I’m a bad waiter. Not like at Cracker Barrel, though I probably wouldn’t get very many stars on my apron because I’d spill too many things on too many customers. I mean: I’m bad at waiting. I just don’t like to do it. No matter how much I try to remind myself about patience, and taking a breath, and receiving the moment as it is — I just don’t like to wait.
Which is probably why I need this season of Advent. For Advent is about waiting.
On Sunday, the worship leader began by reminding us of this fact. He talked about waiting; how it’s something all of us have to do. Immediately, his words clicked for me, and gave voice to what I’ve been feeling. That feeling of waiting. Waiting for a phone call or an email. Waiting to hear back on a job I’ve applied for, or an opportunity I’m exploring. Waiting to see what my kids will become as they grow up. Waiting for loved ones’ health to take a turn. Or just waiting for peace. Or understanding. Or joy.
In my time of waiting, I’ve set a goal of reading N.T. Wright’s four-volume series, “Christian Origins and the Question of God.” I’ve started book one, The New Testament & the People of God. It’s full of fascinating insights, including Wright’s discussion of 3 of the sects who were active in the 2 centuries surrounding the birth of Jesus. Two of them we know from the New Testament (The Pharisees & the Sadduccees) and one we don’t (the Essenes). All 3 had 1 thing in common: their desire for the kingdom of God to come, for the Messiah to usher in God’s victory. But how they lived out that desire — or, we might say, how they waited — was what separated them from each other.
First, the one we don’t read about: the Essenes. They looked for the coming of the Kingdom, for a messianic rescue, but to prepare for it they withdrew from society. Seeing corruption throughout the religious and political systems, they separated and waited. They sought to live holy & pure lives, while waiting for God’s kingdom.
On the opposite end were the Sadduccees. Unlike the Essenes, they got right in the middle of religion and politics. Their desire for God’s reign came through trying to insert themselves wherever they could to make God’s kingdom come more quickly. Their version of waiting, in other words, was to make something happen.
Then there were the Pharisees. While we think of them in almost a completely negative light, they too sought the coming reign of God. Unlike the Essenes, they did not withdraw. Unlike the Sadduccees, they did not seek first power and influence. Instead, they sought to wait by living pure lives, while also working to influence religion and politics where they could. Now clearly, according to Jesus, the Pharisees took the wrong approach to purity; even so, their inclinations were grounded in good teaching. Purity matters. And so, in their “waiting” for the Messiah, they sought to live upright lives.
But they also were willing to insert themselves in the religious & political discussion (as they did with Jesus so often). Even though, as Wright points out, the Pharisees were not the official teachers of Israel (the priests were), they sought to use their influence where they could. Again, we see this in the New Testament, where the Pharisees colluded with the priests and teachers to do what they believed to be best.
Now, I’m not advocating anyone become a Pharisee, and they certainly misapplied a bunch of scripture. They did seem to get one thing right, though: their approach to waiting. For true, faithful, biblical waiting isn’t a matter of withdrawing until God does something (like the Essenes). But neither is it going out and making things happen, no matter what alliances we have to make or compromises we have to swallow (like the Sadduccees). Instead, I believe biblical waiting is both trusting God and seeking to place ourselves in a position to be a part of what He is doing.
For me, this is illustrated very well by John Ortberg, when he compares our spiritual growth to 3 different vessels on the water. When it comes to our waiting for God, there are 3 watercraft we can choose to use. The first is a raft. When you’re on a raft, you are completely dependent on the wind and the waves. There is nothing you are doing; you are completely at the mercy of the elements. Though it’s a bit of an exaggeration, we might say: the Essenes liked rafts.
On the other extreme, we can hit the water in a speedboat. In this case, we are in charge. We determine where we’re going, and how fast. The bigger the outboard motor, the happier the Sadduccees would have been.
But the watercraft Ortberg recommends is a sailboat, because in a sailboat, you’re not going anywhere if there isn’t some wind. But you’re also not going anywhere (or at least anywere useful) if you don’t set the sails. Even though they never got the hang of it, the Pharisees would have been good on a sailboat — if only they got what Jesus was telling them.
So, biblical waiting is not passively sitting around, but neither is it forcing something to happen. Instead, it recognizes that without the wind of the Spirit, I am going nowhere. But it also recognizes that I’ve got to set my sails to the wind; I’ve got to attune my life, and orient it to catch the breath of the Spirit. He moves; He leads; but I’ve got to be ready, to be listening, to faithfully wait for the Wind to blow.
So, how are you waiting?