How do you feel about waiting? What’s the purpose of waiting? How can we wait better? My sermon on prayerful waiting inspired by the Thy Kingdom Come nine days of prayer, preached at Derby Cathedral in Sunday’s Choral Evensong.
The Cathedral regularly invites parishes and deaneries for a tour and to take part in Choral Evensong. Repton/Melbourne deanery was invited last Sunday, as part of which I was invited to preach. Looking at the readings set for the service I was struck by how much waiting they included, and how much time we spend waiting. In my reading, I found J Watts Isaiah Word Commentary (2005) very helpful.
How do you feel about waiting?
We don’t tend to be, on the whole, very enthusiastic about waiting for things do we? Perhaps it’s because we spend quite a lot of our time waiting for things – waiting in queues and traffic jams, waiting for people to get in touch with us, waiting for our train or bus to arrive, waiting to get somewhere.
And there’s the other problem. The curse of busyness. The need to be seen to be doing. Doing stuff. It’s the attitude that Kipling talked about:
“If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,”
Then what? The next line, you may remember, is:
“Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it”
Which, amongst other things, is a very big promise indeed!
And so we often try to fill the unforgiving minute, or resent that the unforgiving minutes are going by too fast and we’re not filling them, or fail to fill the unforgiving minute because we’re overwhelmed and feel guilty.
And the Church can feed into that; there’s always more that we could do, should do, might do, are meant to be doing. But, at its best, the Church can encourage us to slow down, do things differently, prepare for and wait for things, and be changed by the waiting.
Today, this Sunday is a waiting Sunday. On Thursday we celebrated the Ascension, when Christ ascended on high, as we heard in the reading from Ephesians. We’ve also been reminded of that in the hymns and psalm. The Ascension has happened, Christ has returned to the Father, taking captivity captive. The disciples have seen Jesus ascend. And then have to wait. Wait for what turned out to be another 10 whole days before the gift of the Holy Spirit that Jesus had promised descended upon them. So we wait too. Wait to celebrate Pentecost next Sunday.
So, how do you feel about waiting?
One of the things that doesn’t help is that the Bible speeds up the times of waiting. In the middle of Acts chapter 1, the disciples are waiting and by the start of Acts chapter 2 it’s 10 days later and Pentecost has arrived! It’s the same with the psalm that the choir sang, Psalm 68. Paul quotes it in the Ephesians passage we heard read:
When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive;
he gave gifts to his people.
That’s a great summary of these 10 days, starting with Ascension and ending with the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. But in Psalm 68 it’s part of the long journey from Sinai to Jerusalem. This psalm tells of God’s triumphant journey from Sinai to Jerusalem, as represented by the Ark of the Covenant. “The Lord came from Sinai to the holy place”. Which summarises Moses, Joshua, the whole book of Judges, the reign of King Saul up until David finally brings the Ark to Jerusalem. That’s a lot of waiting! Depending on how you do the maths, over 400 years of waiting.
I’ve been doing some teaching on the deanery Journey in Faith course. This is a year-long course where people can find out more about the Bible, their faith, and God’s call for them. And one of the people on it was talking about his new commute to work. He understandably doesn’t like being stuck on the motorway, but he’s turned that time in to a time to listen to worship songs and to pray. He’s using his waiting well.
And it’s using our waiting well that is important. Turning our waiting into active waiting. Waiting by preparing. Which is what we’re particularly being encouraged to do in this short space of waiting between Ascension and Pentecost. The Archbishops of Canterbury and York are encouraging us to spend this time of waiting praying. Praying specifically that more people will come to know what we heard in our readings: that the Lord has created and chosen us, that God is our rock and Redeemer, that he loves us and desires the best for us.
And so around the country and across the diocese we are coming together to pray, to wait on God, to be shaped by him. So, for example, in Repton and Melbourne deanery we are encouraging people to spend the time praying for each benefice. If everyone else will forgive me for a moment, if you’re from the Deanery, it’s on the Deanery News that we’ve emailed out, and if you don’t have a copy, do let me have an email address and I’ll put you on the list.
For everyone, there’s the Thy Kingdom website, the prayer rooms that many churches are putting on, and the simple encouragement to pray, as we sit in church, as we walk around our parish, as we get on with our daily tasks. To pray that we and more and more people will grow up into the body of Christ, built up in love, knowing the love and power of God for themselves.
And as we prayerfully wait for Pentecost we can also reflect that this is all part of fulfilling the reading that we heard from the prophet Isaiah (44:3):
I will pour my spirit upon your descendants,
and my blessing on your offspring.
Fulfilling it 700 years after it was made. A lot of waiting, but a lot of hope as well. Because this, unlike the first 39 chapters of his book, was a hopeful prophecy. An encouraging prophecy. An encouragement to wait with hope and expectation. Not least because As his first hearers would probably have recognised, and we probably don’t, Isaiah was referring back to Moses in this passage. The clue is particularly in the strange name that got used:
Do not fear, O Jacob my servant,
Jeshurun whom I have chosen.
Jeshurun is only used as a name for Israel a few times, including in Deuteronomy 32, where Moses talks about the ways that Israel failed to wait for God:
Jacob ate his fill;
Jeshurun grew fat, and kicked.
You grew fat, bloated, and gorged!
He abandoned God who made him,
and scoffed at the Rock of his salvation.
And so here Isaiah takes those words of condemnation and reshapes them into words of hope and promise. A hope and promise for his hearers, then and now. “I will pour my spirit upon your descendants.”
And so, in his letter to the Ephesians, Paul talks about the gifts that God has given us, to help us, to shape us, to encourage us. He talks about growing into those gifts, about being shaped by Christ’s life and Christ’s presence. And as we watch and wait and ask God to give us gifts and to shape us, let us hear those encouraging words from Psalm 68:
Blessed be the Lord,
who daily bears us up;
God is our salvation.
God, our salvation, daily bears us up. Is in the midst of what we are going through and calls us to actively wait, and to be shaped and grow as we do so. Amen.