Waiting

“I thought that continence arose from one’s own powers, which I did not recognize in myself. I was foolish enough not to know…that no one can be continent unless you [O Lord] grant it. For you would surely have granted it if my inner groaning had reached your ears and I with firm faith had cast my cares on you.” 

St. Augustine, Confessions

The 2nd lesson appointed for today is a reading from the book of HebrewsHebrews is a different sort of book than the rest of the Biblical canon. For one, it’s not a book but a sermon put in letter format. Placed in letter form, the ancient Christians would circulate the speech from church to church much like the pastoral letters of St. Paul. Sermons and letters that passed from community to community kept everyone on the same theological page, more or less. Two, it’s the only book in the Christian scriptures with a sustaining argument. From beginning to end, the author is concerned with the nature of Christ: What/Who was Christ like on earth? What is Christ like now? Put another way, “Who, exactly, was and is this God-man?” If you’ve never read The Letter to the Hebrews in one sitting, I encourage you to do so. You may find the author’s argument convincing. You may find it troubling in parts. Like a good sermon, it has all of this and more. This morning I want to take for our meditation Hebrews 9:28, which reads, 

“[Christ] will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.”

~Letter to the Hebrews

One image the Letter to the Hebrews elicits dates back to Temple Judaism, specifically on the high holy day of Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement. On this day, the high priest of the Temple, and only the high priest, would go into the part of the Temple designated as the Holy of Holies and make sacrifice for his own sins and for the sins of the people. Yom Kippur was and still is honored and celebrated by our Jewish siblings. Whereas the ancient Jews had the Temple to make sacrifices, today, contemporary Jews make sacrifices through prayer, repentance, fasting, and alms-giving, to name a few. The writer of Hebrews takes the imagery of the great high priest, which any ancient Jew could imagine, and puts Jesus in that role. We might imagine Jesus as the high priest offering the sacrifice for the world’s sins, and within the Christian faith, even offering up himself as that sacrifice. Jesus, we could claim, is both the sacrifice and the sacrifice-er. Mixing metaphors, when we look upon a crucifix, Jesus remains the great high priest who offered himself up as the ultimate sacrifice dealing with sin on the cross.

Thinking on Yom Kippur again, those who gathered at the Temple would see the high priest enter the holy of holies. While he was in the Temple, they would readily wait. When he finally returned after making sacrifices, there was a grand celebration. God, working through the high priest, absolved the people. Alleluias were appropriate. There was a spirit of gratefulness. God’s people stand redeemed another year. Christians believe that Christ will come again, and those who wait are part of Christ’s Body, the Church. So, we might ask, “It’s been 2,000 years. How does the Church continue to wait? Or personally, how do you wait?

“It has often been noted that those immersed in today’s culture find it difficult to wait. We also recognize that appeals for patience have too often been used in the past to protect the status quo. Contemporary psychologists and theologians are reaffirming what the spiritual tradition has known all along: that “passive purifications,” experiences of impasse and frustration, and apparently fallow periods in our intellectual, emotional, social, and spiritual lives are often the seedbed for insights and breakthroughs that can only be received, not achieved.”

~Steven Payne, O.C.D.

Over the past two years, we have all experienced impasse and frustration on an individual, collective, and social plane. I know I have had one long fallow period intellectually, emotionally, socially, and spiritually for far too long. When I am reminded that those fallow periods in my life hold potential for insight and breakthroughs, it gets me excited. I’m happy to wait for these. Also, to acknowledge that there’s absolutely nothing I can do to achieve such great heights, but instead must receive them is undoubtedly a gift from God. It’s like a nurse saying, “the results are negative,” or a doctor acknowledging cancer in remission.” It’s a child screaming, “It’s Christmas morning,” or an alcoholic accepting sobriety. It’s the great high priest coming out of the Temple. It’s Christ died; Christ risen, and practicing how you and I wait for him to “come again.”

After the Romans destroyed the Temple in 70 A.D., Temple Judaism was lost. We might claim that this was a fallow period for our Jewish siblings. It was a period of waiting and watching. Whereas watching and waiting required the external function of sight, innovative rabbis challenged their flocks to look with the mind’s eye interiorly. Purification, they claimed, could now be done within the heart. They looked to the writings of the prophet Jeremiah who experienced the fall of the first Temple for inspiration, and to God, who would provide faith and hope – virtuous requirements for a new waiting period. Synagogues would increase, and Jews felt free to travel, live, and settle outside Israel. They learned new ways in which to wait.

The writer of Hebrews gives Christians a few ideas on how to wait on Christ. Starting in verse 24 of chapter 10 we hear, “Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” Here, “Day” refers to Christ coming again just as we await the sunrise each morning. Put simply, we are to love. Our deeds are to be virtuous and following God’s will. We are to meet together for prayer, worship, and accountability, encouraging one another while waiting. The writer goes on to speak about inviting love in all aspects of life. Bring the love of Christ into your life wherever you go. Invite God into your work, your family, and even into those places that are far-reaching for you. Put forth the effort while you wait. “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have,” he commands in chapter 13.

So I ask again, How do you wait? How do you spend your time? Do you believe that God can turn fallow periods into breakthroughs? What is God up to in your neighborhood, community, and into the far reaches of your heart? This week, I encourage you to notice how you wait. Don’t denounce boredom. It may lead to insight. Denounce busy-ness. Catch yourself when you’re not doing something with intentionality. Affirm silence. Pray. Take deep, cleansing breaths.

Wait on God

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