I saw a headline the other day saying it wouldn’t be the holidays without an article telling us how to keep off those extra pounds. Then I stepped on the scales this morning and, well, let’s just say I didn’t read the rest of the article. We all need a little help with the weight. We also need help with a different kind of wait.
All John could see were prison walls. After all the crowds, after all the notoriety, after all the excitement of seeing the Spirit descend on his cousin in the form of a dove and hearing from heaven a voice declaring, “This is my Beloved Son,” it all came down to this: prison walls and despair. Where was the kingdom of God he’d heralded? Where was the LORD God of Elijah who could send down fire and withhold rain, who overthrew wicked rulers and established justice for the poor? John longed for the judge of heaven and earth to bring justice against the rich and powerful, against those who believed they could just use people with impunity, just use them up like tissues and then throw them away when they were done. John had a heartbeat for justice: that’s what landed him in prison in the first place. He’d spoken truth to power. He’d dared say to Herod the Great’s son, “It is not right for you to steal your brother’s wife!” And he’d landed in prison because of it.
On top of everything else, what John heard of Cousin Jesus threatened to crush his spirit. John had expected Jesus to clean house. “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire,” he’d proclaimed. “His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat … but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” John had expected Jesus to set up a reign of justice and peace in the land. Instead, he heard that Jesus was eating and drinking with the worst of society and spending all his time training just twelve people. He heard the same thing we do from verse 1: now when Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and proclaim his message in their cities. “Words, words, words,” John thought. “Where are the actions?!” So he sent friends to ask the burning question: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
We really hate to wait. We look for the shortest check-out line at the grocery store and, if we’re really in a hurry, we use self-checkout. We look at the line of cars in the drive-thru before deciding it would be faster to go inside and order. When stuck in traffic, we look to see which lane is moving faster than ours and then do crazy things to get in that lane. Of course it slows down as soon as we get there. We hate to wait!
But even more, we hate to find out that our wait was a waste of time. Has that ever happened to you? Ben used to tell me what it was like to work as tech support for Apple products. One of the hardest things to deal with, because he totally understood where they were coming from, were the people who waited 20 or more minutes just to speak with a live person and then had to hear they’d gotten the wrong department. Often they would be angry and take their frustration and anxiety out on him.
As John waited, he grew angry and anxious by turns, just like we do, and he wondered if he might be waiting for the wrong person. Sometimes we feel that way about God. “I keep coming to church and nothing changes. I keep praying and nothing changes. I keep watching for the light to dawn in my spouse’s, my boss’s, my friend’s heart and nothing happens. Bupkis: nil, nada, zilch. Is God even there?!”
Craig Barnes, president of Princeton Seminary, reminds us that “waiting makes us anxious, and anxiety makes us come up with plans of our own for salvation that are typically not so great. Most decisions made out of fear only make things worse.” He also says, “waiting reveals … that we are creatures and not Creators. If we were gods, we would never have to wait for anyone to make our dreams to come true. But life is created by God. When we lose the humility of this truth we inflict the most harm on those around us.” We lash out at our loved ones or, worse, we give up on God and give in to a sick, helpless despair.
That’s where John was when he sent his friends to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” And what was Jesus’ answer? “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”
Okay, let’s switch holidays for a moment. Instead of A Charlie Brown Christmas, let’s go to It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. Do you remember Charlie Brown’s little sister, Sally? She was so in love with Linus that she let him convince her to wait in a pumpkin patch while all the other kids went trick-or-treating. And as the two of them wait for the Great Pumpkin to rise from the most sincere pumpkin patch, she alternates between asking him if this great, wonderful, gift-giving pumpkin is really going to show up and threatening him if it doesn’t. All he could do was say, “Just wait. You’ll see.” Compare that to the word Jesus sent to John who also suspected he was missing out on something really good by waiting for the wrong thing. “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”
Here’s the thing: whenever you wait for something real and true, there will be help with the waiting. There will be help with the wait. There will be a foretaste of the feast to come. Your life will bear the fruit of your waiting. A transformation into wholeness will begin to appear in your life and your situation. Yes, God asks us to wait, but God does not ask us to wait unassisted. The waiting itself opens our eyes and ears to see the reality of what we are waiting for. You may feel stuck in a relationship right now, but as you wait faithfully you begin to see a change in your own attitude that heralds a change in the relationship itself. You may feel stuck in a dead-end job, but as your waiting creates trust, new possibilities begin to blossom. God does not ask us to wait without giving us a taste of what we’re waiting for.
Amazing things really are happening around us if we just have the ears to hear and the eyes to see. But like John, sometimes we need someone else to point it out to us. Krista Tippett hosts a radio show on NPR called On Being. She was recently interviewed about the response to her book, Becoming Wise. She said,
Even in early 2016, people were so weary – sore inside. In the 24/7 news environment, people are bombarded with the same story of what is catastrophic and corrupt and failing 25 times before lunch. They start to internalize that not as news but as the norm. An effect I see on people in conversations that came up around the book is, there are actually so many beautiful, generative things happening in the world.
Beautiful, transformative, life-giving things are happening – even in a 24/7 news environment that focuses on “what is catastrophic and corrupt and failing.” But if we only focus on those horrible things, how will we ever know? If all we ever look at are the walls, how will we ever see the open door?
The word of the Lord for our lives today.
Thanks be to God.
 M. Craig Barnes, “What Waiting Reveals” in Christian Century November 9, 2016, 35.
 Interviewed by Elizabeth Dias in Time December 12, 2016, 72.