Waiting for the Promise

post-office-line_6Waiting is prayer. Here we are, five days before Christmas, still waiting. Thanks to our commercial culture, where Christmas decorations are put up some time in July, that waiting period seems longer than ever. As the holidays near, the waiting in traffic gets longer and longer. We’ve been waiting for the break from work, from school, to finally arrive. Some of us have been waiting for the new Star Wars movie for months, even years.

And none of that waiting compares to the waiting of our Scripture lesson this morning.

The story of Elizabeth, Zechariah, and their son John is a thorough summary of the prophetic and priestly traditions of the Hebrew Bible. Elizabeth is a descendent of Aaron, Moses’ brother, whom tradition considers the first of the priests. Zechariah himself belongs to an ancient priestly order, each order getting their turn to preside over the sacrifices at the Temple in Jerusalem.

This time, Zechariah is chosen to enter into the Holy of Holies, the most sacred portion of the sanctuary. It was a once in a lifetime experience, ones that priests wait for their whole lives. And this is the moment when God chose to visit Zechariah with the good news: his prayers have been answered, and he will become a father.

Our reading skips over a crucial part of the story: Zechariah is skeptical that this will really come to pass. Because his skepticism causes him to question the angel, he is left unable to speak until his son was born. And at that moment, he lets forth with promises for God’s people: the role his own child is to play in the long story of salvation. His son, John, will usher in this Messianic era, where the long wait will final be over for God’s promises to be fulfilled.

A people waiting for the promise…A priest waiting for his turn at the altar…A father waiting for his child…A man waiting to speak…Waiting is prayer.

We have become a people unaccustomed to waiting. The ubiquitous presence of the internet and the power of microprocessors in our pocket have made it such that we have become convinced that there is no longer any need for waiting. Things like memorizing trivia and shopping at the mall are becoming relics of the past. TVs with fixed schedules are becoming as obsolete as rabbit ears or black and white sets.

There are not many places we still wait, but there are a few: traffic, the post office, the DMV, and the doctor’s office. And I’m not sure many of those are places we would identify as places of prayer, where waiting can take on a spiritual element. But maybe that’s because we haven’t been going about it the right way.

I have some thoughts about how to adjust…but you’re gonna have to wait.

There is a parallel to this conversation about waiting and patience in the world of psychology. Psychologists have tested around the concept of delayed gratification, the idea of saying “no” to an immediate, small reward in order to say “yes” to a more distant, larger reward. There was the so-called Stanford Marshmallow experiment in the 1960s and 70s. Preschoolers were offered a marshmallow along with two options:

  • Eat the marshmallow whenever they wanted
  • Wait 15 minutes until the experimenter came back and get two marshmallows

They then followed up on the children when they were teens and adults, observing that there was a strong correlation between the ability to wait and emotional and physical health. Recent technological developments have allowed researchers to determine that these differences are not simply manifested as behavioral differences, but are also borne out in differences within the brain itself.

In other words, waiting is healthy. And waiting can be learned, no matter how old we are.

We can learn a lot about waiting from Zechariah.

For centuries, God’s people have been waiting. The priests, in particular, would have known the prophecies promising of God’s return, of a Messiah, an anointed leader, who would come and bring them their hoped for salvation. In Zechariah’s time, there would have been a particularly urgent-felt need to shrug off Roman occupation to restore self-determination and order to their corner of the universe.

So when Zechariah enters the sanctuary to carry out the sacrifice, he has been praying for his family, their desire for children, a sign of hope in God. And he has been praying for the sake of all of his people, his tribe, his nation, and for their sign of hope in God. So when the angel appears to him and tells him his prayers have been answered, his immediate reaction is…disbelief. Surely it can’t be this easy.

I don’t know about you, but I can sympathize with Zechariah. There are those times when I have been praying for something; and then, when it actually happens, I just can’t quite believe it.

Is it that answered prayer sometimes disappoints? Do we somehow relish being doubters, preferring the half-empty glass to the one that quenches our thirst? Are we more comfortable with hopes that are unfulfilled than the ones that are made real? Has the world become such a place of predictability that surprise seems out of order?

I think that’s the case for Zechariah. It’s not that he wasn’t a person of faith. The lesson tells us that both he and Elizabeth were exemplary religious observers. They were righteous, good folk who faithfully executed the demands of faith. And yet, I am quite sure that when Zechariah hears that his prayers have been answered – not just about the birth of his son, but that this same son will be a turning point in the salvation of the nation – that this surprising good news is such a deviation from his posture of waiting that it shocks him into doubt.

It is this doubt that leaves him speechless. He is unable to utter a word, to tell people about his encounter. And he stays that way until it is time to name the newborn baby boy, at which point his tongue is unleashed in a flurry of prophecy.

For Zechariah, it was this imposed silence that shifted him from a posture of waiting to a practice of waiting. And that shift made all of the difference. No longer was he simply used to the “way things are” – he was now forced into silence and solitude. It was such a dramatic turn that he would likely never take the gifts of God for granted ever again.

Which brings us back to the post office. I have actually gotten to where I no longer dread going to the post office – in fact, I now actually kind of enjoy it! Part of it is just a simple shift in expectation. I know I’m going to wait. No matter how many times I might sigh loudly and dramatically, the line never moves faster. No matter how many heat daggers I might stare into the back of the customers who act as though they’ve never left the house before, no matter how many times I stare in disbelief at the number of counters that are unstaffed, none of that will ever make time move faster.

The brilliant late author David Foster Wallace, in his beautiful commencement speech at Kenyon College ten years ago, talks about this very fact. The way he puts it, this way of thinking – that the world revolves around me and that I should be angry at the slightest inconvenience – is actually not thinking at all. It is, in fact, our default setting. We can choose, he says, to think yesterday. “I can choose,” he says, “to force myself to consider the likelihood that everyone else in the…checkout line is just as bored and frustrated as I am and that some of these people probably have much harder, more tedious or painful lives than I do.”

In other words, we can transform the frustration of waiting into a spiritual practice of intentional thinking, of God’s desire, of prayer.

Now, when I know I need to go to the post office, I make peace with the fact that I am going to be there for a while. I no longer drum my fingers or pull out my phone to pass the time. Instead, I pay attention. I observe the people who are in line with me. I pay attention to the employees who used to be the object of my impatience. I notice things about them: the woman who needs a cane to walk; the man with a thick accent who is doing his best to make it through this transaction conducted in a foreign language and in a foreign culture; the couple with the kid who is more bored than I ever possibly could have been; the employee who hears the sighs and the comments about how long it takes and just absorbs or ignores it. And I pray for them: for comfort, for healing, for strength, for joy, for safety, for peace.

Don’t get me wrong: I haven’t completed the transformation into a paragon of patient virtue. Even at the post office, I sometimes still convince myself that I am in a hurry, and that my hurry is more important than the hurry of everyone else there. But what I have learned is that waiting can be a gift, that it can be prayer – if I let it be.

Today, in addition to celebrating this season of Advent, we are also celebrating our beloved Francisco Flores. For twenty years, Francisco has worked tirelessly as our custodian. And now, at the end of this year, he is retiring. For him, for all of us, there is a kind of waiting at work. And here is my word to speak into that waiting – or, indeed, into any waiting: let it be prayerful. Pay attention to what is around you. Take notice of those things that you can surround with prayer. Lift up those prayers: prayers of thanksgiving, of intercession, of passion, of sorrow, of joy, of hope.

And beyond all else, trust that, whatever this season of waiting might mean for you, that God is already there on the other side of it, preparing the promise and waiting patiently for us. May this be the trust which holds us all of our days.