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16 February 2015

Waiting for the Lord: Tenacious Faith (Invocavit / Lent 1)

Psalm 25

There is a story about a young man in Japan who wanted to be the greatest martial artist of the land. He thought that to reach this goal, he must study with the best instructor, who lived many miles away. 

One day he left home to go study with this great Zen teacher. After travelling for several days, he arrived at the school and was given an audience with the teacher. "What do you wish to learn from me?" the master asked. "I want you to teach me your art and help me become one of the best martial artists in the country," the young man replied. 

He asked the master, "How long must I study?" "Ten years at least," the master answered. The man thought, ten years is a lot of time. I want to get his done sooner than that. I don't have that much time. Certainly if I try harder I can complete this task quicker. 

So he asked the master, "What if I studied twice as hard as everyone else? How long would it take then?" "Then it would take twenty years," replied the master. 

The man thought, That's even longer! I don't want to spend twenty years learning something. I've got other things to do with my life. Certainly if I tried really hard I could learn it much quicker. 

So the student asked again, "What if I practised day and night with all my effort, then how long would it take?" "Thirty years," was the master's response.  The young student became confused and wondered why the master kept telling him it would take longer. 

He asked the master "How is it that each time I say I will work harder, you tell me that it will take longer?" The master responded, "The answer is simple. With one eye focused on your destination, there is only one eye left with which to find the way."

The story above is about patience; it also is about focused waiting.  One of the themes in Psalm 25 is focused waiting.

O Lord, I come before you in prayer. 2 My God, I trust in you. / Please do not let me be humiliated / do not let my enemies triumphantly rejoice over me! 3 Certainly none who wait for you* will be humiliated. / Those who deal in treachery will be thwarted and humiliated. 4 Make me understand your ways, O Lord! / Teach me your paths!  5 Guide me into your truth and teach me. / For you are the God who delivers me / for you I wait* all day long. 6 Remember your compassionate and faithful deeds, O Lord, / for you have always acted in this manner.7 Do not hold against me the sins of my youth or my rebellious acts! Because you are faithful to me, extend to me your favor, O Lord!

8 The Lord is both kind and fair / that is why he teaches sinners the right way to live. 9 May he show the humble what is right! / May he teach the humble his way! 10 The Lord always proves faithful and reliable / to those who follow the demands of his covenant. 11 For the sake of your reputation, O Lord, / forgive my sin, because it is great.

12 The  Lord shows his faithful followers  / the way they should live. 13 They experience his favor / their descendants inherit the land. 14 The Lord’s loyal followers receive his guidance, / and he reveals his covenantal demands to them. 15 I continually look to the Lord for help, / for he will free my feet from the enemy’s net. 

16 Turn toward me and have mercy on me, / for I am alone and oppressed! 17 Deliver me from my distress / rescue me from my suffering!  18 See my pain and suffering! / Forgive all my sins! 19 Watch my enemies, for they outnumber me / they hate me and want to harm me. 20 Protect me and deliver me! / Please do not let me be humiliated, / for I have taken shelter in you! 21 May integrity and godliness protect me, / for I wait for you*!  22 O God, rescue Israel from all their distress!

There are several places in our psalm where we encounter the verb קָוָה (qavah). The first instance is in V. 3*:

גַּ֣ם כָּל־קֹ֭וֶיךָ לֹ֣א יֵבֹ֑שׁוּ. 

"Certainly none who wait for you will be humiliated." 

The verb qavah is considered a "primitive root" that eventually took on the meaning of "wait for" after initially standing for "twist", or "stretch" or "endure".

I discovered that a close relative of qavah in Arabic describes the silky material spiders use to build a web. That way the verb would mean something akin to "being tough like spider silk". Engineers have examined spider silk and found it stronger than steel and tougher than Kevlar.

So the phrase "wait for the Lord" carries a whole lot more power than we think of when we say "waiting".

The idea of "waiting for the Lord" is a theme throughout Scripture, but it is an especially strong theme in the Psalms and in the prophetic books.  In the Hebrew language, waiting is never static, but always dynamic. In other words, Waiting for the Lord is always an activity. 

An activity? you say. You might be thinking of sitting in your doctor's waiting room, and of the fact that time seems to stand still when there's nothing to do but read those grubby old magazines and listen to a fellow patient reciting the endless list of all his or her aches and pains.

You know that you are in a tough spot when there is nothing to do but wait.  People who wait for a long time often feel abandoned and immobilized; they feel anxious and depressed, or angry.

Because it sometimes can seem as though God forgot about us, waiting for the Lord requires what the verb קָוָה (qavah) implies: the tenacity of spider silk, which is flexible and able to stretch, and even recovers when it is damaged.

Walter Brueggemann writes, "Our lives move between the pit and the wing, between the shattering disorientation and the gift of life. ... It is clear that the Psalms, when we freely engage them, are indeed subversive literature. They break things loose. They disrupt and question. Most of all, they give us new eyes to see and new tongues to speak."

The next time you sit in your doctor's office and wait, think of the extraordinary strength of spider silk.  The next time you are at your wit's end, don't think of yourself as a victim, but as a person of faith engaged in a powerful activity called "waiting". 

Wait for the Lord / be strong, and let your heart take courage / wait for the Lord! 

(Psalm 27: 14, NRSV)

* In Verses 3, 5 and 21 I chose to deviate from the NET translation and to translate קָוָה with the more active phrase "wait for" instead of "rely on".

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