Waiting for God

The Rev. Paul Nancarrow. This sermon is based on Genesis 15:1-12,17-18.

Some years ago I read a story about a boy who was watching a butterfly emerge from its chrysalis. The butterfly crawled out of its casing, walked a little way along the twig, and then just hung there, as if it were tired, and it began to pump up its wings. The boy noticed that the butterfly’s wings looked damp, and soft, and kind of shrivelled – not the beautifully colored, broadly expanded wings we usually see on butterflies. The butterfly was laboriously pumping its wings, gradually making them fill out and dry off and become strong.

And when the boy saw what an effort the butterfly was putting into it, he decided to help the process along. He began to blow ever so gently on the butterfly – not enough to blow it off the twig – but just enough to warm the butterfly and help the wings to dry.

He did this for a little while, and everything seemed to be going along fine, and the wings were filling out – but then he saw with horror that the wings were becoming too dry, instead of becoming strong and supple they were turning brittle and scaly, one wing tore, and the other wing broke right off.

What the boy hadn’t realized is that the pumping-up of a butterfly’s wings is a delicate process: the wings have to become accustomed to being out in the air, and not enclosed in a chrysalis; the tissue that makes up the wings has to dry at a certain rate in order to become strong and supple enough to beat the air and fly. The unfolding of a butterfly’s wings has to take its time; and if it’s made to happen too fast, it doesn’t happen properly – in the end, it doesn’t happen at all. The boy, who later became an entomologist who studied insects for his living, learned that some processes in nature just can’t be rushed, they need to take their time; and the person who wants to be involved in those processes needs to be patient, and to let nature take its course.

That story puts me in mind of our Scripture lessons today, because what’s true of the natural world is often true of the spiritual world as well: in the spirit, in God’s way with us, some processes can’t be rushed, they need to take their time; and the person who wants to be involved in those processes needs to be patient, and to let God take God’s course.

Or, as the Psalmist puts it in Psalm 27: “O tarry and await the Lord’s pleasure; be strong, and he shall comfort your heart; wait patiently for the Lord.”

Now those can be hard words for us, because most of us don’t like to wait. We look for the shortest checkout line at the at the store. We get impatient if there are more than four cars at the traffic light – which, I’ll grant you, is still kind of rare in Staunton, but it happens. We have places to go and people to see; we have plans and objectives and goals and aspirations – and we want to get there and get the job done. We don’t like to wait.

And we don’t like to wait for God, either. We know what we want; we have a pretty good idea what God ought to be doing to make our lives more to our liking – and we don’t hesitate to tell God so when we get around to addressing God in prayer. “Oh Lord, grant me patience, right now,”as one prayer goes. We don’t like to wait. And that’s why it can be hard for us to hear that some spiritual processes can’t be rushed, they need to take their time – and if we want to be involved in those processes, then we need to be patient, and to let the Spirit take its course.

That was certainly a challenge for Abraham, as we hear about in our First Testament lesson today. Abraham and Sarah – or Abram and Sarai, to use the older version of their names – were called by God to leave behind everything they knew, to leave Ur of the Chaldeans, and to follow God to a new land God would show them. And God promised to give them a land to dwell in, and blessing to prosper them, and descendants who would be a blessing to the world. And so they left Ur, and they followed where God led, and for years, decades, they travelled the length and breadth of the land of promise, stopping and sojourning in various regions, and building altars in all the places where God appeared.

And through all that time, Abraham and Sarah had no children. The whole promise hinged on having children – and having children was the one part of the promise that wasn’t coming true. And God appeared to Abraham and said, “Do not be afraid, your reward will be very great.” And Abraham said, “What reward?! You promised us children! We have no children! What good are land and flocks and herds and blessing if I have no descendants to pass them on to? What good is the promise if it all goes to a slave, a foreigner, who is born in my household? What reward will you give to Sarah and me?”

We can hardly blame Abraham for his outburst. God had made a promise, and Abraham and Sarah found it hard to wait for that promise to reach its fulfillment. What they perhaps did not understand so clearly was that the fulfillment of the promise was not just in acquiring the good things God had told them about, but that the fulfillment of the promise was something that was happening within them as well. God called Abraham and Sarah to be the first of the faithful, to be the first ones among the human family to live with God in a new way, to know God as faithful, and steadfast, and just, and filled with a compassionate love that would never let them go. Given the ideas about gods and deities and powers that were floating around in Ur of the Chaldeans, getting to know God as faithful and steadfast and just and compassionate was a big lesson to learn. It took time.

It took even more time to learn how to respond to that God by being faithful and steadfast and just and compassionate in their own right. Abraham and Sarah had to be formed, they had to be taught, they had to grow, into being able to live with God in this new, faithful way. It was a process that couldn’t be rushed, it had to take its time – or else the faith that Abraham and Sarah would have would be like the butterfly’s damaged wings: too dry and brittle to be able to fly. Growing in faith is a spiritual process, and those who want to be involved in that process need to be patient, and to let the Spirit take its course.

And that’s true for us, too. As with Abraham and Sarah, God is growing us into people of faith, God is shaping and forming us into being people who trust in God’s steadfast love, and who reflect that steadfast love in our own relationships. And that takes time. We need to be transformed, and to let Jesus conform us to the body of his glory. We need to be on the way with Jesus today and tomorrow and the next day, so that over time we can come to know the fullness of the love he wants to share with us. And that can’t be rushed, that takes time; and if we want to grow in the process, we need to be patient, and persistent, and let the love of Jesus take its course.

One day on our mission trip to Honduras we were at a work site waiting for supplies to be delivered before we could start to do our work. It was not the only day that happened on that trip. On this particular day, the wait was beginning to make me restless and impatient and bored. I thought to myself, “Why do we come all the way down here, and put in all this effort, and then just sit and wait??” And I started getting my grump on.

But then I had a thought, as if a voice actually whispered it in my ear, “You could pray. I mean, you’re a priest, after all; that is your work. Why don’t you pray?”

So I started reciting in my mind one of my prayer mantras, something I learned in Haiti: “God is good all the time. And all the time God is good.” And as that rhythm got going, I looked out at the mountains still covered in mist, and I observed the banana tree bearing a big green bunch just above the chicken coop, and I heard the students in the classrooms behind me reciting their lessons. And gradually, bit by bit, I began to feel the goodness of God being revealed in all those things, fairly radiating out of all the things around me.

And I realized that the heart of the reason we were there was to bear witness to the goodness of God. The work we did to build buildings and teach lessons was one way of bearing witness to God’s goodness. But just being there and enjoying the reality was also a way of bearing witness to God’s goodness. In fact, the two went together: work without joy, or joy without work, were only partial witnesses, only partial reasons for being there. The whole mission required both. And that moment was a moment for me to bear witness with joy. Then the materials arrived, and it was time to bear witness with work. But both were equally parts of the mission.

I had to realize that in that moment God was growing me in faith. And that took time, that couldn’t be rushed. And if I wanted to be grow in the process, then I needed to be patient, and persistent, and let the love of Jesus take its course.

And where is God growing you in faith right now? In what part of your soul or your heart or your relationships or your moral decisions is God pursuing a process with you? And are you perhaps having a hard time waiting for what God is working out in you? Where might you need to be patient, and persistent, and to let the Spirit take its course with you?

May this Lent be for you a time of fruitful waiting, a time of persistent witness, a time when you may be open to God’s goodness working good in you, unfolding your wings of faith so that you can fly. Amen.