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There’s a line in a song from when I was a kid that goes, “I’m impatient and I hate waiting.” I think it was written for me. I always wonder why we can’t get things done with things as quickly as I would like and all my major pet peeves can be found around waiting for other people.
Because I have worked with kids for so many years, I have been accused of being very patient and, when I tell my family about it, after the fact, they laugh. My family and I have a deal, they shouldn’t tell me we’re ready to go until we are literally going to walk out the front door. I’m fine if I can wait by reading a book or sending emails on my phone, but if I get up from my chair and have to stand by the door, tapping my foot, while everyone puts on their shoes on or grabs a jacket, I’m not going to be happy. Just let me keep myself occupied until we’re actually leaving and everything is fine, but make me wait… not good. Call it being antsy. Call it impatient. Whatever it is, it speaks to the truth that I really want things to happen. I want action. I want excitement. I want to see things be different. Change. And I don’t want to wait for it.
This is where we find Israel at the time of Jesus. Well, most of Israel anyway. Of course, there are always some who want things to stay the way they are. In Jesus’ time, there were the Herods, and their followers, the Herodians, whose wealth and status had grown immensely while Israel ached under the thumb of the empire. They had been tasked with ruling over the people, keeping them in line, for the empire to receive loyalty and taxes. With all that they received in benefits from being wealthy and in charge, why would they want anything to change? If anything becomes different, then their situation is probably worse.
Similarly, while the Herodians got to rule the political world, the Sadducees got to rule the religious world, being in charge of the Temple and its worship. They could say who was in and who was out. They could receive the tithes and make themselves rich with them. They could conspire to throw people into prison who disagreed with them. Think of how they tried, and were eventually successful, in getting rid of Jesus. If you were this wealthy and powerful, because of your religious status, then, again, why would you want things to change?
But, almost everyone else in Israel wanted to see change. There were the Essenes who got tired of waiting because they thought Jerusalem and the rest of the world was so corrupt that even God could not redeem it. They took all they owned out into the desert and lived a monastic existence there. They lived like monks, together, away from the temptations of evil society.
One of the greatest ministries that they had was that they took in orphans and raised them. Some scholars think that, perhaps, even John the Baptist was raised by them because of his being born to very elderly parents and his later practices of living in the desert, his eating locusts, and wearing camel hair, his spiritual teachings, and his practice of baptism. These were things that the Essenes did as part of their practices. Some might say that John was their most effective missionary, trying to cleanse the cesspool of Jerusalem with the waters of the Jordan.
Then there were the Pharisees who wanted things to change things by going back to the way things used to be before the exile in Babylon. They recognized the many ways in which the Hebrew people had become like the nations, like Babylon, like the Greeks, like the Romans, and they wanted to return to the ways of the Law and YHWH. They did this by shunning and punishment. They took the spirit of the Law and made it into the letter of the Law – that went from Ten Commandments to 613 cruelties and condemnations. That is, they picked out every possible rule that could be found in the scriptures and made them a requirement. That was their wish for change.
The Pharisees might hurt our feelings, they might even cause harm, but the Zealots were scary. They wanted change and they wanted it now, so picked up a sword and they conspired to kill any who got in the way – Romans, fellow countrymen, anyone who was on the side of Rome and got in the way of a free and self-ruled Israel.
Israel was waiting, aching for a Messiah to bring them together. But each group wanted a Messiah that looked and acted just like them. They wanted to keep their own agendas and methods and have the Messiah tell them that they had been right all along. And, Jesus doesn’t sound like any of these. Jesus tells everyone that they have had it all wrong and have missed him and his ways for all of human history. In a similar way, we hear Isaiah beg, “Oh please tear open heaven and come down to us so the mountains would quake in your presence.”
When Jesus arrives, he says that God has always been asking for us to notice the thunder and the quaking caused by his presence, but we just haven’t been looking.
And we still aren’t. We still aren’t looking for Jesus as he really is. Like the Herodians, the Sadducees, the Essenes, the Pharisees, and the Zealots, we want Jesus to look and to act like just us and we don’t want to have to change at all. We want other people to change and we don’t want it to cost us anything.
I’ve only recently begun working on patience. I’m still not the guy you want to keep waiting at the door. And when I get it in my head to do something, you should probably consider it done, but… I’m trying to be aware of other people’s feelings and become more understanding of their needs. And, from that understanding, I think that’s where patience comes from. Knowing that other people have lives just like mine, opens me up the reality that I am not the most important person in the universe.
I have always had a complicated relationship with lines in the store. It has always been a guarantee that, if I am in line with you, you are in the wrong line. I remember being at Sprouts in La Mesa a number of years ago and I had just put all of my groceries on the conveyor belt. It was right as I put the last thing on the belt that the woman in front of me in line had four 2.5 gallon bottles of water and one of them absolutely exploded all over the floor. My first thought was, “How could this happen to me?” In fact, I preached this story as a part of my first Advent sermon last year, and I told it just like that. I talked about how annoying it is to wait.
But lately, I have been repentant of that attitude. I have been thinking and wondering how I could be so blind to the fact that someone else just had a much worse day than I did in that moment. And, worse still, I bet my attitude, my tapping foot, didn’t help at all. I couldn’t see the opportunity I had to help make another person’s day better than it was, to help clean up, or at the very least, be kind and get out of the way of the workers, who had also begun having a worse day as well.
We are impatient for change, but we don’t want to change.
Isaiah invites us to be aware and to understand that God is here now and the God is begging us to change. But we, like Isaiah, pray, “Oh that you would tear through heaven and come down to us.” God has. “Oh that you would make the mountains quake.” They are quaking. Then and now, we just don’t hear it. We just don’t feel it. We just don’t see it. We tap our feet and ask, “How long, O Lord? How long until you arrive?” All the while the mountains quake with the presence of God.
We have to begin seeing the ways in which God is moving among us. We have to begin looking with new eyes to see the reality that God is here and asks us not to be impatient with each other and the world around us but to begin the hard work of changing ourselves, long before we ask anyone else to change.
John Wesley said it well, “We should be rigorous in judging ourselves and gracious in judging others.” But so often, because we struggle to see God at work in the hearts and minds and lives of others; we are gracious with ourselves and impatient and rigorous with others, including God. We shout at the sky, waving our fists in the air, praying, “How could this happen to me?”
As we share together the bread and the cup, may we begin to flip that judgment and move toward grace, even the way we judge God. Move toward the hope of this season, the hope that love is on its way. Move toward patience for each other and for the God is quaking in the distance.
Lord Jesus, help us to see you at work in us and in our neighbors. Amen.