Waiters

By JIM NICHOLS

The line began to form when dawn was not even in sight. The stoplights were blinking and only a few car lights could be seen. A couple of delivery trucks, loaded during the night, were just leaving the parking lot for the day’s work.

The people in the line looked groggy from a poor night’s sleep. Why bother to wash your hair or shave when you are going into surgery in just a few minutes? They had been told to be at the hospital at 5:30 am and, since their sleep had been troubled, many had been awake for a while. Most of the patients had a family member or friend accompanying them. As an observer, it was obvious who was the patient and who was the friend. There was little conversation, and what there was appeared strained. No one wanted to be there.

Those in line did not know one another, but they had a common destination this morning. One by one they were welcomed to the reception window. Name. Doctor. Driver license. Insurance card. Go over there and sit and wait. You will be called soon.

It was a classic illustration of one of our most common activities—waiting. It is remarkable to consider how much time you and I spend doing it. Sometimes for one another, for an activity, a destination, something we are happily anticipating or not at all. It is certainly a theme that scripture considers.

The word “wait” or some derivative of it such as waiting, waited, or waits appears in the Bible over 200 times. Some of its appearances are incidental, but many of them are central to the biblical message. If the word is not used, the concept is certainly recognizable. One could make the case that the followers of God historically have been waiters. Even a cursory review of the Old Covenant stories displays the people being given godly instructions to do something or go somewhere and then having to wait for the fulfillment of that command—sometimes for decades or centuries.

What we call the Advent Season is clearly an identification and celebration of waiting. It contains all the positive and exciting aspects of waiting and also exposes the concern, danger, and dread. Advent is indeed a time of anticipation. But anticipation of what? In Palestine two thousand years ago, there were people waiting for the unknown.

It was quiet in Elizabeth’s house and had been so for months. Her husband, Zechariah, had been fulfilling his priestly duties one day when the angel Gabriel had visited him. Gabriel said that Zechariah would soon be a father to a son to be named John. “Preposterous,” thought Zechariah. “We are elderly, childless, and Elizabeth is barren.”  Gabriel said basically, “Just you wait.” Because of his disbelief Zechariah was struck mute. He recovered his speech only months later at the naming ceremony for the baby who would grow into the most obvious messenger preparing the way for the Christ.

Mary and Joseph certainly had their own versions of waiting. Do you not wish you could have been in on their conversations regarding her pregnancy? They each had different sources of information about what was going on and those sources did not seem to coincide. The extended flight to Egypt and a wait there added to the complexity.

These stories illustrate another side of waiting. Humans do not just wait; they worry too. Waiting may be emotionally neutral, but worry is not. It is difficult to wait without worrying. The people in the pre-surgery line would consider it ludicrous and perhaps insulting if we were to suggest that they had no need to worry.

Putting waiting and worry into a Christian context challenges us. Following a good meal and night’s sleep, it is fairly easy for us to look at the days before us and feel somewhat comfortable about their approach. However, that is clearly a temporary thought. Soon, a cascade of low probability events will cover us, perhaps with despair.

At Advent time it might help if we understand that God’s followers have waited with worry throughout history. Let us keep reminding ourselves that, without yet experiencing it, Isaiah could say a child/son will be born for us. Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God. 

We are all in this together. Let us wait and worry together. We have a promise. 

Jim Nichols is a retired Abilene Christian University biology professor and current hospice chaplain

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