“Wait For It…”

Movies and television shows are breeding grounds for popular phrases that enter the culture and resonate with millions of people.  Just utter the phrase, and nearly everyone in the group “gets” the reference.  A recent American sitcom has made the phrase “Wait for it..” an iconic reference to comedic timing.  It’s often the anticipation of a punchline, a pratfall, an ironic twist, that makes it memorable or noteworthy, and a clever person will use the timing to maximize the humor in a joke or prank.

We have an innate desire to see “what happens” next in life– “Where will I be in five years?”  “Will I get the job?”  “When will the baby come?” “Will she say ‘Yes’?” “Will the tests come back negative?”  The last thing we want at such times is a clever, smug comedian sitting back and using our anticipation for his own entertainment.

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Often, the wait is exciting, short-lived, and rewarded with relief in the form of a pleasant outcome–She does say, “Yes!”; or the medical test comes back with good news. Sometimes, the anticipation of the “punch line” produces shared laughter. But sometimes, it seems that the “joke” is on us– the wait never seems to end, or the punch line comes with a gut-wrenching punch–we didn’t get the job; the baby comes too early; the plans and the hard work end in disaster and shame.

Some people imagine God sitting in Heaven, smug and distant, pointing at us and laughing, “Wait for it..”  Every time they face disappointment, frustration, oppression, they raise their fists to Heaven and blame their creator for everything they haven’t gotten, every missed opportunity, every setback, every heartache.  “If God really loved me, he would not let me be hurt/sad/poor…”

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But, when God says “Wait for it…”, he’s not talking about a punchline or an ironic twist of fate.  He knows that bad things will happen, but he’s not asking us to wait for those things.  And he certainly isn’t sitting back laughing at our pain and disappointment.  He’s asking us to wait for something better.  Something we cannot even begin to imagine.  A restoration of all things– the dead brought back to life, the sick completely healed, the love we long for lavishly poured out in its fullness.

Anticipation is not part of a joke; hope is not corny or naive– it is built into the very soul of each person.  We long for what we have never experienced, but what we know is “out there”.  In this world, we will be left anticipating, because NOTHING can measure up to what God has in store.  Even the best of relationships, the best of comforts, the best of experiences, will leave us wanting something more.  And this is a gift, even though it can leave us disappointed, restless, and even hurt.  In light of what’s coming, there is no loss or setback so great as to cancel out the hope and the promise that stirs within.

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It’s because of this that we can pray with confidence in the midst of our struggles, and with abandon in times of frustration and pain.  We live in the finished work of the cross, but the unfinished and ongoing work of renewal and restoration.

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Wait for it..

The Right Time

But when the right time finally came, God sent his own Son. He came as the son of a human mother and lived under the Jewish Law, to redeem those who were under the Law, so that we might become God’s children

Galatians 4:4-5 (Good News Translation– emphasis added)

At just the right time Christ died for ungodly people. He died for us when we had no power of our own.

Romans 5:6 (New International Reader’s Version–emphasis added)

Do you ever wonder at God’s timing throughout the Bible? Why did He take the Israelites up to the edge of the Red Sea and THEN send the entire Egyptian army after them? Why did He allow Haman to trick the king into signing an edict that would wipe out the Jews and THEN send Esther to try to save them? Why did Jesus wait until Lazarus was dead to visit His sick friend? Or God’s timing in our own lives? Why didn’t He make it possible to get the job I wanted when I first applied, instead of nearly a year later? Why is life so stressful all at once? Why does God seem to give me wisdom AFTER I’ve messed up? And yet, God’s timing is perfect. Not that it seems that way–in fact, it often seems like God is not paying attention to timing at all.

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Even in Christ’s birth, it seems like the timing couldn’t have been worse–Joseph and Mary forced to travel far from home, only to find that there was no room anywhere for them to rest. And then– THEN–the labor pains began! It was cold, dark, filthy, lonely, and frightening. And not just that evening: the Romans ruled a significant portion of the world with an iron fist. Jews were not forbidden from worshipping God, but they were heavily taxed, regulated, and watched over by their invaders. This newest census was just another part of the bureaucracy and endless government red tape. It seems like it would be the worst timing ever for Emmanuel to appear.

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And yet, Scripture says it was “just the right time” for Christ to come. So what can we discover about this “right time?”

  • God had been silent for 400 years before this– almost exactly the same amount of time the Israelites had been in captivity in Egypt before God sent Moses to lead them out. Coincidence? I’m not so sure…God uses patterns to illustrate concepts. Just as the Israelites had been slaves to the Egyptians, so all of us were slaves to Sin and Death. “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up” John 3:14 (New American Standard Bible)
  • The prophets made hundreds of statements about where and how Emmanuel would be born– some seemed completely contradictory; yet they were all fulfilled exactly. Again, this wasn’t a coincidence– God orchestrated events over centuries until it was “the right time” for them to all come to pass. Only God could have coordinated it all–the census, the genealogy of Jesus, Joseph’s hometown, Mary’s contractions coming THAT night in THAT cattle shed, instead of on the road somewhere, or in a private room where the shepherds couldn’t visit…
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  • The Jewish people had been in exile off and on throughout the centuries; under Rome, even though they were conquered, most of the Jews who had returned to their homeland were still living there, much as they had centuries before. That wasn’t the case four or five hundred years before– it isn’t even the case today– more Jewish people live outside of Israel than in it!
  • Rome had established its rule over most of the Western World– and with it, they had established a system of roads, common currency, and a complex legal system. All of this played vital roles in the advent of the Savior– from His birth, through His ministry, and even in His trial, death, and the spreading of the Gospel. Before them, the Greeks had established cities and trading centers that would form the basis of the first missionary trips of the Apostle Paul. And they had created a “common” language in which this Good News was first written and spread. Just a few hundred years earlier, the spread of Christianity through letters and traveling ministers would have been much slower, less efficient, and more dangerous. Just a few hundred years later, the Roman Empire would be in shambles; travel would require going through regions separated by differing languages and governments.
  • To me, one of the most fascinating things to imagine is what it might be like if Christ had not come until our own time. First, there would be no Christianity, and none of the work of Christians over the centuries would have been done. But even if we imagine that all of history had unfolded and the present was much as it is, Christ’s birth would not have happened in the same way. Bethlehem would not be under the rule of Rome. In fact, Israel might not even exist; as it is, it exists in hot contention between the Jews, the Palestinians, and their close neighbors in the Middle East. There would be no census, and no need for Joseph and Mary to travel– and certainly not by donkey! There might be “no room at the inn,” but Joseph and Mary would be sent to a homeless shelter, filled with other hapless travelers. The shepherds, seeing angels, might still be filled with fright– mistaking them for missiles! Even so, it would only take minutes for a team of journalists to arrive with cameras, microphones, and commentary! The message of the angels would be dubbed “false” information or “fake news”, as would most of the prophecies about His arrival. “Fact checkers” would “kill” the story, and Mary, Joseph, and all the shepherds and wise men would be “cancelled” or receive threats.
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Or not–I can only speculate. But I can say with confidence that God’s timing, even when it seems odd or “wrong” by our limited perspective, is perfect and worthy of our praise. All that seems “odd” or “wrong” about Christ’s coming when, where, or how He did, is just our limited perspective, and our tendency to doubt whatever we don’t understand.

Emmanuel came! He came at “just the right time” to fulfill all the promises and complete His ministry on Earth. Everything happened just as God designed it. And over two thousand years later, we still “Rejoice!” We sing songs, celebrate, and worship. We breathe in Hope, we give gifts, and we cherish the story of Christmas in hundreds of different ways.

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This same God has a plan for us today. Throughout our lives, He sends blessings, allows struggles, and patiently stands by, offering help and hope to each of us. There is not a single detail of our lives that escapes His notice or is beyond His capacity or willingness to restore, transform, redeem, or renew.

Emmanuel– God WITH us–at “just the right time!”

When God is “Too Early…”

We spend a lot of time wondering about God’s timing– usually when we are waiting for God to act as we expect! But there are times when God acts before we expect– sometimes before we even ask!

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Tucked in the pages of the book of Acts is a curious little story about Peter’s miraculous escape from prison. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Acts%2012&version=ESV

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Peter’s situation was dire. Herod had already killed James, the brother of the Apostle John; he was planning to make a spectacle of Peter, likely by having him executed at the time of Passover. In verse 5, we see that earnest prayers were being made for Peter’s rescue. But just a few verses later, when Peter shows up at the prayer meeting, everyone is incredulous– “you are out of your mind,” they told poor Rhoda when she brought the good news. They left Peter standing outside knocking and trying to gain entry to the prayer meeting being held for his rescue!

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(Point of clarification— in verse 17, Peter says to “Tell James and the brothers” about his release…this is NOT the James who was martyred, but likely either James the son of Alpheus, or James, the brother of Christ, both of whom were leaders in the early church.)

God’s timing is not our timing– but God is ALWAYS “on time.” This can be difficult for us to accept. We may be waiting for a loved one to be cured, or for an abusive situation to be ended. When it ends in tragedy or death, we feel that God “didn’t show up on time.” But the same can happen when God seems to show up “too early.” We may wonder whether the rescue was really “of God” or just “coincidence.”

We must remember that God is not bound by time the way we are. We see time in one dimension–from the present going backward through the past. We cannot see the future; we cannot see “what might have been.” We cannot see at what moment God’s intervention will have the greatest impact.

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The rest of Acts 12 tells the “rest of the story,” one often overlooked. Peter reassured the believers, and then quietly escaped from Jerusalem. The next day, there was a massive search for Peter, which resulted in a sentence of death for the guards who “let him escape.” Herod’s campaign against the early Christ-followers was interrupted by political turmoil. But Herod, in his success and in his arrogance, failed to turn to God. “Immediately an angel of the Lord struck him down, because he did not give God the glory, and he was eaten by worms and breathed his last.” (v.23) The earnest prayers of the believers were answered in a way that far surpassed their expectations– not only was Peter rescued in a miraculous way, but God eliminated one of their fiercest enemies in a dramatic (and graphic) way! Not only that, but “the word of God increased and multiplied.” (v. 24)

Someone might say, “God could have removed Herod from authority long before He did.” Or, “God could have rescued Peter in a different way.” But who can argue that God was “early” or “late” in doing what He did? Who can argue that God “should” have acted differently?

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As difficult as it may be to accept in the moment, we can learn to trust God’s timing and His ways. And when we pray, we must remember that God will answer us as He chooses–and it will always be “on time.”

Out of Time

We’ve said Goodbye to 2020–in another 365 days we will have finished the year 2021. At some point, it will “run out” of its designated time. We live in a world limited by time and space.

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But God lives outside of time and space– He rules them, bends them, and contains them in His sovereignty. I often write about the omnipresence of God– that He is everywhere. In fact, the only place He is NOT is Hell; and He’s even visited there, once… But God is also omnipresent in time. He IS the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob– always, and all at once, along with being the God of everyone who has ever called and will ever call upon His name to put their trust in Him. God IS in the past; He is ever present, and He is already in the future, acting and overseeing His plans and purposes.

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With the birth of Jesus Christ, God did not step out of time– instead, He inserted Himself into time and space and obeyed the limits He Himself had placed. He came exactly when He had determined, exactly where, and exactly how He had planned. And the same is true of His death and resurrection. His death on the cross was not a moment too soon, and not a single second overdue. Yet, Jesus was at the mercy of the very time and space He had created. Just like us, He was limited to being in one place at a time, and limited to the circumstances around Him.

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Nothing shows this better than the story of Lazarus (John 11). A close friend of Jesus, Lazarus became mortally ill. Word was sent to Jesus so He could come immediately and heal Lazarus, but He delayed in coming. He delayed for two days, continuing to work where He was before going to help friend. He knew that Lazarus would not survive. By the time He arrived in Bethany, Lazarus had not only died, but had been buried. Both of Lazarus’s sisters greeted Jesus with the same rebuke–” If you had been here, my brother would not have died…” The God who is everywhere, always, was limited by His physical form, and had to walk to Bethany. He could not continue to work in one area, and be in Bethany at the same time. Nor could He stop time and space so the Lazarus’s sickness could “wait” for Jesus’s arrival days later. But the Sovereign, Omnipresent God had not “run out of time” to save His friend. Even in His human form, in His “inability” to get to Bethany “in time,” Jesus was acting according to His Sovereign plan. He brought Lazarus out of the grave! He was “there” in all of His power and mercy. And He was precisely where and when He needed to be!

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As we enter a new year, it comes with limitations–12 months, 52 weeks, 365 days, and so on–we can’t see what will happen, or where we will be in March or September. It may seem that God is “late,” or “absent” in our circumstances. We may be tempted to stop praying when we don’t see immediate answers. We may, like Mary and Martha, be tempted to scold the very author of Life when we don’t get the answer we want when we want it.

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This year, let us remember that God is beyond time and space. This allows us to trust that He can and will do what is best, when it is best. It also allows us to trust that God can make the most of OUR time as we trust it to Him. We may be limited to 24 hours a day, but we serve a God who can stretch and bend time, and supplement even our smallest efforts and resources with the endless riches of His Grace!

Time Flies

Yesterday had 24 hours, the same as every other day. Yet it seemed to zoom past, leaving me “behind” in getting my blog ready for today. So here I am, writing “under the gun” so that I can publish today.

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Blogs like this don’t have “deadlines” in the sense of print publications or broadcasts. I don’t have advertisers or managers demanding that I have content by a certain time or date. There are no editors to determine the length of any particular blog post. This one is likely to be shorter than most, in fact. And God isn’t standing by waiting to scold me for being late today. It is my own sense of expectation that gives me grief.

But God has placed all of us in time and space with a purpose. We do not have the power to “stretch” time, to reclaim it, or to bargain for more of it. Time “flies”–and what we do in the time we have flies, too. And He wants us to give our time to Him first of all.

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Falling behind on a blog entry is not a life-or-death matter. Falling behind in life is another matter.

I pray that today will be a productive day, a restful day, even a challenging day– and that, as it flies by, we will fulfill God’s purpose in it. And He’ll take care of the timing!

When God Doesn’t Answer…

Prayer is a conversation with God. But sometimes it can seem like a one-sided conversation. We have pressing needs for healing, or strength to bear up under stress or oppression. Sometimes, we pray for our loved ones’ struggles against addiction or wrong choices. And God seems silent.

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Sometimes, it’s better to get an answer we don’t like than no answer at all. When I was younger, I prayed for a family– a dream family with a handsome husband (preferably wealthy), three adorable and well-behaved children (I already had names picked out..), and maybe a beloved family pet, all living in a beautiful house with a big back yard, and maybe a small woods. I waited and prayed; prayed and waited. When I was in my thirties, still waiting and praying, I found out that I have several health problems– none of them life-threatening, but they mean that the chances that I would ever have had children are slim to none. I would never have the pleasure of watching my own children grow up; never know the joy of having a little voice calling me “mommy.”

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But God had not abandoned me. In my careers as a teacher and a children’s librarian (careers I had begun before I knew I couldn’t have children of my own), I had the joy of working with hundreds of children across a spectrum of ages, from nearly newborn through college! My memories are filled with a choir of voices calling me Miss Toney or Miss Lila (as I was known then). God had not closed the door on my dream– he had opened a window.

It wasn’t the answer I had hoped for, but it was an answer. However, I was still single. I didn’t want to be single. I didn’t feel it was what God wanted for my life, yet He didn’t seem to be listening or giving me any sign that He heard or understood. There was only silence. No promising relationships– only a few scattered dates over the long years–a few budding friendships, and many lonely days and nights.

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There were many helpful friends and family with suggestions, ideas, advice, comforting thoughts, or “explanations.” “God is waiting for you to become more mature in your walk with Him.” “God is saving the best for last.” “You’re too picky (I was never quite sure what that meant in light of the scarcity of dates, but…)” “You need to ‘get out there’ more–have you tried on-line dating? (I did. It was ‘meh’..).” “You should change jobs– single men are not hanging out at the library.” “You should change churches– find one with more single men.” But God stayed silent through my thirties and into my forties.

I did take some of the very good advice I received. I signed up to do short term missions trips. I traveled when I could, with family and friends, and even on my own. I read and went back to college. I spent time in the woods and at the beach, meditating, singing, or just enjoying God’s nature. I got “involved” in various volunteer opportunities. I joined the church choir. And I continued to pray.

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By the time I was squarely in my forties, I had decided to stop praying for a husband, to stop hoping, and praying, and seeking, and dreaming. And God said nothing. But I began getting phone calls from an old friend– someone I had known in childhood–in fact, the very first boy I had ever dated, nearly 30 years before! At first, I listened to his voice-mail messages, but didn’t return his calls. I was annoyed, and even a bit angry. After all this time, was God laughing at me? Did He really expect me to go all the way back to the very beginning and start over?

Finally, I let go of my pride, and my ancient dream– I decided to give David a chance. Maybe it would lead to another (renewed) friendship. Maybe it would be another disappointment. But it led to a new dream. It led to marriage, and a huge extended family, including David’s wonderful children, and three adorable (and mostly well-behaved) grandchildren. My husband is kind, and honorable, and Godly. He is a treasure. And God’s timing is perfect, even as it is mysterious. God didn’t withhold marriage as a bargaining chip to get me to “grow up,” or grant it as a “reward” for going on a couple of mission trips. God was silent–but He wasn’t absent. He saw every teardrop, rejoiced in every busy child-filled day at work, smiled at every snapshot of every natural wonder, every Teddy Bear picnic, every Bible School. He want along on every date, kept track of all the hundreds of books I read over the years, and hovered over the dinner table set for one every night. I committed my life to serving Him– whether I was single or married, alone, or surrounded by children. His ways are higher, and better, and wiser than mine.

I may never understand why God allowed me to travel the roads that have been set before me. And my roads could have looked much different. I could have married young, unaware of my barrenness, and ended up bitter and feeling guilty about my body for years before I was diagnosed. I might have had a child (or children), and become proud and controlling and fearful. I might have made idols of my “dream” husband and family.

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I know many dozens of people who are praying into the “silence” and waiting for God’s answer. Some are praying for healing. They may pray for hours in the hospital, only to lose their loved one. They may pray for weeks or months, as their child battles chronic illness. They may pray for years as they battle depression and loneliness. God may seem silent. But He is never absent. His ways sometimes lead to a happy ending in this life. Sometimes, they lead to a legacy that we cannot see this side of death. He does not promise us the answer we want, when or how we want it. He doesn’t promise us an easy or “happy” answer. What He does promise is that He will never forsake us. Long after we have been tempted to give up, to doubt, to turn away, God will still be waiting– sometimes in the silence– for the perfect moment, the perfect justice, the perfect word, the perfect solution.

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Puzzling Prayers

Have you ever had one of those days where things just don’t seem to make sense?  It doesn’t have to be a “bad” day, necessarily–just a day when things don’t seem to “fit.”  I had one of those days yesterday.

I journal my prayer life– I have notebooks with names and places for each day of the year.  Yesterday, my notebook included the city where my daughter lives and the names of three people celebrating birthdays, among other needs.  One of the names was a complete mystery to me.  I couldn’t remember who this person was, or how I knew either her or her name…I was drawing a blank and didn’t know how I should pray for her.  Was she a former classmate? Was she a daughter or mother or sister of someone I knew better?  I ended up praying a very general prayer– for her health, her family, etc., but it bothered me.

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Hours later, speaking with someone on the phone, another name came up, along with a prayer request– a man suffering with an illness who happened to have the same surname.  Coincidence?  Possibly, but the name stood out, and I prayed again– for both.  Now I was really curious.  I did some digging.  The first person WAS the sister of someone I knew, and their father is the one suffering from an illness.

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God is amazing, and one way is how he gives us the opportunity for “a-ha!” moments like the one I had yesterday.  I have spoken to several Christians who are sometimes separated by several time zones from those they normally call on for help or advice.  In crisis moments, they have cried out to God.  Thousands of miles away, someone will be awakened from a sound sleep with a sudden urge to pray for their distant friend, or another will be stopped in their tracks and send up a random prayer as their mind wanders.  Often, this will be in the exact moment of the crisis, and God will intervene with a miraculous healing or rescue or provision.  Days later, the two parties will connect and be astonished at the timing.

What used to puzzle me about such prayers was this– if God already knows the need, and plans to act, why involve the second (or third) party?  Because stories like this, while impressive and inspiring for those who believe, rarely cause a skeptic to come to faith, and aren’t necessary for those who already believe.

I think God has many answers, and I know I don’t have all of them, but here are three things I believe God is doing through such puzzling circumstances and outcomes:

  • While it doesn’t turn a skeptic into a believer, it DOES give the skeptic something to explain away– one such instance might be ignored as coincidence, but five?  two hundred?  And we have a Biblical precedent in the book of Acts, chapter 12, when Peter is rescued from prison and shows up at the very house where believers are praying for his release!  Even they didn’t believe at first, and left Peter out in the cold!
  • It IS an inspiration and an encouragement as a follower of Christ to know that he not only hears our prayers, but he recruits others to think about us, bear our burdens, and share in our trials.
  • Last (on my short list; I’m sure God has many other wonderful answers I haven’t imagined yet), I believe that God’s purpose for us involves communion– eternally living, sharing, and loving together with Him and with each other.  It is one of the highest honors and greatest privileges to be involved in God’s work through prayer…it is something we all can do, anywhere, anytime, but it requires being humble and willing to stop what we’re doing, commit our moments and our hearts in prayer for others (sometimes without knowing why!), and trust God to do all that we cannot.

Prayer sometimes seems puzzling, but that’s because we don’t see all the answers– yet.  Someday, what a marvelous and miraculous picture will unfold– and we have the opportunity to fill in the gap; to be the answer to 34-down; to be the missing piece of the pine tree in the upper right corner– to answer the call and finish the puzzle!

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