When God Says, “Not Yet”

For much of 2016-2017, God’s people in Crafton Heights are walking through the story of David, the shepherd boy who grew up to be Israel’s greatest king.  On March 5, we wondered what happened right after Saul died… in the years between when David could have assumed the crown and the time it finally happened.  Our texts included II Samuel 3:1-5 as well as Paul’s description of his “thorn in the flesh”, found in II Corinthians 12:6-10

Did you know that the average American spends thirteen hours each year waiting on hold for someone in customer service to pick up the stupid telephone? Six months of your life will be spent waiting at a traffic light. That’s easy compared to the two years you can expect to spend waiting in line at the grocery store, the bank, the gas station, or the movie theater…

Waiting… who likes to wait? Isn’t that about the most frustrating part of your day? And these examples, while certainly unpleasant, are only the day-to-day, small-picture, grindingly-irritating things for which we wait.

The time you spend in line at the bank or watching the calendar pages turn as you wait for your tax refund to arrive is frustrating, to be sure, but we can usually comfort ourselves by knowing that the resolution to our concern or the fulfillment of our desires is at least in sight, if not imminent.   You know what I mean, right? You’re chafed at the fact that the other line is moving faster, but you know that sooner or later the clerk will start scanning your items and you’ll be able to take your groceries and head for home. This kind of waiting is a pain in the neck, but it doesn’t produce a crisis of faith or lead to long-term angst or depression.

But what about the other things for which we wait in life? The “big” waits? What about the couple who is desperately trying to conceive a child, or the young father who’s looking for work? Can you imagine living in a refugee camp, knowing that you’re not home, but not sure whether there ever will be a “home” again? Or the single person who longs for the intimacy of marriage, or the person living with cancer who wonders about the length of the remission she’s been granted… What about that kind of waiting? The kind of uncertainty and hopefulness and despair that can lead you to say “O, please, God, when will it stop… or change… or get better?” The kind of waiting that can lead to deep questions about God, and life, and meaning, and eternity? How well do you deal with that kind of waiting?

Now, while you think on that, let me ask you to picture this scene in your head. You’re on a retreat or a mission trip with a large group. We’ve all agreed to meet at, say, 8 a.m. to get started on our day. You know how it is… some of us are there at 7:45, eager to get a jump on things. A handful come into the room at 7:58. And, because this is our church, let’s assume that another half dozen people show up at 8:05. Can you picture this in your head so far?

How many times is there that one guy who just isn’t there by 8:10? We’re waiting, and we clarify with each other – “we said 8 o’clock, right?” We get a little passive-aggressive and we start rolling our eyes, or conspicuously checking our watches. We sigh – quite loudly. And you want to send someone into the next room to check on him to make sure that he’s aware, but you know he’s there. You can hear him whistling a show tune or maybe working away on his laptop. Finally, he strolls into the room, brushing his teeth, and looks up and says, “Oh, hey guys! What’s up? Oh – wait – did we say 8??? I was sure it was 9! My bad…”

OK, show of hands… how many of you have been in a situation like that, where you’re waiting and waiting and waiting for someone who seems to be pretty clueless and disengaged from the group process?

Now, how many of you have ever been that guy at least once in your life?

The question is… how many times when you’ve been in the midst of some huge and horrific wait have you felt as though God has been acting that way?

Here you are – you’ve got some serious business going on. You need that job, you are dying of loneliness, you can’t stand to see your child struggling with addiction any longer, and you’ve been praying and praying and praying. You have cried out to God, and it seems as if he’s not there, or even worse, as though he’s just messing around with something else? You want to scream at all those athletes and poor students, “Will you shut up about that game you’ve got coming up or that test you didn’t study for? God’s got more important fish to fry!”

I am not aware of the source of this illustration. If you know where credit might be rendered, I’d be grateful to know.

Where is God when you need him?

Where is God while we are waiting, or hoping, or suffering?

Why is it that God sometimes takes so long to get his act together?

Do you remember when we met David? He was just a kid, out minding his own business, taking care of his father’s sheep. Through the prophet Samuel, God calls to this boy – who is maybe fifteen years old – and says, “All right, son: stay on the straight and narrow. One day, you’re going to be king. Not yet, of course, but one day…” And David shrugs and says, “OK, God, I’ll wait…

And then he goes out and kills Goliath… He moves into Saul’s house, and Saul’s son Jonathan becomes a best friend.   He marries Saul’s daughter, and then he gets chased out of Saul’s house. His wife is taken from him. He gets chased out of Israel. His friend dies. For fifteen years, give or take, David is on the run. Finally, Saul dies.

This is it! This is what David’s been waiting for, right? Now he can be the king! And, in fact, he is anointed king… in the tribe of Judah. The other Israelites are holding out for a relative of Saul’s. There’s a power struggle and uncertainty and dis-ease for another seven and a half years.

With the benefit of three thousand years’ hindsight, we can say, “Wow, God really was faithful to David, wasn’t he?” But the reality is that for nearly a quarter of a century, David’s primary experience of God was…not yet. For David and those around him, year after year was spent asking, “Now?” and hearing “Nope.”

I know that nobody here has waited twenty-two years in the hopes of becoming the rightful king of Israel, but I know that you know the pain of waiting or the frustration of unanswered questions. What do you say when God seems silent? How are you supposed to act when it seems as though God has already checked out?

Let me suggest that in some important ways, David can be a model for us in these situations.

The scripture that you heard a few moments ago from II Samuel summarizes seven and a half years of conflict in a single verse, and then goes on to name the six sons that were born to David during this time. What does that suggest about the way that David was behaving during this time of waiting?

– That is not what I meant! –

I’d venture to say that this is one way of saying that David was getting on with his life. He continued to act as though the promise was coming true, even if he couldn’t see it with his own eyes right now. While this behavior is not necessarily the model for family life that we’d like to see in the church in the 21st century, the reality is that even while David is continuing to wait on God, he is looking toward the future that God has promised him.

The other thing that David did during these years after Saul’s death was to continue to seek the Lord. Although it isn’t mentioned in the readings we heard this morning, II Samuel chapter 2 relates the fact that David continued to inquire of the Lord with some regularity. In his public as well as his private life, David appealed to the covenant that God had made, even though the terms of that covenant had not all been fully realized.

Furthermore, it would be foolish to ignore the fact that the very experience of waiting in this manner shaped David into the kind of king that he would become. Of course he behaved differently as a forty-year old king than he would have as a fifteen-year old monarch. Some of what he went through shaped him for that which he was to become.

In the same way, those of us who are waiting, waiting, waiting for something to happen or for something to end are called to continue to walk in the paths of discipleship. We can hold on to what we have and continue to act as though all of God’s promises are true even on those days when we have a hard time feeling their truth.

I think that’s what Paul is getting at in his letter to the Corinthians. He mentions what he calls his “thorn in the flesh” – some mysterious affliction – that seems to get in the way of his happiness or productivity. We’re not sure exactly what this “thorn” was: some scholars have suggested Paul struggled with depression, or epilepsy, or failing eyesight, or recurrent bouts of pain. We can’t know what it was, because Paul doesn’t tell us. What he does tell us, however, is that what God is doing is more important than what Paul is feeling. Paul senses God’s presence with him saying, “Look, don’t put all your trust in what you can do or what you hope will happen. Trust that my grace is enough for you. Trust in me to hold you up.” Paul does this, and is able to write about finding contentment in Christ.

We are not promised easy answers or short-cut solutions. Those things didn’t show up in David’s life or in Paul’s. It seems to me that the path of faith invites us into all of the messy and sometimes painful places of our lives in the expectation that God will show up at the right time… even if the timing is not what we would wish.

Søren Kierkegaard stressed the importance of the discipline of waiting in faith. He said that many of us are like the student who didn’t like math, but needed a good grade in the course, and so he stole the teacher’s answer sheet before the test. His goal, of course, was to memorize all of the right answers and then get a perfect score. Kierkegaard rightly points out that answers like that are not really answers at all. To truly have the answers, we have to work through the problems.[1]

Your life and mine are full of problems. Some of them are minor irritants, such as choosing the slow line at the Giant Eagle or getting lost in traffic. Some of them are incredibly difficult to bear, such as the loss of a child or the dimming of hopes that were bright. We will not escape the problems. But with the help of God, we can walk into them knowing that these problems will not overwhelm us. By the power of the Holy Spirit, and with the company of those around us in the body of Christ, we can work it out. We can wait it out. We can hope it out. God’s grace was sufficient for David and for Paul. It is enough for you and me as well. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Quoted in Ben Patterson’s Waiting: Finding Hope When God Seems Silent (Intervarsity, 1989) p. 14

A Mixed Bag

Some months ago I read Debbie Blue’s Consider the Birds, and for the first time in years, I felt compelled to share some of a book’s insights in the form of a sermon series.  To that end, the folks in Crafton Heights will spend ten weeks in the Summer of 2014 considering some of the insights brought forward in that volume and by the creatures and stories featured therein.  For the sake of brevity, let me simply say that if you read something that strikes you as profound and wise, it probably comes from her work.  If you read something that seems a little heretical, well, chances are that it’s from me. 

On September 7, 2014 our readings came from Luke 12:22-25 and Psalm 37:1-7

Have you ever noticed how when two people describe the same event, there are almost always some subtle differences between the two accounts – small details that reveal the biases of the person who is telling the tale? I might mention that on a late night outing to do some mission trip planning, we shared a pizza. Someone else might describe the same trip and say that Pastor Dave ate five pieces and everyone else had one. It’s the same information, more or less, but the omission or addition of detail reflects the different emphases of the storyteller, and perhaps influences the way the story is heard.

The men who wrote our Gospels are the same way. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John each chooses to include some details and leave others out. When we look at what they mention and what they don’t, we can guess some of their priorities.

St. Luke, Frans Hals (1625)

I thought about that as I read today’s scripture reading, and about how much more I tend to enjoy Luke’s writing than I do that of Matthew. Now, don’t get me wrong – I’m not down on Matthew. You can be sure that you’ll be hearing from him in the months to come. But I simply love the way that Luke takes every opportunity he gets to tell the story of Jesus from the vantage point of the underdog.

When Matthew wrote his Gospel, it was directed primarily towards educated Jews who had become believers in Jesus – people who could be considered “insiders” in some important ways. A few years later, Luke wrote the Gospel that bears his name with an eye towards gentiles who had heard about this Jewish messiah, Jesus, and wanted to follow him. Luke’s readers are often those who are on the outside looking in.

To give you a sense of how these differences are reflected in their writing, consider the fact that when Matthew is giving us Jesus’ “family tree”, he traces it back to Abraham, the “father” of the Jewish nation. Matthew wants us to know that Jesus has come to save “us”! But when Luke presents a genealogy, he goes all the way back to Adam, indicating that Jesus is here to offer salvation to everyone.

Matthew tells us that Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” opening up a can of worms as to what it means to be poor in spirit. Luke simply says, “Blessed are you who are poor.”

feederbirdsMatthew remembers the day that Jesus was preaching about trusting God, and he says that Jesus reminds us to “consider the birds of the air”. That lacks specificity, and, if you’re like me, you hear someone asking you to think about birds and you think of small, beautiful, brightly-colored and dainty creatures. Inoffensive, happy, chirping little companions who have come to brighten up your day. Jesus says that God feeds and cares for these birds and you think, “Well, why wouldn’t he? I put out a little birdseed myself every now and then. They are just so fun to watch…”

Yet when Luke remembers this story of Jesus’ teaching, he points out that Jesus said, “consider the ravens.” Well. Hmmm. That changes the old mental picture a little bit, doesn’t it? If you stop to consider one of these birds for a moment or two, I’m pretty sure that “dainty” or “beautiful” are not words that will come to mind. What is his point?

The Common Raven

The Common Raven

Well, let’s consider the raven. According to Leviticus, it’s an unclean animal. Many in the ancient world taught that the raven was a cursed beast; some say that ravens were white when Noah took a pair of them onto the ark with him, but when that bird proved to be unhelpful to him, God ordered that all of its offspring wear the color of coal. A few ancient rabbis taught that this curse was given because the raven feasted on the flesh of the corpses of those who had died in the flood, and of course when we see ravens today it’s often because they are scavenging roadkill. Ravens are described as menacing, and are associated with death and desolation. In some cultural fables, the raven is associated with gluttony, and in fact if I want to tell you how hungry I am, I will say that I am simply “ravenous”.

On the other hand, though, ravens are one of the few birds known to relate intentionally with mammals. In many parts of the wilderness, ravens and wolves travel together, and the ravens can be seen actually playing with wolf cubs. Similarly, ravens have been taught to speak. While it is true that a raven turned its back on Noah and the occupants of the ark, Elijah, the prophet of God, was saved from starvation when these birds brought him sustenance.

Not only that, but the raven is an incredibly intelligent creature. Studies have shown that these birds can learn, will use logic to figure out puzzles and tests, and can recognize individual human faces as well as remembering specific birds for at least three years.

Consider the raven. A large, intelligent, ominous creature. One that has the potential to partner with wolves or rescue prophets. A creature with an enormous capacity and an even larger desire. The raven is truly a mixed bag, isn’t it?

Does anything sound familiar here? Are not the ravens far more like us than we are like the juncos or hummingbirds or cardinals? Are we not creatures who know something about what it means to be capable of great good and terrible harm? Of, shall I say, ravenous capacity for that which brings life as well as that which would kill?

In Consider the Birds, Debbie Blue writes

They are scavengers. They are ravenous. They rave…you can see the dark in its eyes. And God feeds it.
It’s one thing to believe that God feeds the little pretty birds of the air. They have small appetites. They need a few seeds. Everybody loves them. It’s not that much to feed. They do not seem needy. But what if you’re ravenous?
Is the hope that God will feed you as long as you’re not that hungry, as long as you don’t need that much? God will feed you, sure – if you have the appetite of a little dove, as long as all you need is seeds, dry little seeds? The hope is not so proscribed.
God feeds the ravens, the ravenous, the mixed-up greedy gluttonous carrion eater. That’s saying a lot more, somehow, something more shocking, maybe, than that God’s willing to give bird food to light eaters. And how much more will God feed us? We need a lot. A lot of food and attention and love and healing. The world needs a lot. And I don’t think I usually believe that God will feed us all. Jesus seems crazy here to me, unreliable, like, how can we even listen to him here? How can we model ourselves on the raven, the lilies – it’s lunacy to ask us to believe we will be fed.[1]

That’s why I like Luke so much: because he is daring us to believe great things about God and God’s care for and in our lives.

Jesus doesn’t like you better if you know all the verses to all the songs they play on K-Love. Jesus doesn’t care if you feel particularly holy or if you feel so overwhelmed by the problems of the world that you’re not sure what to do next. God’s not asking us to be polite, or to be beautiful, or to smell nice or to have sensible diets.

What Jesus is telling us is that God wants us to trust him. It’s OK, says God. Just settle down and listen for a moment. Relax. Let me take care of things.

A Raven

A Raven

Maybe we are, in our heart of hearts, ravens. We know that we are a mixed bag; that we can be too smart for our own good sometimes and that we are willing to scavenge for whatever scraps we can find laying around. We sometimes choose to run with the wolf pack and share in the kill, and yet we have it in us to befriend prophets and love our neighbor, too. Maybe some days we get out of bed and we look ourselves in the mirror and we realize that we are sleek, dark, shifty creatures who can’t always be trusted to do the right thing, and who are afraid, in our heart of hearts, that we aren’t good enough – for God, for each other, or for ourselves. And so we pretend to be juncos or goldfinches or hummingbirds instead.

What if somehow, some way, we were able to believe for an hour or two that God really will take care of us? What if we could stop pretending long enough to listen to what Jesus is saying, and to trust that God does long to shape us according to his purposes?

If we could approach life with that kind of trust in the One who made us, then maybe it would be a little easier to care about other people, and to cut people a break when they need it. If we wasted less time and energy pretending to be something we’re not, then maybe we’d have more enthusiasm for seeking justice and peace in the world.

If we could believe that God was truly holding tight to us, and to those whom we love, then maybe we could loosen our grip on our children and grandchildren and be less inclined to hover over or smother those with whom God has entrusted us.

TrustGodIf we could trust that God is willing to give us what we need, then maybe we’d be more likely to recognize the gifts of God when they show up in our lives, and it’d be a little easier to offer what we have and who we are to those who surround us.

Yeah, I hear you, Pastor Dave, but I’m starting a new job. I had to change schools last week. My kid is riding the BUS now. I haven’t had a regular paycheck for three years. They shut off my gas. I’m not sure my wife loves me anymore. You can talk all you want about trust, Pastor Dave, but I’m falling apart here. Do you know what will happen if I can’t hold it together?

Luke gives it to us straight: consider the ravens. Look at those things, and all that is true about them. God made them. God cares for them. God is present with them. How much more, then, is he with and for you?

Believe that. Accept that. And be with and for God. And be with and for those people who are sitting all around you – and those who are afraid to come into this room – so that they, too, might know – and trust – the embrace of God.

[1]  Consider the Birds (Abingdon, 2013), pp. 201-202.