Wait For It …
Vision. We want it. We need it. In a way, the God of the Bible promises it. God declares, “I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose . . .’” (Isaiah 46:9b-10). The whole biblical story begins with a promise that the enemy will be defeated at the end . . . the serpent’s head will be crushed.
Honestly, though, God also seems to keep people in the dark a lot.
God gives childless Abraham the night sky full of stars as a vision of his countless future descendants. Abraham believes that picture of God’s promise, but he has no timetable, and no earthly understanding of how such an old man could ever become a father to many. So many years of waiting (and impatience) stretched between the vision and the improbable birth of his promised heir.
God gives the boy Joseph a dream, a vision, of the singular part he will be called to play in rescuing his people from starvation. Between the dream and its fulfillment, though, lie years of persecution, darkness and seemingly interminable waiting.
God warns Abraham of his people’s future slavery in Egypt, as well as the deliverance of the Exodus, generations before they happen. Yet as the Exodus begins, God leads his people into a cavernous dead end, with the sea before them, the enemy thundering in behind them, night falling, and no blueprint for how they will escape destruction. They have an ultimate vision of freedom, but they’re in the dark, literally and figuratively, about how to proceed. They have to wait for instructions. Seemingly only Moses can hang on (barely) to the promise of deliverance when all looks lost.
God gives Jeremiah a vision of both the exile of his people from their land, and their eventual return to it, before either ever occurs. Years later it is electrifying for Daniel, a faithful Israelite still captive in Babylon, to read those words of Jeremiah and to suddenly realize this was the time for the vision of their release to be accomplished! Daniel suddenly recognizes the potential unfolding of the vision before his eyes (Daniel 9:2). Nevertheless, many saints in the story will have a suspenseful part to play before the captives return to see their holy city, Jerusalem, again. Daniel’s part is to pray, and wait.
The annunciation to Mary is nothing if not the delivery of a glorious vision, but think of the challenges that lay ahead of her. We know that doubts clouded her confidence. Before the truth of the vision was vindicated by the resurrection and the coming of the Spirit, at the end of her life, she had endured much.
Jesus is constantly articulating a vision of the shape of his disciples’ future ministry, though they seldom believe him as they hear it. He tells them that he must suffer and be killed, but that he will rise again. He warns them that there will be suffering in the path God marks out for each of them as well. Yet he also gives them a vision of the help and the joy of the Spirit he will send to them. Jesus’ whole life on earth is a vision of the new Kingdom those disciples will begin to plant with the Spirit’s help. Still, after the resurrection, long days of fear and confusion, as well as anticipation, stand between the vision and the coming of the promised Spirit at Pentecost.
We may have a God-breathed vision of the Church as the Bride whom the Lord is purifying and preparing for his heavenly banquet, and yet we still cry out, with the Psalmist, for a clearer immediate path, and for a little more light on it. *
How does it actually all happen? What is our part and how do we play it?
Two suggestions emerge from the apparent fog. The first seems obvious, but it is no small or simple assignment. Wait. Just wait. Having seen the goal, the prize . . . wait for it! Beware impatience. Be ready for the dark . . . days when the vision is obscured or seems beyond all reasonable reach.
Almost without exception, when God’s people devolved into idolatry in the Scriptures, it is because they grew intensely impatient and anxious about how long God was asking them to wait for a promised outcome. Idolatry brings the temporary relief of trying to do something to meet our own needs rather than to seek God and ask Him to meet them. Abraham and Sarah were already too old for parenthood when God first promised them a son. But then wait 20+ years for God to fulfill the vision? Couldn’t do it. Try another way. Hence . . . Ishmael, the son of their impatience. For the people at the base of Mt. Sinai, it was because Moses was gone, up there, for so long, that they resorted to calf-building. You get the picture. You’ll find it in almost all the stories. And it repeats and repeats with varying degrees of subtlety as the larger story of the Scriptures unfolds.
Right now, my daughter is training my three-year-old granddaughter to wait at the curb when they are walking to our house. The alternative is potentially disastrous. In the preadolescent season they’ll be having a different conversation about waiting of other sorts, also with harmful alternatives. And all of it will pave the way for a more discerning and sophisticated skill in her child, that of hearing the Father’s voice and bearing the discomfort of waiting while the vision he’s given often unfolds in the dark. We all need that skill.
And what do we do while we wait? No one has said it better than former missionary, Elisabeth Elliot. Her husband was killed by tribesmen in Ecuador, and she was at a loss as to how to carry on. “Do the next thing.” We are not beamed up to the vision God gives for our lives and ministries. Biblically, getting there looks more like walking a narrow flagstone path with only a flashlight. Each step of willing obedience reveals more of God’s vision. It unfolds incrementally.
I love the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego for it’s surprising conclusion. I suppose it’s surprising enough that heavenly messengers appear in the furnace with them! But to me, the often-overlooked ending may be even more magnificent. The king, who has ordered their execution because they were unwilling to bow down to his idol, is anxiously watching them through the fire in the furnace. He is stunned to see them unharmed, and their God rejoicing beside them. The king then reverses course completely and orders that the name of the God of Israel be honored in his entire kingdom . . . basically the whole ancient world.
Think about that.
Three Israelites were ordered to worship an idol and refused. That was their next thing. It was certainly not their plan for the evangelization of their part of the globe. It was simply their next step of obedience, costly obedience, with the unforeseen result of bringing glory to God in their world, and for the rest of history.
Thus we embark on our year of considering the theme of vision. First we ask God for the grace to be a people who are learning to wait for him, and are willing to obey . . . even in the dark.
Where might God be challenging you to wait?
Has he given you a next step of obedience?
* Put the word “path” in your online Bible search engine and search in Psalms. It’s wonderful.