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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

March 10, 2013

Out of the Depths: The Posture of Faith

Isaiah 40:27-31; Romans 5:1-8

             I know that many of your homes have been like ours the last three years: You have been glued to PBS’s Downton Abbey.  For the benefit of those of you who have not gotten hooked on this well-written, exquisitely filmed serial, with a great cast of characters, the main story line has been driven by the need for an heir for Downton, the aristocratic estate of the Crawley family, and the relationship that develops between Matthew Crawley, the presumed, albeit unlikely heir, and Lady Mary Crawley, his third cousin and the eldest daughter of Lord Grantham, the current Lord of the estate and all that goes with it.  Matthew and Lady Mary at first start off at odds in a way that makes you know that this is because really they are drawn to each other.  After much drama, they realize that they are in love with each other.  But Lady Mary, often the spoiled child, waits to give Matthew an answer to his proposal for so long that finally he walks away from it all.  World War I comes at the end of season one, and all of us had to wait for season two to see if they would ever repair the breach.  They both find other romantic interests and both get engaged, though they also develop a deep and genuine friendship in this time, as Matthew is paralyzed in a war mishap and Mary helps him to cope with the fear that he will never walk again, and never bear the child who would be the next heir to Downton.

             In season two, we find that all of this comes full circle for the two of them though never in a way that you feel confident that you know how it is all going to end!  At the end of season two, in one of the best endings to a television series you will ever see, Matthew gets down on one knee and proposes to Lady Mary.  This time she accepts in front of Downton Abbey with snow falling from the heavens.  But then we all had to wait for season three, for a full year, to see if the wedding would actually happen!

             As I have thought about the enormous appeal of Downton Abbey, I think part of the show’s power is due to its pace.  Things unfold slowly, and you are forced to wait on the outcome.  A whole lot of the power of this story is found in waiting.  The story does not come to you all at once or in one sitting, and in your waiting you grow far more attached to the characters and the various plots and subplots, and are committed to the ongoing story.  Season three just ended with a bang, and we cannot wait for season four.  But wait we will!  Wait we must.

             So much of life is lived in waiting.  In many ways, we are what we wait for in life, so formational of our lives can our waiting be.  The Psalmist said, “I wait for the Lord, my soul doth wait, and in His Word do I hope.  I wait for the Lord more than they that watch for the morning; yea, more than they that watch for the morning.”  In so many ways, waiting is the posture of faith.  Hebrews tells us that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  Paul asks, “For who hopes for what is seen?  But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”  Faith is all about waiting.  (It is all about the unseen that will unfold.)  We spend most of our lives doing some kind of waiting, because the things we care about most deeply and passionately are rarely matters of certainty.  They are far more matters of faith, which requires of us “the conviction of things not seen.”  So we wait.

             And at another level, we hate to wait!  We want what we want, and we want it now.  But life rarely yields to our demands and desires.  So we spend much of life in the posture of waiting.  Much of the life of prayer is spent waiting.  Simone Weil, the great French mystic, said, “Waiting patiently in expectation is the foundation of the spiritual life.”

             Too many of us too often are too impatient, or too much like the great Prime Minister of Great Britain, Maggie Thatcher.  She said, “I’m extraordinarily patient provided I get my way in the end.”  Our problem is that we live in a digital age of instant responses and answers to most of our questions and desires.  That is part of the joy of an iPhone or iPad.  You can Google an answer of some kind to almost any question you can imagine.  But you cannot Google a life; to find a life, you have to live it.

             I have found that God never comes to those who do not wait.  And chronic impatience is too often a sign of chronic immaturity.  Patience is one of the fruits of the Spirit for Paul, and it may be one of the most nourishing to our souls.

             I have never forgotten the lesson of the Chinese bamboo tree that we learned on our 2007 trip to Sichuan province.  You plant and water the bamboo seed in the first year, and nothing happens.  You water it a second year, and still nothing comes out of the ground.  You tend and care for the seed for five years with no visible evidence for your labors.  Then in the fifth year, in a period of six weeks, a bamboo tree can grow ninety feet into the air.  The question begs itself.  Did it grow ninety feet in six weeks, or did the bamboo grow ninety feet in five years?  We plant a seed, and we wait.  We see nothing, but all the while, God is at work under the surface, nourishing, preparing, growing roots, indeed, growing our very souls.

             Isaiah 64 starts with a rather insistent word.  “Oh, that you would tear open the heavens and come down!” cries the prophet.  Then in a powerful passage in Isaiah 64:4, he that tells us, “From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for Him.”  Did you hear that?  God “works for those who wait for the Lord.”  And I have learned that God works in our waiting to teach us things, and to give us growth that does not come in any other way.  Theologian Richard Hendricks said, “Second only to suffering, waiting is the single greatest teacher of Christian life and maturity.”

             What are you waiting for this day?  What is it you long for so deeply that you can scarcely give voice to it without trembling?  Parents pour themselves into their children.  You fall in love with them, and I like to kid they break your heart every time!  Who said parenting is for sissies?!  And you wait, praying, longing, rooting, yearning.  But you cannot create or insure your child’s future, who they will become.  You can only wait for that to emerge in God’s good time.  And maturity, depth of soul and real strength never come without suffering.  That is why Paul said, “We also rejoice in our suffering, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”  God loves us in our suffering, but I can tell you that it kills you to watch your children suffer.  So you wait, and you pray, and you listen a whole lot to them in their pain and uncertainty.

             Don’t you see?  Waiting teaches us that we are not in control or in charge.  Waiting humbles us.  I love the story of Phillips Brooks, the great preacher at Trinity Church in Boston, on Copley Square.  Brooks was a huge man, and one day, this normally placid man was pacing like a nervous wreck in his study.  His Associate came in and was stunned, “Dr. Brooks, what is wrong with you?”  “Well, it seems that I am in a hurry, and God is not!”  Augustine said, “Patience is the companion of wisdom.”  God’s perspective on time is always different from our own.  We are often in a hurry, impatient for what worries us or gives us anxiety.  God is never rushed.  And I have learned that God will not be rushed.

             I love the story of Alexander Hamilton’s interview with the great educator, John Witherspoon, when the Scottish cleric was President of the College of New Jersey.  Hamilton grew up on Nevis and Grand Cayman, and did not get to go to school until a Presbyterian minister, Richard Knox, noticed how brilliant this autodidact was.  Knox got him into Elizabethtown Academy, a feeder school for Princeton in those days.  Hamilton was now 18, though, and he was in a hurry.  As he met with Witherspoon, one of America’s greatest educators, he took an aggressive stance.  He explained why he was in a position to be able to finish college more quickly than other students, and proposed that he enroll with the understanding that he would finish his course in three years.  Witherspoon recognized Hamilton’s brilliance, and did not want to lose him.  But he also knew more about education than the impetuous young man.  So he said, “It takes three years to grow asparagus, but it takes four years to get an education at this school.”  Hamilton went to Kings College, today Columbia University, and he was killed by another impetuous, ambitious Princeton graduate in 1804, Aaron Burr.

             Dag Hammarskjöld said, “Be patient toward all that is unresolved in your own heart.”  And to do this, you must wait.  You must wait upon God, “who works for those who wait for Him.

            Waiting also teaches us to trust in God.  “I wait for the Lord, my soul doth wait, and in His word do I hope.”  We are not lords of our futures.  Only Jesus Christ holds that place.  And waiting is often a sign that we have learned that God’s word can be trusted.  I have learned that those who wait on God lose no time.  Because in our waiting, we learn trust in God whose word never returns to us empty.  I love how the poet put it:

 “God’s wisdom is sublime

His heart profoundly kind;

God never is before His time,

And never is behind.”

             John Calvin said, “Let believers then implore the assistance of God, but let them also learn to suspend their desires if God does not stretch out the divine hand for their assistance as soon as they may think necessity requires.  For whatever may be His delay, God never sleeps, and never forgets His people.”

             I learned last week that Disney may issue Fast Passes to its guests, but I have found that God does not.  God is out to grow our souls to be strong and deep and hearty enough to make it in this life where so many things can happen.  And “God works for those who wait for Him.”  Waiting often gives us time to reflect upon what God is trying to teach us.  To hurry things, to try to take control of our lives at the point of our anxieties, is often to short circuit what God wants for us to learn.

             Isaiah was right, I have learned: “Those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”  “I wait for the Lord, my soul doth wait, and in His word do I hope.”  You can as well!


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