No One Likes Waiting

This week is sometimes called the “Week of Anticipation,” and the candle in an Advent wreath is the “Candle of Anticipation.” Anticipation is, unfortunately, another word for “Waiting.” We like anticipation. We dislike waiting for what we anticipate.

The last book of the Old Testament ends with the following:

Remember the teaching of Moses, my servant, and those laws and rules I gave to him on Mount Sinai for all the Israelites. In any case, I will send you Elijah, the prophet, before that great and terrifying day of the Lord’s judgment. Elijah will help parents love their children and children love their parents. Otherwise, I will come and put a curse on the land (Malachi 4:4-6, NIV).

The timeline goes something like this: Malachi was written somewhere around 400 years before the birth of Christ, and the coming of John the Baptist, whom Jesus states was the fulfillment of the promise that there would come a prophet like Elijah. In the meantime, the Jews were to observe the law and wait patiently for the Messiah to come and an end to their suffering and subservience to foreign powers. The Jewish people anticipated the Messiah but disliked the waiting and the events of the time between the prophecy and its fulfillment.

400 Years of Waiting

During those 400 years, Israel was ruled by Persia, Greece (Alexander the Great), and Rome. There were events of importance during those years, such as revolts and attempts by Israel to free themselves from captivity. It is possible that parts of Daniel were either written during that time or refer to events of that time, but the days of the Old Testament prophets were at an end. In particular,  no great wonder-working reincarnation of  Elijah appeared  (I Kings 17-19).

What were God’s people to do in the meantime? They were asked to continue to be faithful to the covenant God had made with them when he delivered them from captivity in Egypt, pray, and obey the commandments and teachings God had given them.

The Problem with Waiting

I don’t think very many people enjoy waiting. Today, Kathy and I went Christmas shopping. I anticipated purchasing her a Christmas present. Unfortunately, for part of the time, I waited while Kathy picked out a perfume. It turns out that picking out perfume is not as straightforward or as simple as I thought. It’s not like buying a carton of milk. You have to try on several perfumes. You have to try on many different perfumes from, in our case, five different stores. Then, you must walk around to see if you still like the perfume after it dries. One lovely lady explained to me that she always had to walk around for some time to see if the perfume gave her a headache!

Frankly, shopping for perfume gives me a headache. My headache, caused by a couple of hours’ delay, does not begin to approach the problem of waiting 400 years. I have trouble maintaining my faith when the wait is in the days or weeks, and maybe a year or two—400 years seems impossible. Perhaps you are like me.

Unfortunately, we live in an age that lacks patience. We want what we want, and we want it right now. God, on the other hand, is very, very, very patient. For God, “a thousand years is like an evening gone” (Psalm 90:4). That makes 400 years a blink of an eye.

 If modern science is correct, God created the universe we inhabit and the human race over billions of years—13.7 billion years, to be exact. Scientists tell us that most people, myself included, have difficulty understanding the vision of science in this area because we simply cannot imagine a time scale that is billions of years long. A God who can work on that kind of timeline is a God we can hardly imagine. A God who works on a 13.7-year timeline just to get you and me born and raised is a patient God who works his purposes slowly, patiently, wisely, and lovingly, no matter the time required to accomplish his will and purpose.

It is easy to see that a God with a few billion years of patience does not count time in quite the same way we do. This may not seem like good news, but it is. For one thing, God’s patience means that God does not get discouraged. When things don’t exactly go as he wishes, like when humans fell in the Garden and sin entered the world, God patiently sets things right. As we know the story, it began with one man and woman (Abraham and Sarah) and continued through that one family for generations until one Christmas night, a baby was born in Bethlehem in Judea—a spec on the Roman map and not even a spec when one considers the infinite size of the universe.

Forgiveness and Fulfillment

Today’s text in my devotional guide was Isaiah 40:

Comfort my people and console them, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and proclaim that her time of servitude is over and her guilt has been expiated. Indeed, she has received double punishment from the Lord’s hand for all her sins (Isaiah 40:1-3).

The story the Old Testament tells ends with Israel, having been disobedient to God, and lost its promised land, returning to slavery, this time in Babylon. From the Babylonian captivity forward, Israel was subservient to Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, and Rome. The Chronicler describes the situation and its causes as follows:

The Lord, the God of their ancestors, unceasingly sent them word through his messengers because he had compassion for his people and dwelling place. However, they continued to ridicule the messengers of God, despising his words and scoffing at his prophets, until the wrath of the Lord against his people became so fierce that there was no remedy. Therefore, the Lord God brought up against them the king of the Chaldeans, who slew their young men with the sword in the sanctuary and spared neither young man nor maiden, neither the aged nor the feeble. God gave them all into his power (2 Chronicles 36:15-17).

Following the Babylonian Conquest around 587 B.C., the Jewish people served seventy years in captivity until Cyrus the Great sent a contingent home. That is the event celebrated in Isaiah 40:1-3). Although a remnant returned home, they were still under the rule of the Medo-Persians, Greece, and Rome.

The End of Waiting

When Jesus came nearly 500 years later, they were under Roman rule and waiting. Then, a baby was suddenly born, and about 30 years later, the ministry of Jesus and his death and resurrection unfolded. Mark describes the fulfillment of the prophecy of the coming of Elijah with these words:

The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. It is written in the prophet Isaiah: “Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you; he will prepare your way. The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.'”

Hence, John the Baptist appeared in the desert, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. People from the entire Judean countryside and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem went out to him, and as they confessed their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River(Mark 1:1-5).

Of course, not everyone accepted John as the return of Elijah; after all, it did not happen in quite the way we might anticipate—perhaps descending from the clouds of heaven in a whirlwind (3 Kings 2:11-12) or riding a “Chariot of Fire” (2 Kings 6:8-23). John denied that he was the reincarnation of Elijah (John 1:21, 25). Jesus clarified the matter, stating that it was prophesied that Elijah must come first and, for those who have faith, Elijah had indeed returned in the person of John the Baptist, saying, “I tell you, Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him but have done to him everything they wished. In the same way the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands” (Matthew 17:11-13).

As is often the case, people could not understand that John fulfilled Malachi’s prophecy spiritually, not literally. This is an error we must avoid in our day. It is what the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead calls the “Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness.” It is always a mistake to take too literally what God intends we take spiritually.


Jesus reminds us that we will have to wait for the coming of the Messiah and gives us instructions concerning what to do and how to behave while waiting. He wants us to use our time, talents, money, and energy to bring into existence some slight evidence of the kingdom of God within our time in human history. He tells us that we are like stewards whose principal has gone on a long trip, leaving us in charge. Because of the delay, we may doubt that he will come for an accounting, but he will (Matthew 25:14-30).

We are no different than the ancient Jews. We are called to wait for the return of Christ just like a small child waits for Christmas Day to arrive. Like a child, we may be impatient. Like a child, the delay will teach us patience. We need our annual Advent journey to remind us that waiting is part of the life of faith and ultimately good for the soul.