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The Holiness of Waiting

Thomas J Parlette

“The Holiness of Waiting”

2nd Peter 3: 8-15a



So you need to call customer service. You clear your schedule for an hour. You get comfortable in your favorite chair, put the TV on mute and gather all your account numbers and passwords. And you tap in the number.

A voice answers, “All our operators are currently helping other customers. Please stay on the line and your call will be answered in the order that it was received.”

And you wait…

Then the voice comes back on, “Thank you for waiting. Your call is very important to us…” and on and on.

And then you wait some more. As Tom Petty once said, “The waiting is the hardest part.”

I don’t know anyone who likes to wait. Whether it’s on the phone, or in line at the grocery store or sitting at a table in a restaurant. We don’t like to wait. This is even true in our spiritual life. We want to grow in virtue and character, but it doesn’t happen overnight. Sometimes growth is maddeningly slow. But we must wait for it, patiently wait for it.

To wait without distress requires patience. But having patience is as difficult as waiting. One source says that patience is the “quality of being willing to bear adversities, calm endurance of misfortune, suffering, etc.” It comes from the Latin “patientia”, meaning “endurance, submission” or literally “suffering” or the “quality of suffering.”(1)

Ambrose Bierce, in his whimsical book The Devil’s Dictionary, said this of patience – “Patience, a noun. A minor form of despair, disguised as a virtue.” And who wants that – a minor form of despair.(2)

It’s also been said that patience is not the ability to wait – but the ability to have a good attitude while waiting.(3) That’s probably true – but still, not something we like. We don’t like to wait. Patience is tough.

Some years ago, executives at a Houston airport faced a troubling customer-relations issue. Passengers were lodging an inordinate number of complaints about the long waits at baggage claim. In response, the executives increased the number of baggage handlers working that shift. The plan worked – the average wait fell to 8 minutes, well within industry benchmarks. But the complaints persisted.

Puzzled, the airport executives undertook a more careful, on-site analysis. They found that it took passengers a minute to walk from their arrival gates to baggage claim and seven more minutes to get their bags. Roughly 88% of their time was spent standing around waiting for their bags.

So the airport decided on a new approach – instead of reducing wait times, it moved the arrival gates further away from the main terminal and routed the luggage to the outermost carousel. Passengers now had to walk 6 minutes to pick up their bags – but their wait time was reduced to 2 minutes. And the complaints stopped.(4)

Give people something to do while waiting, even something as simple as walking – and the waiting is no so bad.

The writer of 2nd Peter had a similar problem in the early church. The people were filing complaints about the waiting. They were waiting for Jesus’ promised return, and nothing was happening. Their patience was running thin.

As time passed and the persecution of the church intensified, the waiting became the hardest part for the church. In fact, some were beginning to question whether Jesus would return at all. This letter was probably written a generation or so after the apostles, including Peter had died. It’s likely that this letter was written by a follower, perhaps a close associate or student of Peter’s who assigned Peter’s name to it to give the letter greater authority. 2nd Peter is likely what his associate thought Peter himself would say in the face of the complaints and difficulties the early church was confronted with.

The writer starts by re-defining time. As ancient interpreters often did, the writer turns to scripture to interpret scripture. He re-phrases Psalm 90’s “a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past” into “with the Lord, one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.”

In other words, God sees time differently than we do. God looks at the big picture – the really big picture! God has all the time in the world and is not bound by our schedule, our calendar.

So, for those who wonder – why the delay? For those scoffers and critics who say – “your religion says Jesus will come again – where is he? It’s never going to happen, so your Christianity must be false”, keep in mind that a 200-year delay feels like about 2 days to God.

And actually, this delay is a merciful act. For, as 2nd Peter points out, “The Lord is not slow, the Lord is patient. The Lord does not want anyone – anyone – to perish. So God is biding his time, giving everyone a chance to repent and change their ways and come back to God. That’s what’s happening in the delay of the second coming. God hasn’t forgotten us, nor has God abandoned us. God is being patient – and merciful.

So then the writer of 2nd Peter moves on to think about what we should do in this season of holy waiting – what sort of person should we be in leading lives of holiness and godliness?

We should remember God’s promises of a new heaven and new earth, where righteousness is at home.

We should strive to be at peace.

And we should regard the patience of the Lord as salvation.

That’s what we try to do in this season of Advent…

We dig deep into the scripture so we can remember that once upon a time, God came to live amongst us – and it will happen again.

We remind ourselves to pay attention to what matters most to us – and to pay attention to those things that master us and demand more time than perhaps they should.

And we take up our Advent discipline of using our time wisely. Slow down. Say “No, thank you” to some things, and “yes, I’d be happy to” to others.

A little less commercialism and consumerism, and a little more peace and gratitude is what we seek in this season as we wait for the Advent of Christ.

In scripture, to wait is to be active, to do something – something very important. In fact, it is the most important thing we do, since waiting is an expression of faith, of being open and receptive to God, to God’s action, to God’s voice, to God’s will and to God’s answer. That is why waiting is a holy thing.(5)

To wait is to be patient, which literally means “to suffer”, or to be acted upon rather than acting, to be receptive to the action of others. To wait and to be patient is to trust that God is at work even if we can’t see or understand what God is doing at any given moment of time.

As Henri Nouwen has said, “Waiting is a period of learning. The longer we wait, the more we hear about him for whom we are waiting.”(6) Our waiting is holy as we learn more about Christ, for whom we are waiting.

When James Finley was a young monk at the monastery of Gethsemane, he shared with Thomas Merton, who was his spiritual director, his frustration at his seemingly inept efforts to experience God’s presence. And Merton responded, “How does an apple ripen? It just sits in the sun.”(7)

In the holiness of waiting, we are ripened in our faith.

So let us approach the table and remember God’s promises as we await the Advent of Christ, our Lord.

May God be praised. Amen.

1.    Homiletics, Vol. 29, No. 6, p48.

2.    Ibid… p48.

3.    Ibid…p51.

4.    Ibid…p49.

5.    Ibid…p49.

6.    Ibid…p49.

7.    Ibid…p49.