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Waiting for God (Luke 1:5-25)

Based on the sermon preached on the 2nd Sunday of Advent (12/5/2004)

- Pastor James

As we celebrate the second Sunday of Advent, I would like to invite you to reflect on the meaning of the Advent season. The word "Advent" means "coming," and it refers to the coming of our Lord Jesus.

On one level, our Lord Jesus came already 2000 years ago into the womb of a peasant girl, named Mary. So we look back to the ancient time and wait for the coming of the Messiah in the baby Jesus.

On another level, our Lord Jesus comes to us even now in His Spirit, and we wait for the outpouring of His Spirit in our lives and in our church.

On yet another level, our Lord will come for the 2nd time on the Day of Judgment, and we wait for the Day when He will destroy evil completely, when He will wipe away every tear from our eyes, and when crying and pain will be no more.

Advent is a season of waiting - waiting for the coming of our Lord, waiting for God to reveal His will, and waiting for His time.

Waiting is an essential part of faith. As the Book of Hebrew says, "faith is being sure of what we hope for, and being certain of what we do not see" (11:1). Faith is believing something that is invisible, something that may not happen immediately. Faith demands that we wait for God's time.

But we humans have a difficult time waiting.

And our fast-food society makes waiting even more difficult. Our society continues to bombard us with a message of instant gratification. "Why wait? Why not now? If you don't get it now, then you will never get it. Buy now, and pay later. Satisfy your desire now, and deal with the consequence later." Our society says we would be happier if we get what we want now.

Unfortunately, this has an effect on our practice of faith. We expect instant spirituality - instant transformation of our flesh and soul without the discipline of daily quiet time with God, instant growth into maturity without the pain of waiting for God's time, and instant growth of our ministry without prayer and fasting for God's kingdom. Yet waiting for God is an authentic reality of faith. We cannot jump over the time of waiting.

Elizabeth and Zechariah

In the Gospel of Luke Chapter 1, we meet a godly couple, Elizabeth and Zechariah, who had to wait a long time for God's answer to prayer. Our text says both of them were upright in the sight of God.

But their righteousness did not shield them from the trials of life. Elizabeth was barren; she had no child. And both of them are now too old to conceive a child.

In our contemporary society, barrenness is no longer a social taboo. But in ancient times, barrenness was public disgrace and shame, and even a sign of God's judgment. So this couple, Elizabeth and Zechariah, lived with a social stigma.

I believe that this righteous couple started to pray for a child when they discovered they were having difficulty getting pregnant. Perhaps, they had begun to pray even before that. And I believe that this righteous couple prayed, not just a few times, but over and over. They prayed and prayed, and they waited for the sign of pregnancy. But it did not come. Year after year, they lifted up their voices to God and begged for God's mercy upon them. But they still had no child.

At some point, the harsh reality hit this couple. Their body is aging, and humanly speaking, it is now impossible to conceive a child.

In the story of Luke, Zechariah is now an old priest. One day, he is chosen by lot to go into the Temple and burn incense. While he is inside the Temple, the angel of the LORD, Gabriel, appears to him and announces this news:

"Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John."

Zechariah is stunned by this unexpected message, and asks the angel:

"How can I be sure of this? I am an old man, and my wife is well along in years."

His response is all too human. After so many prayers lifted up to heaven and so many years of waiting, he's probably given up on praying for a child. We who have been praying for the same thing year after year know the quiet resignation that can creep into our faith.

However, because of his unbelief, God makes Zechariah temporarily mute, unable to speak until the appointed time. This short-term judgment allows Zechariah to reflect on what he must learn. And he will learn from his time of silence.

The irony in this story is that Zechariah was worshipping God in the Temple, but he was not prepared for his prayer to be answered. He was leading in worship, but he did not really expect God's power to come.

This is a solemn reminder to me, even as I lead in worship, even as I pray for the coming of God's kingdom in our church. Do I expect God to come and touch us, or am I just going through the motions? Do I expect God to hear my prayer, or am I just repeating the same words mindlessly like a parrot? Do I expect God to fulfill His promise in His time, or have I given up on God's promise?

Also, this is a reminder for those of us who have been going to church for a while. When worship becomes a weekly routine, it is easy for us to fall back to spiritual stagnation, expecting little from worship and not recognizing God's visitation. Yet we are called to be ready to receive God's visitation just as the five wise virgins were, even though their bridegroom took a long time in coming (Matt 25:1-13).

Mary

Immediately after the story of Elizabeth and Zechariah, in the same chapter of Luke, we meet another woman who is also given a promise of a child. She is a young peasant girl, named Mary. The same angel, Gabriel, announces to Mary:

"You will be with child and give birth to a Son, and you are to give Him the name Jesus."

But the problem is that she is not yet married. She is only engaged at the moment. And she is still a young girl, probably fourteen or fifteen.

In the ancient Middle Eastern culture, to be pregnant before marriage meant that she shamed her family in public. And the family's honor required that her life be sacrificed. She will have to risk the possibility of being stoned to death. Even if her life is spared, she will have to live the rest of her life with the stigma of having her child out of wedlock.

Mary was hoping to have a child some day. But not now! Not before she's married. This is the last thing she wants right now.

God's Time

Do you see the two women side by side? One old and the other young. One has been praying for a child for a long time, the other is not yet ready.

Sometimes, as in Elisabeth and Zechariah, God makes us wait indefinitely, He seems to move too slowly, and He seems to be silent for a long time.

But sometimes, as in Mary, God comes too soon, He comes before we're ready, He interrupts our life when it's most inconvenient, and He calls us to do something we never prayed for.

That is how God works. Very often, God's timing takes us by surprise. We are not in control. But God is. His time is not the same as our time. He answers our prayer in His time, and He works out His purpose in His time.

So during this Advent season, we are called to watch and pray. Just as Jesus told His disciples to do, we are to watch and pray, and wait for God's time. We don't know when. We have no control over timing. But we know God is in control, we know He holds the future, we know He loves us, and He will surely answer our prayer.

Waiting for God in the World

Many of us have been praying for peace in the world. We have been crying out to God for His intervention, and we have been pleading for the sake of the peace-loving people. But when we watch the evening news on TV, we are flooded with the news of violence, threats of terrorism, oppression, greed for power, .. The violence of the images is overwhelming, and we cannot help but wonder, "How is peace possible?" It seems futile to pray for peace.

But we do not always recognize the power of prayer.

In the last century, God has demonstrated His power through the suffering people of South Africa. South Africa is perhaps the greatest miracle of the twentieth century. It was the greatest victory over racism, hatred, prejudice, and violence. How did the victory come? Not through military power, not through political manipulation, but through the prayers of millions of South Africans and the faithful people around the world. It was a war fought with prayer.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said that whenever he felt discouraged by the ongoing oppression and violence, he would think of the people who would pray every day for South Africa. In the middle of a restless night, he would remember that someone in Arizona was praying for South Africa, and that would give him strength.

Even if we don't see God's answer right away, do not underestimate the power of prayer. Victory may not come immediately, but God who transformed South Africa will use our prayers to bring peace in the world. Even now, behind the scene, God is working in ways that we cannot even begin to imagine. So we continue to cry out to God for peace in the world.

Waiting for God in Ministry

Many of us have been praying for our church, for the coming of God's kingdom in its fullness in our ministries, and for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in our worship. But anyone who is involved in ministry knows that changes often take a long time, and that changes often are not visible in the short run.

But we don't always recognize the power of prayer in ministry.

As long as we have people in our church praying for the coming of God's kingdom, we have hope. As long as we devote our church as a house of prayer for all people, we have hope.

If we don't pray, then it doesn't matter whether we have a thousand people filling up this building. If we don't pray, then it doesn't matter how enjoyable this worship service is. Ministry without prayer is merely busy human work, a house built on sand. Jesus says to our church, "My house shall be a house of prayer for all people."

I encourage you to come early, before the worship service begins, and pray for the coming of God's kingdom, for the outpouring of His Spirit, and for worship leaders and pastors. Fill this house with your prayers so that this church may be a house of prayer for all people.

Waiting for God in Family

Many of us have been praying for our family, for our spouse, our children, or our parents for many years, holding on to the promise of Jesus, "If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you." But for some of us, God has not yet answered our prayer in the manner that we want it to be answered.

But we don't always recognize the power of prayer for our family.

When I was on Long Island, I used to listen to the sermons of Rev. Craig Barnes through the Internet. He's now teaching at a seminary in Pittsburg. But at the time, he was Pastor of National Presbyterian Church in Washington DC. I never met him in person, but I once visited his mother-in-law, without knowing that she was his mother-in-law. And there I saw his family pictures and found out how they were related.

Pastor Barnes grew up in a very dysfunctional family. His father left him when he was still a teenager. Even as a teenager, he prayed to God that his father would come back. But his father never came back. Even though he tried many times, his father never returned his call or letter. And he grew used to living without father.

In the year 2000, one week before the Thanksgiving Week, Pastor Barnes received a phone call that his father passed away. It turned out that his father died alone, by himself, in a small trailer. During the funeral, he thought a lot about his prayers for his father - all the prayers he had prayed over the years, all the prayers as a teenage boy, begging God to make his dad come home, begging God that he would appear on his graduation, at his wedding, at the birth of his first child, and at his ordination as a pastor. But his father never came back.

As he stared at his father's casket, he wondered, "What happened to all the prayers that I lifted up to heaven? What happened to all the cries of pain that I lifted up to God?" He could not help but wonder.

After the funeral, he went to his father's rundown trailer to see what trace of his father's life he could find there. Then, he says, "The grace came." He found his father's Bible and devotional journal. In the devotional journal was his father's prayer list. And the first name on the list was his name.

All this time, his father had been praying for his son. And the son's name was the first on the list.

Pastor Barnes says that he will never understand the mental illness that drove his father away from the family. But in ways that he had never expected, God answered his life-long prayers. And some day, on the other side of the Jordan River, the father and the son will be reconciled in Christ.

We don't always recognize the power of prayer while we are waiting for God's answer. We don't always see the sign of God's power while we are waiting.

But our waiting for God is not in vain. We do not fully understand why God makes us wait. We do not fully understand what is going on behind the scene in the cosmic realm. But we do know that God has a purpose in our waiting. When God allows such a long time of barrenness for Elizabeth and Zechariah, He has a special purpose. When God allows a long time of waiting, He has a special purpose for us. When God delays His answer to our prayer, He has a special purpose for us.

Our time of waiting for God is a crucible in which God purifies us. God takes all of our weaknesses and frailties, all of our sins, and all of our fears and anxieties, and burns them with the fire of the Holy Spirit until they are purified, refined, and sanctified.

A faithful Christian is not produced overnight, but in the crucible of waiting for God's time. Waiting for God makes us grow in faith. Waiting for God makes us strong.

Those who wait on the LORD shall renew their strength;
They shall mount up with wings like eagles,
They shall run and not be weary,
They shall walk and not faint (Isaiah 40:31).

Amen.