How many of you have known people who inspired you by their patience and commitment? People who remained faithful – especially through a period of trial.
Simeon and Anna were elderly Jews who remained faithful and who held on to their hope and faith in God. Simeon and Anna believed that God would not leave the chosen people forever, so, they did what they could, and they waited. One translation of the Gospel text says that Simeon “was upright and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel.” And Anna “never left the Temple courts; day and night she worshiped God, fasting and praying,” for she was “among those waiting for the redemption of Israel.”
It’s never easy to wait for anything of importance. And it is, I think, hardest of all to wait for God. Not many people are disciplined enough to wait for God. Not many people have the wisdom to see life’s experiences from God’s perspective. From a larger perspective that acknowledges the importance of each moment, but that also sees each moment as part of a much bigger and more important whole. Not many people can endure the long hours that are sometimes demanded of those who wait. And since the demands of waiting for God are so great, there is always the temptation to transform waiting for God into something else.
There are some, for example, who would change waiting for God into passivity. “We must wait for God to bring us peace.” or “We must wait for God to show us how to care for the poor.” or “We must wait for God to show us a miracle.”
But waiting for God should not be about being passive. Waiting for God should be about being expectant. It’s like waiting for an honored guest to arrive at your home. There is still work to be done while you wait.
In the 1960s, at the height of the civil rights movement, a group of white ministers issued a public statement urging Dr. King, in the name of the Christian faith, to be more patient in his quest for justice. Dr. King’s response came in the form of the now-famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail. In that letter, Dr. King indicated that he had received similar requests that argued, “It is possible that you are in too great a religious hurry. The teachings of Christ take time to come to earth.” Dr. King replied that such an attitude stemmed from a misunderstanding of time, the notion that time itself cures all ills. Human progress, he said, is not inevitable, but rather it comes through the efforts of men and women willing to be co-workers with God. We must use the time that God gives us constructively, in the knowledge that what we do with that time can both contribute to the coming of God or delay its arrival.
Simeon and Anna were waiting for God to come, but they were not passive in their waiting. Simeon was full of devotion and did what was just. Anna kept the lights burning at the Temple with her ceaseless worship. They waited, but, while they waited, they did what was right in the eyes of the Lord.
But you may rightly say, what’s wrong with our impatience? So what if we find it difficult to wait and are not able to wait in the way that Simeon and Anna did? What harm is there in that?
Well, that is where the other way some wait for God can get us into trouble. By letting our actions actually become betrayals of God.
In the opera, “Moses and Aaron,” while Moses is on the mountaintop receiving the Law, Aaron is left behind on the valley floor to wait with the people. Exhausted, impatient, and deprived of the vision of God’s presence, the people cry out to Aaron, “Point God out! We want to kneel down … but where is he?” Finally, exasperated with the people’s impatience, Aaron yields to their plea, forging for them a god they can touch, a god for whom they did not have to wait. And we all know how that story ended.
The questions for us today are, what actions are we not taking because we’re waiting for God to show us the way? Or what tangible gods are we actively reaching out for because we find it too difficult to wait for God to answer our prayers? God alone will save us, and part of what it means to be fully human is to wait for God’s coming into our personal and corporate lives.
The Jesuit priest William Lynch once observed that there are two kinds of waiting. One kind waits because “there is nothing else to do.” The other waits “actively but is rooted in hope.” The decision to engage in hopeful waiting, in faithful waiting is one of the great human acts of commitment to God. It requires the ability to acknowledge the presence of darkness in life but to then face it because our faith is rooted in hope. It also requires the enlarging of one’s perspective beyond the present moment because we have an awareness of God’s larger purpose. It requires choosing to wait with intention, and in so doing to give the future that God intends for us the chance to emerge.
Simeon and Anna did not wait because “there was nothing else to do.” They did not act out of desperations, trying to make God’s future come. They waited with both hope and faith. Their waiting was not a vacuum, devoid of activity. It was purposeful, Godly work. They waited and performed acts of justice and prayer in keeping with God’s call. While they waited, they defied the darkness by serving God, because it was the light of God for which they waited.
But you know what? It gets even harder still. Because the hardest part of waiting for God is not always the waiting. Sometimes it’s recognizing and accepting God when God comes and how God comes into our lives.
In the back of the nave of my former parish in Redwood City was a large brass bas relief of this morning’s Gospel story. In that depiction of this story, to the left was Joseph and Simeon. To the right was Mary and Anna. And in the middle, raised up to God by Joseph and with a dove descending upon him was an image of the child, Jesus. When my son, Adam, was old enough to start looking at things and drawing meaning from them, perhaps around 3 or 4 years old, we were both standing at the back of the nave one Saturday afternoon as I prepared the sanctuary for worship the next day.
Now, our family was, and is, somewhat unconventional. My ex-husband Chris and I were raising our son, but also in our life were two important people for Adam—his birth mother, Robyn and her mother, Rosemary (Adam’s biological grandmother).
Robyn and Rosemary are still part of our life to this day. In a moment that will be forever burned in my memory, Adam called me over to that large, brass image, and looking up at the image of Joseph and Simeon on one side, and Mary and Anna on the other, with the baby Jesus being lifted up to God in thanksgiving, Adam exclaimed to me, “Look Papa, that’s Daddy, that’s, you, that’s Robyn, that’s Rosemary, and that’s me!”
Aside from worrying about my son’s delusions of grandeur, I found myself so very grateful for that moment. I had wanted to be a parent most of my adult life. And for many reasons had come to think that it would never happen. Still, I waited and prayed about it. Sometimes sharing my struggles with close friends, but always returning to God in prayer. When my prayer was answered, it didn’t look the way I had imagined it. And as Adam pointed out in his description of that bas relief, our family didn’t look the way that most people would have envisioned that prayer being answered. We still don’t fit many people’s images of a family. But in God’s good time, my prayer was answered. Not in the way I envisioned it, but in the way that God did.
Old Anna looked at the baby Jesus, and somehow she knew that she had seen the fulfillment of her hope and Israel’s hope. Old Simeon looked, and he knew, too. He knew that God indeed had come, and he also knew that this coming of God, like all of God’s comings, both met human need and defied human expectation. Anna and Simeon knew that God’s coming would bring both salvation and demand; hope and great cost. Every coming of God both meets our needs, and challenges our expectations while also putting new demands on us. Because that’s just the way it is with the coming of God. The God who came to Simeon and Anna will come to us. In doing so, our expectations may be challenged but our deepest yearnings will also be met. Until God comes, however, like Anna and Simeon, we do what we can … and we wait.