So much of our lives are spent waiting. Waiting for the exam results. Waiting for the child to arrive. Waiting for the big day. Even on a daily basis, we wait every day. Waiting for the traffic light to turn green. Waiting in line for cai png. Waiting for our phones to be charged. Waiting is an essential part of being human. Even nature teaches us that we can’t have things instantaneously – ‘the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth’ (Jas 5:7).
Yet waiting is difficult. It reminds us that we are not in control. We realise we don’t have things at our finger tips. We learn that there are just things we can’t micromanage. We have to wait.
In a significant way, the smartphone hasn’t helped either. With this magical device, we buy groceries with a click, transfer funds with a swipe and even order food with a tap. These habits of smartphone usage form us into impatient people, making it harder to endure our seasons of waiting.
It seems to me that waiting involves looking forward and looking backward. Allow me to explain.
Waiting Without Hope
Recently, as part of my theological training, I was given the opportunity to do a series of pastoral visitations to the elderly at a nursing home. Often, I will begin the conversation by asking them preliminary questions like: What brought you to this place? How long have you been here? How are you settling in? (With my horrid mandarin, these questions took quite a bit of practice.) If they seemed interested to converse with me, I’d go on with deeper questions like: Are you close to your family? Do they come to visit you? Tell me more about your life? What did you do in the past? Some warmed up after several visits; still others readily wore their hearts on their sleeves. Sadly, for quite a number, the common refrain they expressed was, 我在这边等死 (I’m here in this place waiting to die).
This was especially so when they perceived that their family members were no longer keen to visit them. They couldn’t see any light at the end of the tunnel and so they couldn’t wait for the journey to end. They couldn’t see how they could be rescued from their sense of futility and so they couldn’t find purpose in living. In other words, they couldn’t look forward. All they saw in front of them was futility.
Often, their stories were filled with regret and futility. They considered their past and couldn’t understand why their children or spouses reacted to them that way. They wondered if they should have reacted differently in those heated pivotal moments. In other words, they recounted their past and found it terribly difficult to look back. All they saw behind them was futility.
With regrets in the past and hopelessness in the future, they couldn’t wait well in the present. The present was flooded with sad memories from the past and futile expectations of the future. In these intimate conversations, I saw firsthand what this sort of waiting did to the mood and wellbeing of these uncles and aunties.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, are you able to look back with joy and look forward with hope? Or are the regrets of the past and the sense of hopelessness about the future making it tough to wait well in the present? Let us learn from the Scriptures how the people of God looked back and forward.
Waiting in the Scriptures
Thankfully the Scriptures are full of encouragement on how to wait well. Throughout the various epochs of God’s people, they were called to wait well. In the Scriptures, this always involves looking backward and looking forward. Let me explain.
Abraham was called to look back at the promises God made and look forward to these promises being fulfilled. Even when waiting didn’t make sense, Abraham was called to wait well: It seemed Sarah was too old to conceive the promised child (Gen 18) – even so, Abraham was called to wait well.
In the wilderness, the Israelites were called to look back at the Exodus and look forward to entering the land. “But they soonforgot his works; they did not wait forhis counsel.” (Ps 106:13). They refused to wait patiently on the Lord in Sinai (Exo 32:1–2) and incurred God’s wrath. They failed to wait well.
In exile, the displaced Israelites were called to look back at their history, remembering the covenant God made with their fathers (Neh 9:6-31) and why God had brought them into exile (Isa 64:5-7). They were to look forward to God’s glorious intervention in the world (Isa 65-66). They were to wait well in hope.
Most climactically, on this side of the Incarnation, we are called to look back at God’s definitive intervention in his promised child, Jesus Christ – who came to deliver us not from slavery to Egypt but slavery to sin (Rms 6). He is the Yes and Amen to all of God’s covenant promises (2 Cor 1:20). We are to look forward to God’s glorious intervention again at the return of Christ (Mk 13:24-37, Isa 65-66). We are to wait well and wait actively in light of the two bookends.
In light of Christ, what does it mean for us to look backward and forward? How can we become people who wait well?
Becoming People Who Wait Well
Thanks be to God! The process of forming us into people who wait well is underway. This happens through the weekly and yearly rhythms of our church life. Let me explain.
Every week, when we celebrate the Last Supper, we look back and remember that Christ blood was shed and his body was broken and we also look forward to his coming again. In the present, we are called to wait well and wait actively. Every year, when we begin the church calendar year with Advent, we are called precisely to look back at the first advent and look forward to the second advent.
In other words, these weekly and yearly rhythms are forming in us the realization that to wait well, our lives must be framed by the two advents. This is because to live well, our lives must revolve around Jesus Christ. For God’s holy determination is that our lives will be lived revolving around His Son (Col 1:15-20, Rms 8:28-29).
What this means is this: learning to wait well may not require us to do anything new. It means hearty participation in the existing weekly and yearly rhythms of the life of the church. As we participate: sing heartily, pray fervently, listen carefully, remember joyfully and hope longingly, we can’t but change into people who wait well.
Helping Others to Wait Well
Coming back to the conversations at the nursing home, I have to say that I wished these residents knew that it is possible for them to wait with hope. Often, I find myself filled with a burning desire to tell them: There is light at the end of the tunnel! Christ has come! He will come again! Life isn’t futile!
Thankfully, at the nursing home I heard of one such resident who lives with such a hope.
This Christian aunty has the most vibrant and contagious faith in Christ. We were told that when we are discouraged in our pastoral conversations, we can come to chat with this aunty. True enough, when a fellow intern visited this aunty, she shared hymns and words of encouragement to him, strengthening him to wait well in light of Advent.
On this first Sunday of Advent, may we learn to become like this aunty. Waiting well in light of what Christ has done and will do, helping others to wait well by telling them of the good news of Jesus Christ who has come to bring meaning into our futile waiting.