Yesterday, I preached in Dawson Creek and Grande Prairie on waiting for the Lord, based on the story of Saul’s unlawful sacrifice (1 Samuel 13:1-15). The thing that struck me about the story is the fact that Saul did wait for the Lord, for seven whole days, while his army scattered; it was only after Samuel failed to show up that Saul offered the sacrifice. I can relate to that feeling – I’ve already waited and waited for the Lord, and He seems to be failing; I’m going to do things my way before things completely fall to pieces. Anyway, here’s the sermon; the readings were 1 Samuel 13:1-15; Luke 12:35-48; Divine Providence 73:6, 7.
“Our soul waits for Jehovah; He is our help and our shield.” (Psalm 33:20)
Wait on the Lord. Throughout the Word, this message is given over and over again. In Psalm 27 we read, “Wait for Jehovah; hold firm, and He shall encourage your heart; and wait for Jehovah” (Psalm 27:14). In the book of Isaiah, we read, “The youths shall faint and tire, and the young men stumbling shall stumble; but they that wait upon Jehovah shall renew their power” (Isaiah 40:30, 31). In these passages, we see a promise – that those who wait for the Lord shall be given strength and encouragement. The Lord will give hope to those who wait faithfully for him.
But there are times when this just does not seem true. There are times when we’ve been waiting for the Lord, and we’re continuing to wait, and wait, and wait – and He does not come. He does not seem to be strengthening us. We hold on as long as we can, but we feel our resolve slipping – because even as we’re trying to faithfully trust that the Lord will bless us, everything seems to be going wrong. Everything seems to be falling apart around us.
That is exactly what was happening to Saul in the story we read this morning. It was Saul’s first major battle as king of Israel – it was his chance to prove himself. And everything was falling apart. The Philistines were gathering an enormous force, much, much larger and more powerful than Saul’s force. Day by day, Saul’s already small army was becoming smaller, as his soldiers hid in caves and fled across the Jordan River. And yet, even as the Philistine forces were amassing less than 15 miles away from where he was in Gilgal, Saul could do nothing – could not sound a retreat, could not sound an advance. Because Samuel, the Lord’s prophet, had told Saul to wait in Gilgal until he arrived to offer sacrifices and to tell Saul what he should do next.
We can imagine the growing feeling of panic that Saul must have had as he waited and waited and things looked worse and worse. Maybe he was about to lose the kingdom he had just gained less than two years before. And we can imagine the even worse feeling, as the seventh day arrived – the day when Samuel had promised to arrive – and the day stretched on, and Samuel did not arrive. And the sun set – and Samuel had not come. Imagine that feeling of absolute despair – Saul’s one hope, the thing he had been waiting patiently for, was not happening. He was alone. And we can imagine a sense of panic setting in – if he did not act NOW, his kingdom would be lost.
And so, he decided to take control – to offer sacrifices himself – in direct contradiction to the Lord’s commandment. And right after Saul offered the sacrifice, Samuel arrived. And he told Saul that because he had disobeyed, the very thing he had been trying to gain by his impatient sacrifice – a secure kingdom – would be taken away from him and his descendants and given to another.
It’s easy to sympathize with Saul in this situation. Because he did wait for the Lord. He waited seven days for Samuel to come, and meanwhile he watched as the army around him fled, as things got worse and worse. He trusted the Lord – and then it seemed like the Lord had failed him.
We all wait on the Lord. And we expect that by patiently following him, life will gradually get better, even though it won’t happen in an instant. But sometimes it doesn’t seem that way at all. Sometimes it seems that patiently waiting for the Lord is leading to nothing but disaster. Our lives fall apart around us, and we think, this cannot possibly be right.
For example: imagine a person who loves the Lord’s promise of true marriage love – that a man can leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two become one flesh (Genesis 2:24). He does what the Lord asks: prays for a true marriage, shuns lusts as sins against the Lord. But years of waiting turn into decades. And he feels lonely, and more and more hopeless. Things are getting worse, not better. The promise is not coming true. So he decides to settle – it doesn’t matter who it is, he just wants to be married. And so he marries a woman whom he does not love, who has completely different values from him, a completely different faith. And over time, the man finds that there is a deep seated coldness between him and his wife. He finds that in impatiently trying to get rid of his own loneliness, he’s become more lonely than he was before he was married – just as Saul lost the kingdom by desperately trying to hold onto it.
The same thing happens in other cases. Again, with the example of marriage, imagine a woman who finds herself married to a man she does not love. And rather than getting better, things seem to be getting worse – her life seems to be falling apart. And in the hope of attaining the Lord’s promise of true marriage, she leaves her husband for a man who she thinks will make her happy. But that willingness to commit adultery undermines any marriage she enters, and again, she loses the thing she wanted so much by acting according to her own impatience, rather than trusting the Lord.
Or think about the case of the church. The church has so much to offer the world – teachings about the Lord as mercy itself and love itself. But there are harder teachings, teachings that are unpopular in our culture, that make it hard for people to accept the church – and so we see young people leaving the church, and fewer people joining it. The church seems to be falling apart. We can be tempted to teach only the easy truths, the truths that won’t chase anyone away. But the Lord says that it is those very hard teachings – the teachings that force us to change our lives – that will truly save the world. If we try to do it our way, we actually lose the very thing we were trying to gain.
In all of those examples, we are tempted to take things into our own hands because waiting for the Lord does not seem to be working. The Lord does not seem to be delivering on His promises, even after we have waited and waited for Him. But what are we supposed to do when the Lord does not seem to be fulfilling His promises? There’s not a simple, easy answer. But the first thing we can do when the Lord does not seem to be fulfilling His promises is look at what His promises really are.
The Lord does not promise that life will be easy if we follow Him. In fact, He promises the opposite: He told His disciples, “In this world, you will have tribulation” (John 16:33). If we’re following the Lord, it is inevitable that we will go through times when He does not seem to be present, when everything seems to be falling apart.
But He also promises that although we may undergo hardships in this world, if we faithfully follow Him, we can come into eternal joy in heaven. He promises that everything He does in His Divine Providence is for the sake of people’s eternal welfare, their eternal happiness (see Divine Providence 214-220). Life does not make sense unless we truly take this to heart: that life in this world is only a shadow of time compared to life to eternity. And so even when we go through hard times that last for years, we can call to mind this eternal perspective, and ask for the Lord’s strength to continue to work for eternal goodness, rather than settling for temporary gratification. We can rest in the Lord in the assurance that although we cannot see how, every state that we go through is leading to a good end to eternity (see for example Arcana Coelestia 8480:3).
But the fact that Lord’s true blessings are eternal things does not mean that we are doomed to nothing but suffering here on earth. Although it’s useful to have the eternal perspective, we also need to be careful to avoid the attitude that this world is just a waiting room for heaven, merely something to be tolerated while we wait for heaven. We are here for a purpose – that we can bring the Lord’s love into this world, down to the lowest level of creation. The Lord commands us to live in the world, even though we are not to be of the world (see for example John 17, Heaven and Hell 528). The Lord came that we may have life, and have it more abundantly (John 10:10). The Lord said, “The kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21). The Lord can be here now, and wants to be here now. The Lord promises that in this world we will have periods of joy – we will have moments where we do sense His presence. And the Lord even told his disciples to rejoice when they were persecuted (Matthew 15:11, 12) – the fact that we are going through struggles does not mean that the Lord has failed in His promise, but that He is fulfilling it, because it is only by bearing that cross, struggling against our own selfish and impatient desires, that we can eventually learn what it means to truly rest in Him, to love Him, and from that to love our neighbour.
So the first thing we can do when we have been waiting for the Lord and He does not seem to be keeping His promises is to go back and remind ourselves of what those promises really are. Secondly, we need to realize that waiting for the Lord does not mean being inactive. Waiting on the Lord means doing the things He calls us to with the faith that He will then bless us in those actions. There’s a story in the Old Testament, when the children of Israel were at the edge of the Red Sea, with the army of the Egyptians chasing after them. Moses told the children of Israel to “stand still, and see the salvation of Jehovah.” The first thing for them to do was to stand and wait, to acknowledge that they could not save themselves. But then Jehovah said to Moses, “Why do you cry to Me? Tell the children of Israel to go forward” (Exodus 14:13-15). The Children of Israel had to pray to the Lord and await Him – but they also had to act as if from themselves to go forward.
And so waiting on means waiting for the Lord’s guidance – but then it means going forward. Remember, Samuel – who represents the Lord’s Word – was coming in part to tell Saul what he should do. What if instead of doing it his own way, Saul had done everything in his power to track down Samuel and see what his advice was? Waiting for the Lord does not mean doing the same thing we’ve always done and expecting different results. It means constantly seeking the Lord’s voice, constantly listening for new ways.
For example, if we work at a job that does things we are morally opposed to, waiting on the Lord does not necessarily mean staying in that job. It may mean leaving that job for work somewhere else, because we feel we cannot work there and keep the Lord’s commandments. Or maybe we do stay there – but we see that the Lord is calling us within that job to try to change the work environment. Waiting on the Lord means faithfully following where He leads, not just standing still.
So, first, we can try to recall the Lord’s promises, and what they actually are. And second, we can see if the Lord is calling us to act in a different way. And finally, and most importantly, when we’re feeling like we have waited too long for anything to change – we can turn to the Lord God Jesus Christ and ask for His patience in our lives. When He was in the world, the evil spirits of impatience attacked the Lord. He was tempted by them – and in all those temptations, He defeated them. And because He defeated them, He can defeat them as they attack us.
The Lord Himself was tempted to act from impatience. When the devil took Him out into the wilderness, the devil tempted Him to act instantaneously to change things – to miraculously turn stones into bread, to immediately become king over everything in the world (Matthew 4, Mark 1, Luke 4). The Lord was tempted to immediately save everyone, whether they wanted to be saved or not.
The Lord could have instantaneously brought the entire human race into heaven. He could have forced salvation on the human race in an instant, rather than letting them continue to suffer. But that would destroy human freedom, and would destroy His very purpose in creation – that He could love free, independent beings outside of Himself, so that He could bless them (True Christian Religion 43). If He had instantly saved the world, he would have actually been losing the very kingdom He came to establish – just as Saul did. But think of the Lord’s patience. Think of this – while He was there in the world, when He was conscious on the Divine level of His mind, He knew the hardship that every single person who ever had lived or ever would live would go through. He knew the struggles you would go through. He knew the long years of pain you’d endure. And he wept because of that suffering – He wept over His people’s pain.
He had the power to instantly end all suffering – and yet, He knew He had to allow it. Even now, He allows it. He allows suffering even though He hates it, because He sees the good that comes out of it. And He is never absent during it. In fact, in the times when He seems furthest away from a person, He is actually most present, fighting with all His might for the person (see Arcana Coelestia 840). He wants to come into our lives; He wants to arrive and end our long night of waiting.
And even when we reach the brink of despair, when it seems like things cannot possibly go right, when it feels like the world is crumbling around us – even then we need to trust that He will come if we follow His Word. In fact, those moments are the most important ones of all. Because it’s in those moments – when we feel like we’re going to lose everything – that we truly and fully make that decision to love Him and to love our neighbour our own. We say, “I will love you, and I will love others, and I will obey, no matter what.” Those moments of despair become the very moment that the Lord arrives (see Arcana Coelestia 2682, 2694, 8165).
The Lord knows our suffering, and the Lord knows the suffering of the world. Because this is not just about us – the whole world is broken, and awaiting the Lord. But the Lord has promised – He will come to us, even if we have worked and waited months and years and decades with no apparent change. And the Lord will come more and more fully into the world with the light of His second coming, the truths of His love and mercy. We can rest in that promise; we can rest in the sure knowledge that He is coming. The Lord hears our cry, and He will answer. In the last chapter of the book of Revelation, we read, “He who testifies these things says, “Yes, I come quickly, amen.” Yes, come, Lord Jesus” (Revelation 22:20). Amen.