I wonder how good you are at waiting. It’s part of life – standing in a queue, waiting at the traffic lights, waiting for a repair man to turn up, waiting for your shift to end, waiting for a hospital appointment, waiting to arrive at your destination. Most of us don’t much enjoy it. Despite the fact that many things are now available almost instantly – instant communication by email and text, travel that is faster than our ancestors could have dreamed of – it can seem that we have even less patience than we’ve ever had. In places where we have to queue – at the post office or the bank for example - there are often tv screens displaying adverts or information to while away the moments. And we whip out mobiles or other devices to fill in the empty time whenever there is a delay on a journey. You might even have a car with multi-media screens in the rear seats so that children never have to be bored enough to ask “are we nearly there yet?”, though I expect they still do anyway.
There’s a lot of waiting in our readings today. The Old Testament prophet, Isaiah, writes for the Jewish people in exile in Babylon. A whole generation has passed away since Jerusalem was destroyed and they were taken away from their homeland, a generation that has gone like the grass that withers and dies. Is anything ever going to change, or are they stuck there forever? Some had given up hope of a return. They had stopped waiting, and had decided simply to abandon any thought of returning. Some believed that what had happened was their fault anyway; they must have done something wrong for this calamity to fall on them, so why would God even bother to rescue them? But Isaiah tells them that help is on the way, and it is worth waiting for. God is coming to lead them home, and nothing is going to stop him – the mountains will be levelled, the valleys filled in. If they don’t wait, if they don’t hang on in there, they’ll miss the moment.
For those who did wait, history tells us that help came. The Persian king Cyrus overthrew Babylon and allowed the exiles to return to their own lands. The Jewish people went back and rebuilt their Temple and their city. The waiting may have seemed endless, and some of them didn’t live to see that return, but it came eventually. The exile wasn’t going to be the end for the Jewish people after all.
In the Gospel reading John the Baptist is waiting too, waiting for the time when God would send his Messiah, his chosen one, who’d bring in a new kingdom, a new way of life. “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; …I have baptised you with water; but he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit.” Like Isaiah, his faith wasn’t misplaced, and when Jesus began his ministry, it was John who pointed him out, sending his own disciples to follow him.
Both these readings tell us about people who were waiting for things that did in the end happen. In the light of history we know that they didn’t wait in vain. Their waiting had a happy end. The people in today’s other reading, from the second letter of Peter, had a rather different experience, though.
The early Christians believed that Jesus would return to earth very soon; maybe this month, maybe next, perhaps next year, but surely no longer than that, they thought. They believed he would come in clouds of glory, breaking open the sky. It’s all there in the letter; the heavens passing away, the elements dissolved, the earth and everything that is done on it disclosed. It would be something no one could miss, and when it happened it would signal the beginning of a new age, dramatically different from all that had gone before. They shaped their lives accordingly. St Paul told people who were single not to get married – why bother if the world as you know it is about to pass away? Everything was going to be different. All bets were off. If parts of the New Testament sound rather odd to our ears it is because it was written during a time when most Christians thought like this. The Gospels assume this is going to be the case. We can’t know whether Jesus believed it himself, but the Gospel writers certainly seem to think he did.
But the months passed and the years passed, and where was this second coming they were expecting? The decades passed and there was still no sign of it, at least not in the way they were envisaging. It was a real crisis for them. Right up to the end of the first century, this belief was central to their faith. The fact that they were prepared to keep waiting shows how strongly they believed it, and of course it has resurfaced from time to time ever since. There are always Christians proclaiming that this or that event is proof that “the end of the world is nigh”.
When Jesus hadn’t reappeared by the end of the first century as those early Christians expected, some of them probably abandoned their faith, but most began – quite sensibly – to ask themselves whether they had been correct in their expectation in the first place. In their eagerness for the mess of the world to be cleared up and for the kingdom of God to be fully established, they had fallen into looking for the quick fix, the apocalyptic magic wand, God’s dramatic intervention. They’d missed the subtler, quieter message of Jesus that the kingdom would come like yeast raising bread dough, or a seed sprouting unseen in the ground, fragile at first, but growing into a tree that gave shelter to all. They’d also missed his message that it would come through them, through their love and care for others, their work in the world.
“We wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home” said the writer of this letter – and so do we all. One glance at the news tells us how much we need the world to change, for it to be a place where “righteousness is at home”. But the question is whether we see that just as a divine gift, landing from the heavens, entirely separate from anything we are doing, or whether we see ourselves as having a part in making that new world.
The thing is that waiting can take many forms. Sometimes it is passive. There’s nothing you can do to hasten it, nothing you can do while you are waiting that will prepare you for what is to come. Shuffling along in an endless post office queue is a bit like that. Assuming you’ve got your parcel wrapped up and addressed, or your forms filled in, all you can do is stand there until your turn comes round. What you are doing while you are waiting makes no difference. The length of time you have to wait makes no difference – it is just that bit at the end when you finally reach the counter that matters.
But there are other sorts of waiting that are active, where what you are doing as you wait affects what will happen at the end of the wait. If you are pregnant ,the time you have to wait until the baby is born isn’t just wasted time. During those months, the child is growing inside you, being built out of the very stuff of your body. As any pregnant woman knows, what you do during that time, what you eat and drink, how you take care of yourself profoundly matters. It is a source of huge anxiety, in fact. The list of dos and don’ts gets ever longer. You can’t make the baby’s birth come any sooner by anything you do, but what you do is crucial to how that baby grows. There is a natural process going on which you can’t control, but which you are vital to. It’s like the yeast growing in the bread dough, or the seed sprouting, to use the metaphors that Jesus used of his kingdom. They take as long as they take to do their work. You can’t hurry them, because you need a good process to get a good result.
“Regard the patience of our Lord as salvation”, says Peter. No matter what strange beliefs he may have had about the future, he’s onto something very true and sensible here. It is in the waiting – God’s waiting and our waiting – that we have the chance to grow to be the people we are meant to be. How does the world become a place where “righteousness is at home”? a place where goodness is natural and normal, as it should be? Through our lives becoming places where “righteousness is at home”, where we have learned to live with kindness, respect and love towards others; that’s how.
In a sense all of life is waiting; we are all time travellers, heading for a future we can’t predict or control or hurry along. We wait to be born. We wait to grow older. We wait, in the end, to die. It all takes the time it takes. But if all life is waiting, then waiting is also life. Each day is a gift, each day a day in which what we do makes a difference to the future.
I wonder what you will have to wait for this week; for the kettle to boil, for the lights to turn green, for the queue to move on? How would it be if, instead of reaching for something to distract us from the wait, or tutting and fuming, we tried to wait actively? How would it be if we used those moments to pray for someone, to notice the world around us and the people we are waiting with? How would it be if we took that time to ask, “what needs to change in my life? What can I do so that righteousness is at home in me?” Maybe if we do, we will find that that God has showed up in our midst, after all, with the love and the peace we were waiting for all along.