Yesterday the alarm rang at 4:30 am in our hotel room in Palm Springs, Florida, and we juggled our luggage downstairs and waited in the dark morning for the airport shuttle, then sat in the airport and waited for the plane boarding to start, then we found our seats and waited for the plane to take off, and when it landed we waited in the aisle to deplane and head to the next gate to wait for the connecting plane to board. Once we settled into our seats and ready to take off, we were told there was a mechanical problem and it would be a 2 hour wait for it to be repaired. When all was said and done and we finally arrived in Minneapolis, we waited one more time on the curb with our luggage for our ride to arrive and bring us home. Our journey progressing in fits and starts, held up in the waiting.
Life is full of waiting. We wait for college acceptance letters and wait for the baby to arrive.
We send our children or grandchildren off to Iraq and wait to hear that they are safe.
We wait to find out if we got the job we want so badly, or to hear whether the house we made an offer on will be ours. We wait for the results of the blood test, or wait with hospice for our husband’s final breath. We wait for change and when it comes we wait for a return to normalcy.
The common denominator in waiting is the reality that the situation is out of our hands. It is now beyond our control. There is nothing we can do now, but wait, stuck in the space between what we have known and what comes next.
In the days leading up to our passage, we see the disciples after Easter. Jesus had returned from the grave, and revealed himself to his followers, His days are spent speaking to the disciples of the kingdom of God and a future in which they are to play an integral role. It is a rich time of faith and confidence, hope and excitement. The days are filled with color, purpose and meaning. Eating with him again, sitting at his feet, absorbing his teachings and hearing promises of power and the kingdom of God. Their belief is strong and sure, they are passionate, fiercely committed, men of purpose, men of destiny.
And then, he disappears. One moment they are standing there hearing yet again of the mission to the ends of the earth that they will be part of, feeling ready to do it, strong and sure, steady and full of faith. Then he is gone. Just like that. Suddenly they are utterly, completely alone, staring at the sky, nobody speaking. All at once they don’t feel so powerful, don’t feel so sure.
They are left - a little cold, a little damp perhaps, stomach growling here, itch on an ankle there, the sound of insects and birds in the trees around them, and smell of a nearby donkey.
Jesus is gone. Thud. The real world comes rushing back.
So there they stood, gazing after him into heaven, left behind to carry on something way too big and frightening on their own, to continue what he started. Looking at each other they must not have seemed a likely bunch for such a task. Nothing divine about any of them. Just a rag-tag band of Galileans stranded by their Lord in the middle of Jerusalem with nothing to show for their message but their own eyewitness accounts. And the command of their risen and now gone Lord, to wait.
They don’t have many choices at this point. They don’t know how to move forward on their own. They can’t go back. They are stuck with nothing to do but wait for God to act.
This week is the celebration of the Ascension. A glorious end to Christ’s ministry on earth. And also the space between the promise of the Risen Lord and its fulfillment at Pentecost. The security of the past is gone, and the future has not yet arrived. And right in the middle of it is the waiting.
Our culture despises waiting, It is often seen not just as an inconvenience, but as downright rudeness and an affront to your dignity. Most of the modern conveniences, or necessities, if you see it that way, of our culture, are designed to keep us from having to wait. We pay our bills instantly online, eat our fast food, and make our phone calls in the car before we reach places. We make reservations so we don’t have to wait for a table, we can get instant approval for loans and buy passes to amusement parks that let you skip the lines. Poor service most often means making you wait too long, and the source of most road rage outbursts is simply sitting behind someone who, for whatever reason, is making you wait.
We hate to be out of control, we hate to be left at the mercy of someone else’s timing.
Today we stand with the disciples, gazing into the heavens after their departed Lord, in the uncomfortable event of waiting. They are stuck in this one. Jesus is gone and there is no more chance to clarify what he meant. Now Jesus, when you said the ends of the earth what exactly did you mean? Hey Jesus, how will we know what to do, what to say, where to go?
It’s too late to admit to Jesus that they may have naively expected him to stay with them and see them through this process, that they were really only strong and sure because he was there to lead them, and that they really weren’t sure if they could carry out this one on their own.
They can do not a thing at this point, but wait.
Their waiting was not a giant pause button or a power outage. It wasn’t a halting of things with them left twiddling their thumbs and playing tic-tac-toe, sitting on the tarmac with their bag of peanuts until God could get it all started up again at the right time.
It was part of the whole process, God was still at work. Waiting provided space for preparation and cultivated their readiness for the next step when the time was right. And just in case they might be tempted to think they have what it takes already to go rushing out and change the world on their own, waiting forces them to realize that they are not the ones running the show.
If life could be broken into segments, far and few between are the parts where faith is strong and sure, where Christ is tangible and life is secure. The times when we know for certain who we are and where we are going, and we are confident in our path and our place – these are the exception, rather than the rule. Most often, we live in the unknown, when our faith seems to have slipped behind a cloud and things seem less certain.
But the covenant life with God is made up of all of these moments too. When jobs are lost, and children are born, and families are uprooted from their homes, when war decimates societies, and cancer invades healthy bodies, and we embark on brand new careers, or have a year with no change in it whatsoever, we rarely go through any of these things with the constant sureness of our place with Christ.
But these times when the rubber hits the road and the hypotheticals become real, when we can’t see the future, and can’t turn back to the comfortable past, we find ourselves in the place where faith becomes real: suspended in the tension of waiting. The space between the promise and its fulfillment - The place where the seed that was plunged into the dark earth has yet to penetrate the surface, where the incubating season of preparation occurs without our knowledge, where we are called to live in the anticipation for a step we cannot foresee, and told to wait and believe we are guided by a faithful God. And it is these times, the waiting for God times, that remind us that life is fragile and unpredictable, and we have very little control after all.
But these times of waiting also become reminders that even in the middle of all this real life awareness of our own weakness or inadequacy, God is Lord over all. All these things belong to God and not to us. This is God’s world, we are God’s people, our lives and futures are in God’s hands. God holds all this world with a love greater than ours, a grief more extensive, a passionate caring that outstretches the best of ours. God has this in God’s sights even when we can’t see the way in front of us.
And when we allow ourselves to wait faithfully on God we find in the moment of surrender that we are freed from the need to run it all ourselves, the need to be strong and able, the need to never fail. Then, when God does act, we will know for certain that it is not our own wit and wisdom, our own power and proficiency that saves the world, but the grace of God that includes even us in the grand scheme of redemption.
Being people of the promise does not mean we are strong, and sure, and steady, or that we make no mistakes and have answers to life’s questions. It does not mean we are able to answer every cry and meet every need, and finish God’s work for God. Being people of the promise means that in the all the times of waiting we remember together God’s faithfulness in the past, and that we remind one another of the promise that holds us until its fulfillment. It means we walk side by side one foot in front of the other for a cure as we wait, it means we pray for and call up and stand with and sing out and listen as we wait, and we don’t pretend we aren’t waiting – instead we sit in the discomfort of waiting alongside and with others. Being people of the promise means that we wait well, we wait fruitfully, we bear together each other’s burdens and joys, each other’s waiting, and give voice to the waiting of the world around us.
And it also means that when the Spirit moves, when God prompts us to action, as he will the disciples at Pentecost, we plunge in with reckless abandon, knowing it is God’s mission and not our own, that God will lead and direct us, and give us the strength to carry out the tasks God gives us. Not by might, not by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord.
May we wait well.
(image shared by Silvia de Lucque on Flickr)