Hurry Up and Wait…

Patience is a fruit of the Spirit. So says the Apostle Paul in Galatians 5: 22. That being the case, I must confess that I’m not nearly as spiritual as I give myself credit for because I don’t wait well. Of course, living through this COVID-19 pandemic has revealed there are a whole lot of us followers of Jesus who are a little less holy these days.

My heart and my prayers go out to all my clergy colleague friends who are waiting to re-open the congregations they serve. They are hearing a thousand voices, each giving advice (both solicited and unsolicited) about when is the right time to re-open, or even if they should re-open. Every voice is an opinion with most differing in the advice given. For most pastors, it is a no-win situation, and yet all they can do is wait.

Though I am not waiting to know when to re-open a congregation, I am waiting to discern God’s direction for my life. After 28 years in vocational ministry, it was clear to us (my wife and me) that a season away was needed. The waiting is no fun. It is anxious. It is confusing. It is challenging. Yet, waiting is all we can do.

Waiting: A Four-letter Word

The word “wait” has become a four letter word, and I mean that in the worst sense. I’d rather do anything than wait? In fact, sometimes I would rather do the wrong thing than wait. That old prayer, “Lord, give me patience—and I want it right now!” has never been more true. In this digital age, with information at our fingertips, I don’t like to wait on anything.

The famous New England preacher of a previous century, Phillips Brooks, was known for not handling waiting too well. One day a friend saw him pacing the floor like a caged lion and asked him, “Dr. Brooks, what is the trouble?” Brooks responded, “The trouble is that I am in a hurry, but God is not!”

“I am in a hurry, but God is not” characterizes my lives, even my prayer life. I pray and I expect the answer today, this moment, the way I desire. God doesn’t work that way! And, what I seem to forget is that waiting is no passive endeavor. I need to re-learn a couple of lessons from Jesus as I’m waiting for an answer to prayer.

The Lord’s Prayer?

Jesus was a praying man. The four Gospels record seventeen specific times Jesus prayed. He prayed in different places at different times and for different reasons, but there is no prayer more meaningful than the words John records for us in chapter 17. This is the “real” Lord’s prayer.

You may recall when teaching his disciples how to pray, Jesus told them, “Pray like this: ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name…” We call that section of scripture in Matthew 6 “The Lord’s Prayer.” In a sense, it is Jesus’ prayer – the model he gave his followers. A more accurate title, however, might be: “The Prayer of Jesus’ Disciples,” since he said to them, “You pray in this manner.”

John 17 is “The Lord’s Prayer,” par excellence. We do not rank Bible passages, because all Scripture is breathed by God as the Holy Spirit spoke through his apostles, and yet, many believers throughout the history of the church have sensed they were entering a holy place and time as they listen to Jesus pray what has been called “The High Priestly Prayer.”

This is the longest of Jesus’ recorded prayers, and in it Jesus prayed for the Father’s glory, and he prayed for his disciples…not only those first disciples, but also “all” who would come after them…that means you and me. That’s right, Jesus prayed for you and me.

The Father’s Glory

Jesus prayed for the Father to be glorified in him and through him, and in praying for the Father’s glory, Jesus teaches us how to pray in our waiting on God. Jesus said, “The hour has come…” What hour? The hour of his crucifixion! The glory of God in the cross. Glory in the suffering. Think about that a moment. We remember the mount of transfiguration, where Moses and Elijah appeared and Jesus’ face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light and God spoke from heaven with a voice all could hear. I understand that glory.

And, the glory of the adoring crowd, throwing their cloaks and palm branches before him and shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” I get that glory. But Jesus’ first words are “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you.” This can mean only one thing: the death for which God was born is now at hand.

How does the cross glorify God the Father and his Messiah? It glorifies God because it shows the cosmic significance of God’s holiness. Jesus is crucified, dead and buried to preach the surpassing beauty of holiness. This is not a peripheral thing – take it or leave it. God’s holiness holds the universe together – if it is undone, all is lost.

The cross also glorifies the misery of sin. If sin were one grain less awful than the Bible says, then Christ need not die to bring it to an end. But at the cross sin is painted in all its wretched colors, so that the hearts of God’s people will forever rejoice at their freedom from this enemy.

The cross glorifies God’s love: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son….” Someone said: “I asked Jesus how much He loved me. He answered “this much” – then he stretched out his arms and died.”

It was in his suffering that God would be glorified. What suffering are you going through? Our (my)  prayers, too often, are for deliverance. Jesus’s prayer teaches us that our prayer ought always to be, no matter what the circumstance, “Father, be glorified.” We may not like the circumstances, we may not desire the circumstances, we may not understand the circumstances, but our prayer is still, “Father, I’m in this place and my prayer is for you to take this life, take these circumstances and use them for your glory.” It’s a hard prayer to pray, but when we’re waiting for God to answer, we keep praying.

Jesus’ prayer was answered (in one sense), but it was answered only after he went through hell—literally.

Prayers Unanswered

In another sense, though, the prayer of Jesus remains to be answered. As I reflect on that fact, I confess and repent of my own impatience in prayer and in life. Jesus prayed for you and me. Notice that Jesus did not pray for health or wealth or care-free living for his disciples. He prayed for unity. That’s such a nice sounding word, and as we look around the Christian landscape, we know this prayer is yet to be answered.

So, how can we be unified with so much division? We need to realize that unity is received, not achieved. The gift of unity can never be fabricated by humans, it must be made real by the Spirit of God. It’s not a unity of organization or administration for which Jesus prayed, but a unity in personal relationships, and the unifer is Jesus Christ.

Union does not equal unity. In marriage, there can be a union of two people, but they can lack unity. Each person operates with different goals and dreams. Self-interest drives their union and therefore prevents unity in their purpose.

The pattern for unity of believers is unlike anything else on earth. It is nothing less than the unity of the Father and Son. It is not merely a unity of organization, feeling or affection, but rather a unity of purpose, and Christians are drawn to one another because we are drawn to a common center, Jesus Christ. He is the source of our unity.

Within the Church, there have been and will continue to be wide divergences of opinion and ritual. Unity prevails whenever there is a deep and genuine experience of Jesus Christ. Unity in the body of Christ prevails when Jesus is the focus, and if Jesus Christ is ever made to be less than the fullness of God born in human flesh, unity begins to fade…and the prayer of Jesus goes unanswered.

Waiting and Working

Jesus’ prayer is being answered…if not fully yet. That’s because there is still work to be done. We might say, “Jesus, too, is waiting for an answer.” He’s waiting for us to take up the work…the work of redemption and reconciliation. A truly unified community of people is a supernatural fact that has a supernatural cause. A unified Church compels the world to confess that God is at work among us. The world will never know the power of God’s salvation until the world can see a Church that is united by its confession of Jesus Christ as Lord. That’s the work Jesus left to us.

It’s also the prayer he continues to pray. Yes, Jesus is still praying for us. The Apostle Paul reminds us in Romans 8:34—“Who then will condemn us? No one—for Christ Jesus died for us and was raised to life for us, and he is sitting in the place of honor at God’s right hand, pleading for us.

So, while I’m waiting for God…waiting for an answer…I pray and I work. I do it because I have faith. I believe the Father. I believe the Father’s love. Jesus prayed and prays because he believes the Father is faithful.

Sweeping across Germany at the end of World War II, Allied Forces searched farms and houses looking for snipers. At one abandoned house, among a heap of rubble, searchers with flashlights, found their way to the basement. There, on the crumbling wall, a victim of the holocaust had scratched a Star of David. And beneath it, in rough lettering, they found the following message:

I believe in the sun—even when it does not shine;

I believe in love—even when it is not shown;

I believe in God—even when he does not speak.

Well, God does speak, and God hears and God moves. But, I’m learning again that He does not always speak, or hear, or move immediately. Sometimes He waits to answer. God wants us to wait on Him for His answers.  Will you, with me, learn to wait, and in the waiting continue to pray, and continue to work?

Until next time, keep looking up…

Some days are like that…

I can’t remember where I heard the saying, but as a preacher, I appreciate the sentiment: “It’s better to have something to say than to have to say something.” That’s the way I felt Sunday–I had a lot more to say than I had time to say it. It was communion Sunday, and it was All Saints Sunday, so that meant time for the sermon was limited (yes, there are those who wish time for the sermon was limited every week–but, that’s another blog!). I’m currently preaching a sermon series entitled Crossings: Facing the Challenge of Change, and Sunday’s message was “Overcoming Obstacles,” from Joshua 6. I really felt like I didn’t have enough time to do the passage or the story justice. To use another old cliche, I felt like I left too much meat on the bone.

Of course, I shouldn’t be too bummed about it, though. One of my old preaching professors taught us not to use all our material in one sermon. We will have to preach again someday. I don’t know if others find this to be the case, but it’s harder for me to write a short sermon than it is to write a longer one. And, I never know if I’m leaving out the right stuff or including the wrong stuff in the sermon when I shorten it. I suppose that’s why the Holy Spirit is so important in preaching, huh?

I also believe the power of the Holy Spirit makes it impossible to preach the same sermon twice. Yes, I might use the same manuscript, but something has changed. I notice it every Sunday morning. We have three worship hours at FUMC, MONROE every Sunday morning, and the same manuscript doesn’t preach the same way at any of the three. There are three participants in every sermon: The Holy Spirit, the preacher and the audience. If the preacher has prepared appropriately, the Holy Spirit has been active throughout the process, and He is certainly active in the moment of the preaching. I can preach the same manuscript, but the work of the Holy Spirit determines what the congregation hears, what they respond to, what touches their heart, and I’ve discovered every group will respond to different parts of the message. I just find that fact interesting, and I just laugh when I hear a preacher say they never preach the same sermon twice. I’m of the considered opinion that if a sermon was good once, it can only get better with use. But, I ramble…

So? What did I leave out? I’m glad you asked! Click on the link “Overcoming Obstacles” above to hear the sermon, so I won’t rehash it here, but I left out (at least for me) one major point: Obstacles in life present an opportunity to learn patience. I know patience is one of the fruits of the Spirit, but this is one area where the Spirit continues to challenge and convict me. I’ve often said I’ve quit praying for patience because the Lord doesn’t give me patience. He gives me opportunities to learn patience, and that becomes very frustrating.

I can’t imagine how frustrating it must have been for the nation of Israel to march around the city of Jericho every day. Day one–walk around the city, and wait. Day two–walk around the city, and wait. Day three–well, you get the picture. The city was only 8 – 12 acres (depending on the commentator consulted), so it couldn’t have taken more than an hour to walk around it. Suffice it to say, there was a whole lot more sitting and waiting than there was marching. I’m thinking that got old after the first couple of days, but this was more about doing God’s work God’s way than it was about the conquest itself. Sometimes, there are days we have to wait for God’s plan to unfold. As frustrating as it can be for us in our digital, get-it-now world, waiting (ergo, patience) is a spiritual discipline–and one we desperately need to practice these days.

traffic lightI’ve learned I need to count to three when the traffic light in front of me changes from red to green. If I don’t, I’m likely to get run over. It’s because fewer people pay attention to red lights anymore. I was sitting at an intersection near the church I serve last week. I was stopped because my light was red. My light changed to green. I counted to three. As I started to move, this lady in her nice SUV turned in front of me, either oblivious to the fact she just ran a red light, or not caring that she ran a red light. I would like to pass it off to inattentiveness on her part, but I’ve witnessed too many people, not hastening through caution lights, but blatantly running red lights. A person can get killed these days!

What’s the lesson, you ask? Beyond “Don’t run red lights,” you mean? Try this:

I think too many of us see red lights as obstacles that keep us from where we want to go, where we NEED to be (as though where we need to be is any more important than where anyone else needs to be, but that, too, is another blog). Rather than seeing red lights as obstacles, why not view them as opportunities to learn patience, to use red lights as a spiritual discipline? Why not use the time sitting at red lights to give thanks to God for my vehicle? Why not use the time sitting at red lights to pray for my family, or my co-workers, or friends? Why not use the time sitting at red lights to pray for the person in the car next to me? Why can’t I see that red light as an opportunity to be patient? Honestly, it generally takes more than one prayer to see the hand of God move. Every circuit around the city of Jericho was an opportunity to pray for the hand of God to move through the nation of Israel. Every red light can be an opportunity to pray for the hand of God to move in our lives, or the lives of someone else.

God’s timing is always right. Sometimes, we have to do some marching around to see what God can do. Now, here’s my confession…I blew my horn at the lady in the SUV! Whew! I feel better now.

Until next time, keep looking up…