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Hopeful Waiting

A sermon delivered by Michael Cheuk, Pastor, Farmville Baptist Church, Farmville, Va., on November 27, 2011.

Psalm 130:1-8

On this first Sunday of Advent, we light the candle of hope.  It seems that we all need a measure of hope these days.  The economy is still struggling, not just in America, but throughout the world.  People are getting restless about the growing disparity between the rich and the poor.  There’s instability in many governments throughout the globe.  We are not certain about the kind of future that our children will face when they grow into adulthood.  Many are mired in the depths of an economic recession, while others are struggling in the depths of a psychological depression.  These are unstable times that we’re living in, and we hope that better days are ahead. 

In our scripture lesson this morning, the psalm writer was crying out to the Lord from out of the depths.  We don’t know the exact circumstance that is causing him to feel like he is in the depths, but the psalm writer is crying out because of sin, crying out because of a need for forgiveness and mercy, because of a need to be made whole and to be redeemed.  Yet, even in this state, the psalm writer makes this proclamation: “I wait for the LORD, my soul waits, and in his word I put my hope.  My soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen wait for the morning, more than watchmen wait for the morning.”  In dire straights, the psalmist is engaged in hopeful waiting.

When we use the word “hope,” we often mean our desire for something good to happen in the future, but we’re uncertain whether it will take place or not.  For example: “I hope the Washington Redskins will have a winning season,” means, “I desire that the Redskins will win more games than they lose this season, but I don’t have any certainty that they will achieve that.”  I also hoped that UVa would beat Tech yesterday in football . . . and, as we all now know, my uncertainty regarding that outcome was well-founded!   I guess there’s always next year! 

You see, in everyday conversations, we use the word “hope” to express our desire for a certain outcome in the face of uncertainty.  But in the Bible, when the word “hope” is used in relationship to God, there is an expectation, a confidence that it will happen, as confident as a watchman looking for signs that the sun is about to rise in the morning.  As Pastor John Piper puts it: “Biblical hope is never based on what is possible with man. Biblical hope looks away from man to the promise of God.”  Therefore, “whenever faith in God looks to the future, it can be called hope.”[1] 

As Christians, we have hope in our future because we have faith that our future is secured and fulfilled in God.  But that future is not yet a present reality.  Just like the hour before sunrise, when it is darkest before the dawn, there is still a gap in time between our current dark situation and the bright future that is promised to us by God.  And this is where waiting comes in.  In our culture, waiting is a bad thing.  We are almost trained to want fast food, one-click shopping, instant streaming of movies, and no-wait customer service.  I was at the grocery store earlier this week getting several things for our Thanksgiving meal, and of course, I got behind a really slow customer.  While she was counting out her change, I found myself getting impatient, looking over at other aisles only to see customers who were about the same place in other lines already checked out and out the door.  I had to remind myself to take several deep breaths and remember that everything was going to be OK, and that it wasn’t the end of the world.  But I wondered why waiting a couple more minutes was getting me all irritated. 

The Bible depicts many people who waited a long time in order to live into the future that God had for them.  Jacob waited seven years before he was able to marry the girl he loved.  Joseph waited for years in a prison before he was finally freed to become a high official in Egypt.  Mary waited for nine months before she gave birth to Jesus.  Jacob, Joseph and Mary all had to wait.  But they did not just sit there, arms crossed, twiddling their thumbs, passively waiting for God to do God’s thing.  No, they spent that time of waiting preparing for the future that God had promised.  Jacob labored for seven years under his uncle Laban in order to win Rachel’s hand in marriage.  Joseph’s time in prison was a graduate course in humility to prepare him to rule with compassion.  Mary’s pregnancy was a time for the son of God to literally grow inside her so that Jesus could be birthed in the fullness of time. 

I think a pregnancy is a wonderful image of what it means to engage in hopeful waiting.  When a woman is pregnant, she doesn’t just lounge around watching TV and eating potato chips while passively waiting for the baby to pop out.  The waiting that takes place is usually active in preparation for the birth.  She may change her diet to eat healthier foods.  She may quit habits like smoking and drinking alcohol.  She may exercise more to strengthen her body.  She may renovate a guest room to turn it into a nursery.  She may begin to envision what a future would look like with this new child. 

But while there are many things that a mother-to-be can do during her time of pregnant waiting, there are also many things that she cannot do.  She cannot speed up the process or take a short-cut; she can’t decide to deliver the baby in four months.  There are no quick-fixes for morning sickness or late-term fatigue.  Instead, this period of waiting invites a woman to be present in her pregnancy, to “be here now,” to notice the changes in her body, the development and movement of the fetus.  During this time of gestation, there are many things that are beyond a mother’s control, and she has to learn to trust her body and the growth of the fetus.  And most of all, this time of waiting is an invitation to pray, to ask for and trust in God’s grace and care for that child.    In a healthy pregnancy, there is hope in the sense of expectation and anticipation that a baby will be born, but even then, there is waiting for the fullness of time for the birth to take place.  I think these are all reminders to us parents that our children were never ours to possess in the first place.  While we play a crucial and important part in bringing children into the world and raising them up, they are, in the final analysis, gifts from God, and they belong to God and not to us. 

While I find the image of pregnancy to be a wonderful image of what it means to engage in hopeful waiting, about half of you in this sanctuary may not see how this could apply to your life.  Perhaps all of us, then, might consider these questions that come at the idea a little differently.  What do you think God is wanting to birth in your life?  As you reflect on your life, how do you bridge the gap between where you are right now and where God wants you to be? 

Some of us this morning are probably feeling OK about ourselves . . . our lives are not in turmoil, we feel like we have our future pretty much under control.  We have pretty much what we want, and we don’t feel like we need to wait on anything.  That’s not necessarily a bad place to be, but this current situation may mask our true spiritual condition.  It is easy to trust in God when things are going our way.  But what happens when things go south, when our business dwindles, when our health fails?  Can we still trust God for our future without being excessively anxious, fearful and controlling?  Can we continue to be generous toward others without obsessing over our future and our problems?  Might our comfort and ease make us less open to the new thing that God is trying to birth in our lives?  Might we be guilty of the sin of self-sufficiency?

Some of us this morning know exactly what the psalm writer is experiencing.  We are in the depths.  For some, it is due to situations we can’t control, but for others, it is because of our mistakes, our failures and our sins.  We are crying out to God for help, and God seems awfully slow to respond.  Can we hope in God, trusting that in the fullness of time, an answer will come?  Can we let go of our need to control God’s timing, and let God shepherd us through a time of hopeful waiting? 

Some of us this morning are neither feeling OK about ourselves, nor are we crying out.  We are just going through the motions.  We are bored and we’re looking for things to entertain and amuse us.  Walter Benjamin once recounted the story of a 19th century Paris neurologist whose patient was complaining of boredom.  The physician performed a thorough physical examination.  “There’s nothing wrong with you,” pronounced the doctor.  “Just try to relax—find something to entertain you.  Go see Deburau some evening, and life will look different to you,” said the physician, referring to a popular French comic and mime.

“Ah, dear sir,” responded the patient, “I am Deburau.”

“We are bored,” said Benjamin, “when we don’t know what we are waiting for.”[2]

On this first Sunday of Advent, we know that we are waiting for Jesus, God’s promised One, to come into our world and into our lives, to mend our brokenness by his unfailing love, to forgive us of the sin of our self-sufficiency and boredom, and to redeem us for a mission no less audacious than the redemption of the world.  We are waiting for the birth of Christ and for the birth of our full humanity in Christ.

In our hopeful waiting, let us ask ourselves these questions:

What are some things we need to change?

What bad habits do we need to drop?

What do we need to exercise more?

What do we need to set up to receive Jesus?

What future do we envision with this Christ child?

We are hopeful, not as in wishful thinking, but we hope in God, because we expect and trust that God’s future will be done on earth as it is in heaven, in our lives and in our church.  And we are waiting, not passively, but actively in preparation for God’s coming.  In our hopeful waiting, may we be ready when Christ comes.  Come, Lord Jesus.  Come!  Amen.

[1] John Piper, http://www.desiringgod.org/resource-library/sermons/what-is-hope.

[2] Thomas Long, “Why Sermons Bore Us,” The Christian Century, (Sept. 6, 2011), p. 31.