Why We Need the Waiting of Advent

My family took a quick trip down to L.A. (Lower Alabama) the other week to celebrate Thanksgiving with my extended family like we try to do every year. It’s supposed to be a nine-hour trip, but it took us over eleven hours. We hit traffic on the Gene Snyder in Louisville (surprise!), in Nashville, and in Birmingham. Seeing those lines of brake lights ahead reminded me of how much I hate waiting. When I have a destination in view, I want to get there as quickly as possible without the inconvenience of having to stop.

It’s obvious that I’m not alone in my antipathy of waiting. Our culture is trying hard to eliminate the experience altogether. You no longer have to wait in grocery store lines or bank lines or movie theater lines, for that matter. In fact, the experience of waiting in any line seems to be going the way of the pay phone—you’ll need to tell your grandkids what it was like. We’ve gone from the pony express to next day express on mail and packages. I keep hearing rumors about same-day express. Even when we do find ourselves in the unfortunate circumstance of having to wait for something, we quickly immerse ourselves in the alternate universe of digital escape that we carry around in our pockets.

Most “advances” in history are accompanied by unintended side effects, and the elimination of waiting is no exception. By eliminating it, we may be losing something very important. The most obvious loss is the essential human experience of facing our own limitations. But we also lose the opportunity to cultivate the virtue of patience. Who needs to harness the internal characteristics that patience demands—things like self-control, humility, and generosity, all virtues on their own—when circumstances never demand their exercise? People who cannot wait cannot flourish as virtuous human beings. Without waiting, we lack the wholeness we so desperately need.

But there’s something else we miss as well. The Bible associates waiting with faith. Faithful people are waiting people. Consider two people that Luke introduces in his gospel. After Jesus’s birth, his parents brought him to Jerusalem to fulfill the requirements of the Lord. There was a man named Simeon there who “was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel” (Luke 2:25). In fact, we are told that the Holy Spirit had revealed to him that he would not die before seeing the Lord’s Christ (v. 26). His whole life was a life of waiting.

Simeon was not the only one waiting for the Christ. Also in Jerusalem, a prophetess named Anna had been “worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day” (v. 37). When she saw Jesus, “she began to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem” (v. 38). Anna was one of a small community in Jerusalem who had been waiting for God to fulfill his promises of redemption. Her whole life had been a life of waiting.

Jesus has now come. We are in the privileged position of being able to look back and see his redemptive work completed. The Son of God became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14). He then lived a life that fulfilled all righteousness (Matthew 3:15) before dying to make atonement for the sins of the world (Romans 3:21-26). Three days after his death, God raised him from the dead to declare victory, once and for all, over death and sin (1 Corinthians 15:54-55). He has now ascended to the right hand of the Father (Romans 8:34), and we now await his return when he will consummate his kingdom, completing his work.

Did you get that? We are still waiting. Listen to James, Jesus’s brother, describe the waiting position of the church in this present age: “Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and late rains. You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand” (James 5:7-8).

For over 1500 years, the church has observed the season of Advent leading up to Christmas as a period of waiting. While there’s no specific biblical mandate to observe Advent, it seems prudent in a culture that disdains waiting to cultivate habits of subversion. As Christians, we simply must wait. We reject any notion of secular paradise on earth prior to the second coming of Christ. We believe there’s more in store for us than hours of immersion in faux digital universes with faux online “friends.” We are waiting for the day when “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the sea” (Habakkuk 2:14). Will you wait with us this Advent season?

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