When people tell us to listen to someone, they usually mean to pay attention to their words, but quite often the largest lessons from a life well-lived are discovered by hearing and seeing the things that person puts into practice.
And I ask myself, for those of us determined to follow Jesus, what is the one thing we need to learn? And all the “right” answers strike me straight away: prayer; ministry; knowing scripture; loving everyone. But waiting in the quiet, one more answer comes, and clangs a deep, loud bell in my depths. Waiting.
Waiting can be a sacred act. And Jesus’ earthly life was full of waiting. The Son of God, used to having an entire universe to dance in, must grow from a seed and wait nine months in a tiny space to be born. He then waits to speak, to walk, to grow up. As a toddler he waits in a place far away from home, for it to be safe for him and his parents to return. He waits years until he is old enough to be allowed to talk to the men at the Temple. And even then he gets roundly told off. “Where else would I be?” he basically exclaims (my paraphrase of Luke 2:49).
Thirty whole years before his ministry can truly begin, and even then his patience is mesmerising, “Dear woman, that’s not our problem,” Jesus replied. “My time has not yet come.” (John 2:4 NLT) And perhaps at this point even his wonderfully patient mother was tired of waiting for things to kick off, pushing him forward to do his stuff. Sometimes he got frustrated himself. He cursed the fig tree for having seasons, because where he came from, the fruit was ever at hand. He grew impatient with the self-righteous Pharisees, who could not see what was right under their stuck up noses. He even (and who can blame him) once got a bit tetchy with his dear but dim disciples (as I’m sure he must do with us all now and again) used as he was to being obeyed by angels, “You unbelieving and perverse generation,” Jesus replied, “how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy here to me.” (Matthew 17:17 NIV). I’m not sure that we can even begin to comprehend how agonisingly small and tiresomely long being human must have felt.
And we hear ourselves and our fellow Christians complain because our ministry has been delayed, or because we have not found out what it is yet, and we are desperate to know how we are going to help save the world, before we have even discovered that we are not of it, let alone that someone else got there before us. We want healing now, and not to wait twelve years (the woman who touched Jesus’ cloak), or thirty-eight years (the disabled man at Bethesda). We want to know now, Lord, and see now, and understand now, not ten years of devoted prayer later. We want answers and to be ready now. And yet, we are not ready. We are needful of decades of prayer. It mightn’t be our season yet. There may be roads we need to walk down first, and they may be hard roads.
And when we are ready, we may need to teach ungrateful dusty herberts for three long years, get called a heretic repeatedly, upset the religious establishment to such a degree that they want to stone us, get thrown out of every place we are asked to speak, leave riots starting in our wake, and become persona non grata everywhere but in the homes of the poor and in dens of vice, and on the beleaguered boats of fishermen.
And then would we be ready to be betrayed, abandoned, questioned, tried falsely, betrayed again by our own people shouting for Barabbas? Ready to have the powers that be wash their hands of us, be mocked, spat on, flogged, sentenced to death, and made to carry our own cross up a long and winding via dolorosa, until finally we are gruesomely, tortuously killed for doing nothing but speaking the truths of God? And Jesus waited thirty-three years for this agony. Are we ready to wait? Can we be patient through the trials? I have had to ask myself some hard questions about this lately as my health has worsened and my circumstances become tougher than I thought they could get.
And I have realised that it is not primarily the suffering that we are waiting for, nor even the ending of it, though of course there are also many good gifts and healings in this life. No, what Jesus was waiting for, and what we wait for, is what comes next. We are all waiting for heaven, for homecoming, for love. This is where we are all headed, if we want it, and what we endure in this waiting room is the suffering of not being in heaven, of being strangers in a strange land, of everything but the merest glimpses of love.
And the way we survive and overcome, as Jesus did, is by the knowing that everything breakable here can have love poured through the cracks. That all brokenness can begin heaven’s work, that all earthly tears begin the flow of heavenly rivers, one drop at a time. And so we learn to wait, like winter waits for the spring, seeds wait to grow, and like dams wait to burst, and we learn from listening to the master, “who is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9 NIV).