Flourishing in Waiting (a sermon)

[This is a sermon I preached at Resurrection Anglican on March 26, 2023.]

Scripture readings:
Ezekiel 37:1-14
Psalm 130
Romans 6:15-23
John 11:18-44

Flourishing in Waiting

The Scripture from our readings today that I’d like us to reflect on together is Psalm 130. It is an ancient Hebrew poem, written in a different period of history, in a different language than ours, and within a different culture. Yet, when we consider it closely, we find we can live in it because it speaks to us in our moment of history, as if it was composed specifically for us today. It’s a richly textured poem, touching on several significant themes we all face in life. The theme that I’d like to concentrate on is the need we have as people of God to wait. If you are like me, most of the time we languish in waiting, but God’s calling is that we thrive in waiting, flourish in waiting, and in the process demonstrate hope in a troubled world.

But we don’t take naturally to waiting—at least I don’t. I wish we had time this morning to answer and discuss some questions, such as these:
Why is waiting so hard?
Or getting more personal, what was the hardest period of waiting we’ve ever had to endure?
Or, which would we prefer? To receive something immediately that turns out to be something we don’t like and want. Or to have to wait for 3 months for something that we really need and like and want?
Have you met anyone who is patient, calm, and content in waiting? Did you find them annoying?
And this one’s interesting: How long do we have to wait for something before we get irritable with people who have nothing to do with our having to wait?

So, with those questions in mind, let’s root our reflections on waiting in Holy Scripture. Psalm 130 is an interesting psalm for several reasons. One is that there is some difference of opinion among scholars on its date of composition and on how some of the the Hebrew language is used, but that need not concern us here. You can look that up on your own if you are interested. Second, it has a heading, “A Song of Ascents,” apparently identifying it as one of psalms sung by pilgrims in festival processions or while traveling up to Jerusalem for one of Israel’s annual feasts.

We can think of the psalm as having three parts: Crying to God in a sea of troubles, verses 1-2; The barrier between us and God is removed, verses 3-4; and in verses 5-8, Walking with God means flourishing in waiting.

  1. Yearning for God in a troubling world.
  2. The barrier keeping us from God is removed. And
  3. Walking with God means waiting, as individuals and as a community.

So, let’s start at the beginning.

  1. Crying out to God in a sea of troubles (v. 1-2).

The psalm begins abruptly, with urgency, a poignant cry for help from “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord!.” The term, “the depths” gives a sense of floundering, a place where no resources remain for self-help, and so the only choice is to plead for divine help. Today, as modern individualists we probably read this as some sort of personal, individual tragedy, but it could also refer to living in a decaying society that has fractured, so that we find ourselves immersed in a surrounding sea of anxieties, fear, anger, inequality, injustice, and violence. Whatever the details, the problems overwhelm us, and so we yearn for God to intervene, and we cry out to him. The term, “the depths” implies that if there is no divine help then there is no help at all. Still, whether personal tragedy or cultural decline, it is the pits.

And yet the poet seems to hesitate. Verse 2: “O Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive.” The psalmist does not doubt God’s goodness or power but whether they have the freedom to approach God and receive his help. There is a barrier keeping them, keeping us, from the presence and grace of God. Which brings us to the second part of the psalm:

  1. A barrier exists and must be removed (v. 3-4).

In verses 3-4, the poet identifies the reason for hesitancy. There is a barrier keeping the poet from having confidence God hears. The barrier is this: God is perfectly holy, and the poet is morally imperfect, a sinner. And that barrier keeps them from talking freely, of being certain the cry for help is heard and received.

The idea that we may be separated from God by sin is a well-known idea in the Western world, and especially among those who attend church. However, this was a radical notion when the poet was writing this psalm. The nations and cultures surrounding Israel all had gods, pagan gods. And though different pagan gods had different attributes, the world of paganism shared something in common. “The distinguishing quality of the [pagan] gods is, above everything, power” the English classical scholar C. M. Bowra says, “their most distinctive quality is not goodness, but power.” [1] And while the God of Israel is certainly the Almighty, all powerful, he is celebrated for his holiness. And it is this moral divide, not his power, that keeps us from walking with him. The barrier is not that we are mortal, but that we are morally compromised. So, whatever else defines the sea of troubles we are in, our sin, our moral failure is central to our problem.

The poet recognizes two great facts. Fact #1 in verse 5: “If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” If the holy God were to count our moral failures against us, no one could stand in in his presence. No one could be certain they were heard. But then fact #2 in verse 6: “But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared.” This holy God has made a way back to him, to be our God and make us his people. Which should fill us not just with gratitude but with an amazed wonderment that this one who is beyond all knowing has become our Father to be known and loved and in whose presence we are to walk forevermore.

In speaking this way, the Hebrew poet is anticipating the passion of Christ, which we begin to celebrate on this last Sunday of Lent. As St. Paul says in our Romans text, “the wages of sin is death”—separation from a holy God, “but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” The barrier is removed and now we do not merely have access to God who hears and responds to our cries from the depths, we are invited into an intimate relationship with him as our heavenly Father and Jesus as our elder brother. And this brings us to the third and final section of Psalm 130, which is:

  1. Walking with God means waiting (v. 5-8).

OK, here’s the progress so far. We’re in the depths, the personal and social pits, a sea of trouble, and cry out to God. The great moral barrier between him and us that we cannot possibly overcome is decisively removed by Jesus.

Now, what do you expect, or wish to hear next? I’ll bet that with all the possibilities we could imagine—rescue from the depths, assurance we are heard, solace for our troubled souls, sweeping grand answers to our prayers—I’ll bet none of us would expect to hear next that we are to wait. Even the poet seems to find this wearisome—listen to how he repeats himself in verses 5-6:

I wait for the LORD, my soul waits,
            and in his word I hope;
            my soul waits for the Lord
            more than watchmen for the morning,
            more than watchmen for the morning.

Have you ever had to wait through a night for something? Perhaps someone you love is in the hospital, and you are waiting for them to hopefully regain consciousness as the sun comes up. Imagine waiting without distraction—no TV in the corner, no call phone. You are weary to your bones, “more than watchmen for the morning,” and wonder if you can wait one more minute. And still, you must wait.

Yet this is precisely what God invites us to when he invites us to walk with him.

Which raises an obvious question. If God ordains for us to be in a sea of trouble, in the depths and be people of hope, waiting securely for him to fulfill his promises, why do we find this so distasteful? Could waiting be a spiritual discipline that we need to learn to embrace until we can wait on him with contentment, serenity, and confidence? The answer is yes. And as the people of God live in the spiritual discipline of waiting, the community of God’s people become a revelation of hope in a troubled world. Look at verses 7-8:

O Israel, hope in the LORD!
            For with the LORD there is steadfast love,
            and with him is plentiful redemption.
            And he will redeem Israel
            from all his iniquities.

In other words, as a community who are content to wait on a good God, we can demonstrate hope in a world where the primary reaction to being in a sea of troubles is division, fear, anger, violence, and resentment. God has fulfilled his promises in the past and has not changed. We are redeemed and someday that redemption will be fully realized, and all will be well, and the seas of trouble will become seas of tranquility, world without end.

“Waiting time is not wasting time,” Simone Weil says. “Waiting patiently in expectation is the foundation of the spiritual life.” Notice she doesn’t claim that waiting is part of the spiritual life, but the foundation of the spiritual life. So, why the problem with waiting? Let me suggest three reasons:

  1. Fear.

Fr Henri Nouwen says part of our problem with waiting is fear. “In our particular historical situation,” he says in a lovely talk titled, “A Spirituality of Waiting,” [2] “waiting is even more difficult because we are so fearful. One of the most pervasive emotions in the atmosphere around us is fear.”

He is correct. It is actually difficult to resist the impulse of fear because so much around us is calculated to stir up fear. The apocalyptic tone of political commentators, the shrill rhetoric of candidates, outbreaks of violence in the news, the intensity of Tweets, friends saying they are fearful about the future—or if there will be a future at all, or if there is one whether they will want to live in it. Fear of losing out, fear of wasting time, fear that others might think us lazy, afraid of not acting, fearful the wrong people or wrong party will get ahead. And on and on. There may not be, and need not be, a conscious link between our fear and our difficulty in waiting, but it hovers in the background.

The words of the psalmist can be our solace as we turn them into a prayer. To realize that our Lord’s word, unchanging, life-giving, and transformative is greater than all our fears. May it be so that I wait for the LORD, my soul waits, / and in his word I hope; / my soul waits for the Lord. And in waiting I grow in patience and in trust and will not be disappointed.

The second reason I think we have difficulty waiting comes from:

  1. Modernity.

By modernity I mean the age in which we live that tends to shape our expectations and values. One part of modernity is modern consumerism that prioritizes efficiency and productivity and promises limitless possibility. “Modernity never ceases to emphasize,” The School of Life posted on Instagram, “that success could, somehow, one day be ours. And in this way, it never ceases (gently) to torture us. [3]

From a Christian perspective, efficiency and productivity are like golden calves, idols set up in worship of what our culture finds most important, most central to meaning, and to our use of time and focus. This is why our impulse while waiting in line is to do something, anything: check email, text someone, work on a puzzle or game, scan a magazine in the rack at the grocery store. It’s why we lie so easily when someone calls while we are napping and ask what we were doing.

Think of waiting as fasting from impatience and productivity. Jemima Kelly in the Financial Times says this: “In a world driven by the twin forces of consumerism and productivity, of limitless possibility and endless overwhelm, we seem to have lost the art of—and the sense of value in—not doing stuff. And yet it is the not doing that can be more important, and more powerful.” [4] Notice she calls not doing stuff an art. She’s correct.

And that brings me to the third reason we find waiting so difficult. Related to fear and the pressures of modernity…

  1. We are not comfortable simply with being.

What it really amounts to is that we have difficulty accepting that we were created to live in time as the Creator meant. Reread the creation story in Genesis 1-2. Each day is divided into morning and evening, and the seventh day is set aside, made holy for rest, when no work, no efficiency, no productivity is to be considered. We often think of God as a being, but it’s more accurate to realize he is beyond all being, and by the word of his power provides being for his creation, for all things visible and invisible, including us. This is the ultimate gift, the gift that called us out of nothingness into being. Being is not nothing, and just being rather than doing stuff need not be justified.

This is why God has said, be still and know that I am God. The point is that this is the only way to know him. And when we wait, we have opportunity to set aside our doing and celebrate the Creator’s gift of being. Waiting is fasting from impatience and being freed from the wearisome stress of productivity and efficiency.

“Active waiting,” Fr Nouwen says, “means to be present fully to the moment, in the conviction that something is happening. A waiting person is a patient person. The word ‘patience’ means the willingness to stay where we are and live the situation out to the full in the belief that something hidden there will manifest itself to us.” We live, moment by moment at the Interface, the dividing line between the visible and the invisible that God called into being at the creation. Waiting at that great intersection where physical and spiritual meet is a wonderful place to be still, knowing that coming to know God means we are on holy ground.

The poet Mary Oliver, in her collection of poems called Devotions, wrote a short one titled “Stebbin’s Gulch” (a real place, by the way) that I’d like to read to you. It’s about the beauty of being, and how it can bring glory to God by itself, without our doing. Listen:

by the randomness
of the way
the rocks tumbled
ages ago

the water pours
it pours
it pours
ever along the slant

of downgrade
dashing its silver thumbs
against the rocks
or pausing to carve

a sudden curled space
where the flashing fish
splash or drowse
while the kingfisher overhead

rattles and stares
and so it continues for miles
this bolt of light,
its only industry

to descend
and to be beautiful
while it does so;
as for purpose

there is none,
it is simply
one of those gorgeous things
that was made

to do what it does perfectly
and to last,
as almost nothing does,
almost forever. [5]

Our heavenly Father hears our cries from the depths, from the sea of troubles. He has graciously removed the barrier between him and us with forgiveness through Jesus Christ. He invites us to be his people as he is pleased to be our God and calls us to wait and to be people of hope.

We can please him in our doing, as we use our gifts and seek to be faithful. And we also please him in simply waiting, being, doing and accomplishing nothing, refusing to bow to our societies’ golden calves, and thereby testifying to a watching world that we are not the sovereign, but that we trust the one who is risen, and is now on the throne, forevermore.

            In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Photo by JÉSHOOTS (https://www.pexels.com/photo/fashion-hand-hurry-outfit-4956/)


  1. Online here.
  2.  Online here.
  3. The School of Life on Instagram 3/20/23.
  4. Financial Times Feb 22, 2023
  5. Devotions by Mary Oliver (Penguin) p. 19-20