Waiting is part of life. We wait for election results, for Christmas, for summer vacation, for a loved one to return home, for a phone call bringing the results of a medical test or a job interview, for the birth of a child. We wait for the storm to pass and the sky to clear. So you might think we’d know how to wait for the promised reign of God.
The anticipation of something extraordinarily good sharpens our senses and makes us more alert. United Methodist Bishop William Willimon experienced that kind of waiting when he was five years old. In his boyhood church, it was the custom to process with the communion elements just before the prayer of consecration. “Would the ushers bring forth the elements,” the pastor would say, and the bread and wine would be brought to the communion table. One Sunday, young Will Willimon misunderstood. He thought the pastor said, “Would the ushers bring forth the elephants.” Nothing puts a five-year-old boy on the edge of his seat quite like the anticipation of a procession of elephants in the middle of worship.
That electric moment of hope and expectation is how it should feel to wait for the promised reign of God. But when what we wait for, even if it’s very good, lies too far in the future, anticipation dwindles, alertness fades, and we easily fall back into familiar routines. Our senses grow dull and we drift into a kind of waking sleep, like a spiritual highway hypnosis, and we’re likely to miss what we’re waiting for.
That was the problem for the bridesmaids who waited for the bridegroom to appear (Matt. 25:1-13). The hours grew long, their eyelids heavy, and they fell asleep. When the groom finally arrived, some of the bridesmaids discovered they were not prepared for the moment, and they were left out of the wedding banquet. “Keep awake,” Jesus said, stay alert, for what you’re waiting for may arrive at any moment.
How do we stay spiritually awake and wait faithfully for the reign of God we believe is coming? How do we prepare if the wait seems indefinitely long? And how is our waiting conditioned by Jesus’ good news that what we’ve been waiting for “has come near” (Mark 1:15), that it’s “already spread out on the earth and people aren’t aware of it” (Gosp. Thomas 113)?
One thing we need to do is recognize that the alarm clock has sounded, and it’s time to get out of bed. It’s time to step out of routines that have become so familiar we think of them as what this life is about. Caught in a rush-hour crowd of pedestrians on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, I was making my way to the Port Authority for the bus that would take me back to my home in New Jersey when a fellow next to me abruptly stopped, turned as if to reorient himself, and said in a voice that rang clear above all the noise around me, “God! Where’s everybody going?”
Where are we going? What are we doing here? The bridegroom approaches; it’s time for the wedding banquet to begin. Are you prepared for this moment? “The night is almost gone,” Paul wrote to the Romans; “the day of salvation will soon be here. So don’t live in darkness. Get rid of your evil deeds. Shed them like dirty clothes. Clothe yourselves with the armor of right living, as those who live in the light. But let the Lord Jesus take control of you” (Rom. 13:12, 14 NLT).
My mother took control of me when I was a young boy and needed help getting ready for the morning school bus. Each night she’d help me lay out the clothes I was going to wear the next day and get my books and homework in order. When the time came to get out of bed, everything was ready. I was prepared. All I had to do, with her encouragement, was clean up and dress, eat breakfast, and head for the bus.
When the alarm sounds for you, will you be ready? What will you do now, today, to be ready when the call comes? St. Paul again, to the Thessalonians: “you know quite well that the day of the Lord will come unexpectedly, like a thief in the night [or like a bridegroom to start the wedding banquet]. But you aren’t in the dark about these things. For you are all children of the light and of the day; we don’t belong to darkness and night. So be on your guard. Stay alert and sober” (1 Thess. 5:1-6, abbreviated).
How will any of us be ready for that day? We’ll be ready by doing what Luke said the early church did: by nurturing a vital fellowship with other believers; by devoting ourselves to the study of the scriptures and the traditions of the church; by regularly partaking of the Lord’s Supper; and by staying in constant prayer (Acts 2:42). A sailor can’t control the wind but can control the set of the sails to take full advantage of the wind when it blows. We can’t control the Spirit of God, but we can prepare ourselves to take full advantage of it when it blows our way. So keep awake, stay alert. Live in readiness for God to be revealed in your life.