It could have been such a simple journey.
By the time the Israelites set out for the final leg of their march toward the Promised Land, they’d received ceremonial laws about feasts and tabernacle worship, organized themselves by tribe according to God’s direction, and learned to follow the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night. It had been less than two years since they’d left the slavery of Egypt, but already they’d grown weary of the manna, complained about the abundance of quail, and watched Moses, Aaron, and Miriam get into an argument so big God had to mediate.
In other words, they’d waited long enough and were ready to enter the land God had promised them.
But the spies who’d gone in to explore Canaan came back with stories of giants, and the Israelites hedged. It didn’t matter that that grapes and figs grew richly and the milk and honey flowed freely. Suddenly, the waiting didn’t seem so bad. They’d waited this long, and in their fear they decided to wait even longer.
Only the wait became permanent for an entire generation of the Israelites who refused to leave Sinai because of fear. God saw their hesitation, and to him, it wasn’t a simple delay. It was a sign of disobedience and lack of faith. As a result, he banned them from ever seeing the promised land. When they realized their mistake, some of the Israelites flip-flopped. “We were just kidding. We’ll go.” Only now it was too late. Rather than finding victory over the Amalekites and the Canaanites, who lived in what would eventually become the Israelites homeland, the people found themselves pushed back to the camp at Sinai and forced to wander for 40 years.
Over and over again in the Bible we find people waiting for God to lead them, heal them, rescue them, or answer them. And how these same people respond to the waiting often signals what they believe about who God is and how he is at work in their lives. Throughout December, in the month of Advent when we reenact the Messianic waiting that defined so much of Israel’s history, we’re going to talk about what we can learn about waiting in our own lives.
In some ways, waiting is easier for us in this era after Jesus came, died, and rose again. We have a direct relationship with the living God through the cross, we have the Spirit of the Lord living in us producing fruit and testifying to our spirit, we have the word of God which shows us the rest of the story and gives us hope to persevere.
But in other ways, waiting for Jesus to come again — and waiting for Jesus to lead, heal, rescue or answer us in this age — is just as hard because we are just as human as those who came before us. Sometimes we’re fearful in our waiting, and we don’t act when we know we should, like the Israelites above. Other times we forge ahead without waiting long enough, wrongly believing we’ve heard from God or have the answers ourselves. We’ll talk about that response to waiting next week. Fear, stubbornness, disobedience, bitterness: these are the negative fruits of waiting that can grow in our hearts when we wait without God. But when we walk with God in our waiting, we move forward in obedience, perseverance, and especially hope. We’ll talk about these positive results of waiting in the last two weeks of the month.
I like how Paul describes Israel’s wilderness wandering in his letter to the Corinthians. Not only were the escapades of the spiritual mothers and fathers recorded so we could see God’s hand at work in the redemption of the world, but also so that we would learn from them. Here’s Paul:
“For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ. Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them; their bodies were scattered in the wilderness. Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did” (1 Corinthians 10:1-6).
In this case, Israel set their hearts on fear during their months of waiting, and when they refused to do what God called them to, the months of waiting turned into the rest of their years. We can’t overlook the fact that the waiting game is not easy. Regardless of what we’re waiting for. Often we’re encouraged in the waiting by those who tell us the difficulty will be worth it. And often it is. But just as often, the results of waiting are scary, difficult, and permanently damaging. Then, when we’re called to act after a difficult season of waiting, we might find ourselves uncertain, insecure, even paralyzed.
How do we move forward? How do we act when fear holds us back?
The answer is simple but never easy: remember God’s faithfulness and look for his help to endure.
Paul says it like this: “No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.”
We’re in week 1 of Advent waiting, and somehow in the busyness and commercialism of Christmas, waiting this time of year seems like the opposite of most other kinds of waiting. Everything comes so quickly and happens so fast. But maybe the very speed of the holiday season is what allows the fear and anxiety to creep in. “Do not be afraid,” the angel said to Joseph. “The Lord is with you,” another said to Mary. Even the shepherds heard the tender words, spoken in the angels song. “Fear not.”
This is God’s message to you, too. “Do not be afraid.”
PRAYER: Lord, it seems like I’m always waiting for something. Often enough it’s good things. But occasionally, the thing I’m waiting for terrifies me: the phone call in the night, the diagnosis, the rejection, the loss. Just as people often say to me, it’s easy for me to say to others in these seasons of waiting: it will all be okay. But in the short term, that’s simply not always the case. I don’t want my faith to rely on the perfect outcome. Instead, help me to trust you, my perfect Savior. Help me to understand that your loving message of “Do not be afraid” is made all the more powerful by your promise to never leave me or forsake me. Your presence makes me brave. (LISTEN BELOW)
Subscribe now for access to printable versions of these weekly waiting prayers.