patience, but I quickly recovered and pretended that it was definitely not my first thought.
“That the Lord will never leave nor forsake me,” I hastily responded. “Good answer!” he approved. “Nothing can ever separate us from God’s love.” I got the job.
Yet, Tom Petty was right: the waiting is the hardest part. There is a good reason so many people jump to patience as their lesson of the season: it is a lesson that always bears repeating!
In the Book of Isaiah, the prophet is speaking to a frightened people. Their nation had split into two kingdoms, with the northern kingdom growing increasingly wicked. God was about to judge the north through the invading, barbaric Assyrians. Their brutality would be so extreme that God would later lay waste to the Assyrians for overstepping their role as instruments of refinement. They had become, by their own desire, instruments of utter destruction (Isaiah 10:5-7). Over half of Israel was about to become scorched earth—the smoke of incense replaced by smoldering ashes.
It is into that depravity and breathless desperation that the prophet’s words in Isaiah 11 began to soothe fear-stricken souls. And yet there remained that nagging word: will. A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse, the father of David, and this Branch will bear fruit. A shepherd will come to lead us. A king will come to defend us. We will taste God’s blessings. Will—as in not yet. The people would have to wait for the Lord’s advent, which means coming. The Lord will come, Isaiah was (and is) saying.
In other words, it is a very pregnant will, which is fitting because the will was received by a very pregnant Mary. And now, on the other side of the Ascension, the church waits in Advent again.
As anyone with children knows, a child who is asked to wait too long will likely find ways to destroy property, be it milk on the floor or crayons on the wall. And so God has left us with His Spirit, His good world in our care, and rituals to always draw us back to Him in heart, mind, and imagination. But still, we grow restless. Like the children in the famous Stanford “marshmallow experiment,” we may begin to settle for lesser things in our impatience to receive our double portions. We may begin to destroy the blessings we have taken for granted. We are all inherently prodigal, after all.
This, however, is essentially what landed Israel in trouble in the first place: Their lack of trust in God, their desires for their own rules, and their own sovereignty. We do this today. We can get intoxicated by it and even begin to consider ourselves omnipotent and omniscient, as preposterous as that sounds. We usurp authority to make others our obedient servants.
But that Shoot from the stump of Jesse that arose—twice—teaches us another way—a way of humility and meekness that trusts God. It is a way that makes no sense to us yet wisely instructs that it is best to put up our swords. Why? Because we so often die by what we live by when we should be living by what we died by—the grace of Christ.
It is important to note that even when the Israelites were waiting for the Shoot from Jesse’s stump to arise, the Son of God was with them and active. He was with Abraham under the “great trees of Mamre” (Genesis 18). He was with Israel in the desert (Jude 5). He was with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace (Daniel 3:25). In deprivation and devastation, the One who is coming is already here. Through His Spirit, through His Church, Christ is here in the waiting, urging us forward toward the glorious consummation of all things. As Fleming Rutledge wrote,
In a very real sense, the Christian community lives in Advent all the time. … The disappointment, brokenness, suffering, and pain that characterize life in this present world are held in dynamic tension with the promise of future glory that is yet to come. In that Advent tension, the church lives its life.[i]
What are we waiting for today? To quote the eighteenth-century African American poet Phillis Wheatley, what do we “pant for deliverance” from? Who oppresses us? What enslaves us? What do we lack? When will we find someone who will love us at our lowest, someone who sees how hard we scrap and scrape to no avail? We are haunted by both fears and hopes, but as we sing of the One who is coming in O Little Town of Bethlehem, “the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”
So, let us wait patiently, even if painfully. Let us look to that star arising in the east. Rest assured, the One is coming. Peace is returning. And when He does, we will rejoice with Isaiah, for in the day of Christ’s return, we will draw water from the wells of salvation with joy, singing,
“Surely God is my salvation; I will trust and not be afraid.
The Lord, the Lord himself, is my strength and my defense; he has become my salvation.
Shout aloud and sing for joy, people of Zion, for great is the Holy One of Israel among you.”
Isaiah 12:2, 6
Christians throughout history have instructed the faithful to wait proactively and productively. Martin Luther is thought to have answered the question, “What would you do if you found out the world was to end tomorrow?” by remarking, “Plant a tree.” What do you wait for patiently, even if painfully? What would it look like to wait proactively and productively?
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