The story is told of a pastor and his wife driving to visit Grandma and Grandpa after Christmas. Their daughter Rachel asked the inevitable question: “Are we there yet?” The father said, “No, we are still 150 miles away.” There was a pause, and then she asked, “Well, how long is that?” “Well, Rachel, it’s about three more hours.” She didn’t say anything for a few moments as she thought about what three hours must be like. She leaned forward from the backseat to the front, making sure she could see her mother’s face and said, “Mommy, is that as long as one of Daddy’s sermons?”
Patience is something most of us struggle with from time to time throughout our lives. It’s a persistent human struggle that we never seem to outgrow, although the things about which we are impatient seem to change with age. Children usually have a need or want that has to be satisfied right away – they want a cookie or a toy, and they want it NOW! Adult impatience tends to be more covert than overt. Someone pointed this out to me, and it’s true: watch adults in elevators. I don’t have occasion to ride them much anymore, but when I worked in a multistory office building, I noticed it. You’re going down and the elevator stops and the door opens, someone gets off. And before you know it, the person who is standing next to the buttons begins impatiently pressing the button. First, it’s to close the door, and then, inevitably they press the button that’s already illuminated – as if pressing it multiple times will get you there faster. Perhaps elevators are designed to teach us the meaning of patience.
Our text is from Isaiah 40, and it is includes one of my favorite passages of Scripture. They that wait on the Lord shall renew their strength. They shall mount up as eagles; they shall run and not grow weary; they shall walk and never faint.
“They that wait on the Lord….” The great nineteenth century preacher Phillips Brooks (who wrote “O Little Town of Bethlehem”) was noted for his self-control and quiet manner. At times, however, even he suffered bouts of frustration and irritability. One day a friend saw him feverishly pacing the floor like a caged animal. “What’s the trouble, Mr. Brooks?” he asked. “The trouble is that I’m in a hurry, but God isn’t!” Haven’t we all felt the same way at times? “God,” we want to say, “I really need you to deal with my problem, NOW!”
It has been said that the purposes of God often develop slowly because God’s grand designs are never hurried. We see this most clearly in God’s work in creation. Think of an old growth forest or a natural wonder like the Grand Canyon. These things don’t come into being overnight. They must develop over time according to the principles and processes God established. “…wait on the Lord…”
John Buchanan says this: The interesting thing about biblical waiting is that it almost always happens in situations that are bleak. People wait while they are in captivity, prisoners in a foreign land. Defeated, expelled from their homes and their beloved city, their beautiful temple in ruins, they are described by the prophet as “sitting in deep darkness.”
Jerusalem had been under attack for about three years, and then King Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonian army destroyed the city in 586 BC. The most important people in Israelite society were carted off into exile in Babylon, and they were in exile for a long time. After seven decades of waiting, their patience was beyond running thin. They were starting to lose hope; they were about to give up the dream that they might one day return home. “Have you not known? Have you not heard?” says the prophet Isaiah. “Has it not been told you from the beginning?” It’s God who is in charge, not us. It is God who “sits above the circle of the earth,” and “brings princes to naught and reduces the rulers of this world to nothing” (Isaiah 40:21, 22, 23). It is God whose almighty and loving presence walks with us through our day-to-day lives and struggles. We do not need to carry all of our burdens by ourselves…. because in reality, we can’t.
Most of us, if we are honest, wrestle with this call to wait. So much of our impatience stems from a need to be in control. Our lives and the actions we take are so wrapped up in our investment in being in control of what’s happening that we sacrifice our well-being and the well-being of others in the process. We are, in truth, a society of “control freaks.” Someone once told me half-jokingly: “There’s a reason we call them ‘control freaks’ and not ‘control friends!’” Of course, some sense of control is appropriate. Our sanity, in fact, depends on a moderate sense that we can control our lives, and to a degree, our surroundings.
But in our culture today this has been taken to extremes that are undergirded and nourished by the media and the pervasive ethic of consumerism. Think about the kinds of advertising messages that bombard us daily. “Take charge! Have it your way – right now.” The message that comes to us reinforces the notion that we are in charge, not only of our own lives, but of everything. Certainly, only those in charge -- those at the top -- will purchase the product being promoted. The media plays constantly to insecurities and the need for control, and the result is a crazed culture trying to consume its way out of insecurities and fears that are fed from our televisions, radios, computers and smartphones.
In the midst of it all, we should know that this is all an illusion. As Christians, our faith in God should alert us to what’s really going on here. We are not in charge. Oh sure, we make decisions all the time. But in an ultimate sense, we have limited control over how things work out in our own personal lives, let alone in the world around us. It is God who finally, and always, is in the driver’s seat. The outcome, ultimately, is always in God’s hands. That’s what we, as Presbyterians, mean when we talk about the sovereignty of God.
“Do you not know? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom” (vs. 28). The hard fact to accept is that we are limited by our physical realities. We are limited because we are finite human beings. We are creatures, made by a Creator. We don’t and can’t know and understand everything. We are not God, but God is God. God is infinite. God is the Creator of the universe. Unlike us, God doesn’t burn out or wear out or give out. God goes the distance and calls us to put the final results into His hands. And the act of putting the final results in God’s hands is precisely what faith is all about!
It is only when we can “give it over to God” that we begin to find the clarity about what it means to live life God’s way. If we give all of our burdens over to God, then we won’t burn out so easily. If we let go of our huge investments in the outcome of our efforts, if we place our focus on the things we can control, on our daily living, on the choices we make, then we can cry out to God. And God will say, “Here I am” (Isaiah 58:9). For God, as verse 29 reminds us “gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak.” If we “wait on the Lord” (vs. 31), if we put our trust in God, we will find that we don’t get quite so tired.
And so the message of our text is to “wait on the Lord.” In the darkest depths of our trouble and sorrow, wait on the Lord. At the height of joy and success when everything is going our way, wait for the Lord. At life’s beginning or at life’s ending, wait for the Lord. In every circumstance of our lives, wait for the Lord.
Years ago, I saved an excerpt from an interview with Rick Warren, author of a number of books, most notably the Purpose Driven Life. This fairly influential Christian leader was talking about his success as an author and also his wife’s diagnosis with cancer. Here is what he said:
I used to think that life was hills and valleys - you go through a dark time, then you go to the mountaintop, back and forth. I don't believe that anymore. Rather than life being hills and valleys, I believe that it’s kind of like two rails on a railroad track and at all times you have something good and something bad in your life. No matter how good things are in your life there is always something bad that needs to be worked on. And no matter how bad things are in your life there is always something good you can thank God for. You can focus on your purposes or you can focus on your problems. If you focus on your problems, you’re going into self-centeredness: my problem, my issues, my pain. But one of the easiest ways to get rid of pain is to get your focus off yourself and onto God and others.
Patience – waiting on the Lord – is one of the things that helps us re-focus and put things in perspective. But what does our text mean that the Israelites and we should wait? As an impatient people, what should we do? In the words of one commentator, what Isaiah is telling us is this: “Wait for the coming action of the Lord.” If you are waiting for an elevator to arrive, or waiting on a package, or waiting for a flight to arrive, you are waiting with the expectation that something will happen. To wait on the Lord means we “hope” in the Lord, or “trust” in the Lord. We expect that God will come through for us. As people of faith, we look to the biblical witness and see the powerful hand of God at work through his people long ago. We know the exile did come to an end. The people returned home, and Jerusalem was rebuilt. And many of us have our own stories, our own testimonies, of how God has worked in our lives. We were almost ready to give up, but we held on and waited on the Lord, and God came through in wonderful and unexpected ways. God is always working to save His people.
It’s been almost a year since our lives were upended by the COVID-19 pandemic. We’ve been waiting for things to return to “normal” for a long time, and we’re weary. How much longer? There are no easy answers to satisfy our impatience. Instead, we turn again to ancient words that still have relevance today, words that point us to the gracious purposes of our loving God…
They that wait on the LORD shall renew their strength. They shall mount up as eagles; they shall run and not grow weary; they shall walk and never faint.
 John M. Buchanan, “Awaiting God’s Reign” in The Christian Century (November 28, 2012)