We are all familiar with the saying, “Patience is a virtue,” a sure indication that for most of us this virtue is a challenge.
We return to the prophet Isaiah to remember the ancient prophesy of the coming time when the desert will be watered and the condition of the lowly will be raised up (Isaiah 35:10d): “everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.” The prophesy combines patience with expectations and with joy. That a reversal is needed speaks to the current need of change. Isaiah speaks in the future tense—will be, shall be—it will be 800 years before the promise is fulfilled with the birth of Christ. Patience is the spiritual discipline of waiting in hope while promises remain unfulfilled, even if for as long as 800 years.
The Epistle of James counsels the church to develop patience in waiting for the return of Christ (5:8), “You must also be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near,” and prophets such as Isaiah, and the people who believed in the promise, are cited as an example for the church (5:10): “As an example of suffering and patience, beloved, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.”
Waiting is painful; patience includes a willingness to endure suffering. Isaiah’s imagery of a desert in full blossom, water streaming through long-dry ground, speaks to the soul’s longing for the time of waiting to end and for the promises we believe in to be fulfilled.
The fact of suffering as part of the spiritual discipline of patience speaks to the theme the modern church takes for the 3rd Sunday in Advent: Joy. Our theme is not “relief,” as the end of suffering might suggest; it is not “comfort”, as might be if the coming of Christ merely met our expectations. But Joy includes surprise because the way God fulfills the promise is unexpected and transcends our expectations.
As the Psalmist declares (146:5), “Happy are those” who trust in God. Mary gives voice to this happiness when she sings (Luke 1:46b-48a): ‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.” God’s promises are fulfilled in the unlikeliest of people, places, and circumstances. Joy is happiness experienced when the promises of God are fulfilled at last.
The New Testament lection returns us to John the Baptist, offering us a lived example of the great difficulty of patiently waiting on the Lord, the uncertainty and challenge of how Christ comes to us anew. John the Baptist boldly declares that one who is greater is to come after him, and when Jesus comes to him to be baptized (Matt 3:14), “John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ John’s faith and vision seem certain and clear—what he has been preaching he sees fulfilled as Jesus comes to him to be baptized—yet as he sits in Herod’s prison and hears reports of Jesus’ ministry, his certainty and clarity melt away. From prison he sends friends to ask the question (11:3b), “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
John’s question makes sense in the light of our experience of faith.
He waits in prison as Herod looks for a safe way to kill him, and while he waits there Jesus takes over the movement he had begun. Would it be too much to ask for Jesus, the long awaited Messiah, to set him free from prison, as promised in Psalm 146:7c: “The Lord sets the prisoners free”; and in Isaiah 72:4:
Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.”
He has been waiting and he has been preaching that the Messiah is coming, but John the Baptist finds that when Christ comes he does not come as expected. When he asks if he should keep on waiting for another, John is not only saying that the current ministry of Jesus is not what he has been waiting for, but he is asking if Jesus is going to get down to business of being the Messiah John the Baptist expects him to be.
We are reminded by John the Baptist’s question the great need for us to refocus ourselves in Advent on waiting and looking for the unexpected; part of the spiritual practice of patience is letting go of our expectations of how God should fulfill God’s promises and for how Christ comes to us anew in the world today.
Joy includes surprise, not merely fulfillment of expectations, and Joy makes room for the suffering of our long discipline of waiting.