Why does God Wait?
Why does it take so long for God to act?
I ask this question as we approach Easter. During Holy Week we remember and celebrate the in-breaking of God into our world. Jesus, the Son of God, announces his presence with miracles and messages, with power and love. The crowd applauds and waits in eager expectation for the world to change… and by the end of the week, Jesus is crucified, dead, and buried. The Lord of the Universe is condemned to die in a collaborative effort of the world’s elite. The sky grows dark, the earth shakes, and then… silence.
There is no retribution; no fire from heaven; no plagues or punishments. Only grief, silence, and the stillness of the tomb.
From Friday until Sunday the Apostles hide from authorities and seek shelter from the public with no one to heal their wounds, give them instantaneous forgiveness, or tell them everything is going to be alright. One of the Twelve, devastated by his role in the death of Jesus, hangs himself in grief.
Why does God wait?
If I had a superpower, it would be the ability to know the future; to determine the outcomes of actions and events. For years I have asked God to guide my steps with the sense that if I did the correct things, then I would receive the correct outcomes. But alas, I have never received this gift of prophecy and foreknowledge. Like everyone else I act without knowing the outcome. I live with eschatological blindness. I know that good has been promised, I know that Jesus is returning, but I am constantly brought back to the words of the white robed martyrs under the altar in Heaven; “How long O Lord?” How long will You wait?
There’s a strange story found only in the Gospel of John. It occupies the literal center of the gospel and tells a long form story about the death and resurrection of a man named Lazarus. We discover that Lazarus is sick and near death. His family sends word to Jesus. Jesus receives the word and even though he loves Lazarus, he does not respond. Instead, Jesus waits. He in fact delays his return to such an extent that by the time he arrives Lazarus is both dead and buried. He not only missed the illness, he also missed the funeral. Why does he wait?
To show the glory of God. To reveal himself to the nation. To show his disciples the power of the resurrection and its TRUTH.
The delay was not a sign that Jesus does not love Lazarus, though his sisters certainly considered that to be the case. His tears betrayed his deep love of Lazarus to any who might have witnessed these events. The waiting angered and confused those who followed Jesus. They hurled bitter words at Jesus and accusations toward him when he arrived. Then God acted, and as we all remember the story, Jesus’ actions made it worth the waiting. Lazarus is raised from the dead.
That doesn’t make the waiting and the grief any easier to experience.
I am getting better. As I’ve grown and matured as a follower of Jesus, my feelings on the waiting that God puts us through have changed. My years of praying for patience has begun to pay dividends. In the past, the times of waiting and silence made me doubt my relationship with God. I was afraid that the waiting meant that I wasn’t heard by God or (worse yet) was not valuable in God’s eyes. I was afraid that the waiting meant that God didn’t truly care.
Now I know that God, the greatest of teachers, was waiting for my response, for my answer. The hardest part of teaching others is waiting for them to find the answer for themselves. As lecturers and preachers, we feel the need to instantly answer the question. We become uncomfortable with the silence in the room and blurt out the answer without giving the more thoughtful students the chance to work through the question.
Oftentimes the wait is imposed upon us that we can understand what God is doing. We need time to process our grief so that we understand that our need for God is real. Instant relief often helps us to avoid the bitter consequences of our estrangement and sinfulness. I need to feel the emotions of loss so that I can recognize my radical and desperate need for a solution that ONLY God can provide. In other moments in my life, the wait is important so that I could prepare myself for the work that has to come.
This recognition has caused me to pastor in a different manner in recent years. I used to judge my ministerial work like fast food restaurants judge wait times in the drive thru. I did not want my congregation to think that they were not important to me, so I would race out of my office or home for any perceived need shared by any member or friend of the congregation. I cannot tell you how many times I would show up to visit the parent of a member during a moment of crisis, and then discover that the member had no intention of visiting his own parent. I responded so he could stay home and sleep through the night.
That is not the intent of the Church, nor it is the ministry of the Pastor.
I am not here to relieve you of your commitments to family and friends, but to encourage you in them. God is working in us to create in us new hearts and a new vision of life. That which is done for us, is easily neglected by us. Do not sleep on the idea that God is imposing upon your life to teach you something, to correct your heart, to cure you of your lack of love for others. Perhaps God is not acting so that you might take your covenants and relationships seriously.
I have also learned to wait in order that I might be prepared for the task before me. I need to be ready to serve when I arrive. This means that I must have the time to prepare my hearts and sometimes my body for the tasks. I might have to suit up or put on the full armor of God before I leave the house. That takes time, but it is better to arrive prepared than to fail to deliver the comfort or presence of Christ that can only be evidenced by the power of the Holy Spirit.
We are not the main event. We are not the ones that people need. I cannot cure anyone. God is the one they need to see, and we can only help when Jesus leads the way through the work of the Holy Spirit. It is a very difficult dance in which we are the participants.
Sometimes God doesn’t answer me because I’m not ready, sometimes because others are not yet in place. So we need to wait. We need to learn patience.
When you’re in the darkness, don’t be afraid to wait to listen to the still small voice. You are never alone in the waiting. God is near. God sits with you in silence as we wait for the storm to end. And the people of God, when we are acting in Covenantal love, are here to wait with you.
God is preparing us. He is waiting for our maturity. God is asking us to gather around those who are in need. He is waiting for us to act. For us to wait together. The resurrection is close. Pentecost is coming. Jesus is Alive! We are simply waiting to see the sonshine again.
Will you wait with me?