Joy in Waiting
Based on Isaiah 35:1-10, James 5:7-10, Matthew 11:2-11, Luke 1:47-55
It seems that we humans spend an inordinate amount of our lifetimes waiting, doesn’t it? Turns out, according to a Timex survey, Americans wait on average of 20 minutes a day for a bus or train, 32 minutes whenever they visit a doctor and 28 minutes waiting in security lines whenever they travel by airplane. Additionally, Americans wait an average of 21 minutes for a significant other to get ready to go out, 13 hours annually waiting on hold for customer service, 38 to 50 hours each year waiting in traffic, and collectively as a Nation we spend 37 billion hours waiting in line. Of all this time spent individually and aggregated, how much of that waiting time would you guess was spent filled with joy? I mean really, I can’t remember a time I rejoiced to be stuck in traffic or waiting for a doctor.
How about right now as you await the coming of the Christ? Are you filled with joy over the miracle of the reality of Emmanuel (God with us), or are you filled with anxiety over whether there is enough time in your schedule to get everything done by midnight on December 24th? Our scriptures have much to say to us about finding joy while we anticipate the culmination of God’s promise to us. The prophet Isaiah speaks of the joyous return of the people to Zion following their enslaved wait in Babylon. John the Baptist’s disciples are told to tell the imprisoned John what they have seen and heard Jesus and his disciples doing, and to decide in his own mind whether to be joy-filled that his wait for the Messiah is over. Mary sings her joyful Magnificat to God in spite of being a pregnant and unwed Jewish teenager in a land oppressed by the Roman Empire. There is indeed much we can learn about how to wait in joy no matter what our circumstances! Let us go to God now in prayer seeking after an experience of joy in our Advent…
Our reading from the Book of Isaiah follows a chapter where the prophet has had to tell the people of God what God’s vengeance will be on them…and it isn’t pleasant. Chapter 34 describes in great detail the harsh punishment that will be delivered; the land of Judah will become a barren and desolate place. Then, quite abruptly in Chapter 35, we have a vision of God’s benevolence towards the people of Israel. The land that had been destroyed will be redeemed and made into a garden. The glory and majesty of the LORD shall be realized throughout the land. Those who have waited faithfully during the exile will be saved by the very same hand of God that visited ruin upon them. Great healings shall occur and God’s people will return to Zion on a road named the “Holy Way”. They will return to Jerusalem with singing and great joy as the ransomed and redeemed of the LORD.
The Gospel according to Matthew depicts how John the Baptizer spent his time in jail. John had a lot of time to think about things while awaiting the final judgement of Herod on his case. Even though the fetal John had leaped with joy when pregnant Mary came to visit his mother, Elizabeth, in the here and now John began to wonder if his cousin really was THE Messiah. He had heard what Jesus was doing and it obviously didn’t fit with his concept of what the “promised one” was supposed to do. So, John sent some of his disciples to Jesus to get the answer straight from the source. Jesus replied with a nonchalant, “Go and tell John what you hear and see”. That is, go and tell John that the vision of the prophet Isaiah is a lived reality in John’s time. I wonder if those reports brought joy to John in his waiting?
Mary, newly pregnant by the Holy Spirit travels to visit her cousin, Elizabeth, who the angel has told her is already 6 months pregnant. As was mentioned regarding the fetal child who would become John the Baptizer, at the sound of Mary’s voice he leaped with joy in the womb. Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and was allowed to realize that the long-awaited Messiah was present within Mary. She blesses Mary with a three-fold blessing and then Mary – filled with joy at what she has heard breaks into song. Her joyous song mirrors the song of her ancestors Miriam and Hannah at their deliverance. Her joy at the realization that God’s promise is being fulfilled through her in her time is complete. In her womb is the realization of all that God had been doing with God’s people since the initial promises made to Abram about a thousand years in the past. Mary is unable to contain her joy at being so very blessed.
Joy that Exile will end…joy that the Christ (the Messiah) will come…joy that the Messiah was bringing to life what God had promised through the prophets. There was certainly joy when the Exiles were released from Babylon by the Persians and allowed to travel back to Jerusalem with their holy relics. However, their joy turned to dust in their mouths once they saw the ruin and the amount of rebuilding that would be required just to get Jerusalem livable again. There was joy when some recognized the Messiah for who He was, but then he was killed in a most horrific manner and though He rose, He did not linger; He promised to return, but still we wait. I daresay that most of us, and our spiritual ancestors before us, are not and did not spend this wait in joy.
Joy is difficult; it is most often a fickle and ephemeral experience. It is here and then it is gone – it just doesn’t last. Happiness is akin to joy, but the latter is more profound than just being happy – it is a total and divine experience outside of oneself and the situation one is in. The writer of our Advent study tries to get his arms around joy by writing, “…joy defies category and is nearly inexplicable…joy cannot be manufactured, sought or studied…it is not something you can achieve…joy is a gift. Joy, the steadfast assurance that God is with us, is experienced as the unexpected fulfillment of anticipation….”
Allow me to say that in another way. Christian joy is experienced when each of us discovers the reality that God is present with us always while we wait for Jesus to come again. Emmanuel, “God with us”, was the fulfillment of this promise of God. In the fullness of time, God came to earth in the form of a human baby to begin a time where forever after God would be present with us. When Jesus died, the veil of the Temple was torn in two – there was now no longer a barrier between God and God’s people. Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to our ancestors and to us to be the intermediary and guide for us while we await His second coming. Therefore, while we wait, we are never waiting alone! This is the realization of our Christian joy.
Charles Wesley wrote about finding joy in our waiting in his poem that became a hymn. He wrote, “Come, thou long expected Jesus, born to set thy people free; from our fears and sins release us, let us find our rest in thee. Israel’s strength and consolation, hope of all the earth thou art; dear desire of every nation, joy of every longing heart….” He wasn’t only writing about the coming of the Christ child, rather he was anticipating the return of the Christ in honor and glory, bringing our waiting to an end with the reign of God’s kingdom. Charles Wesley was anticipating the joyous time when God comes again in glory, but also the reality of joy in the present time which is available to every heart, soul, mind and spirit that waits with longing for His return.
As I mentioned earlier, Christian joy is experienced when there is an unexpected realization of the anticipation of God being present with us always. Joy is available to us when we realize that God is always with us in our time of waiting through Jesus and the Holy Spirit. While we won’t know the complete joy until the fullness of God’s time, we can indeed be assured of experiencing joy during our wait when we let the Christ fully into our lives. Come into each of our lives this day, thou long expected Emmanuel, and allow us to experience the joy of belonging fully to you while we wait. Amen and amen.