The Ache of Waiting: Punishment or Promise? – Zechariah 12
It’s Christmas Day, the culmination of so much waiting. We’ve been counting down days, lighting candles, wrapping gifts, making plans, and now the day is finally here. Perhaps more than any other day of the year, Christmas serves as a reminder to us who are busy and frantic and enamored with instant gratification that the best things in life are worth waiting for.
I recently heard a Christian leader describe waiting as a form of punishment from God—something of a divine time-out. He said waiting is God’s way of turning his back on us when we do something wrong so we will eventually come to our senses after feeling the pain of his silence.
Now, I have no doubt there are times God uses seasons of waiting to teach us, and it’s true that he sometimes feels distant because of our sin. But as I look through Scripture, I believe there’s something not quite right about that image of waiting. In Scripture, waiting almost always precedes something holy and breathtaking and beyond human expectations.
As we look back on the course of history, before practically every miracle, God calls for a period of waiting. The bigger the event, the longer the wait.
Here are a few cases in point:
- God waits until Abraham and Sarah are well past childbearing age to give them the child he promised to them decades earlier (Genesis 17).
- Moses spends forty years in the desert tending sheep before God gives him the calling of a lifetime (Exodus 2).
- God doesn’t answer Hannah’s prayer for a child the first time she asks; she has to endure many years and tears before receiving her longed-for son (1 Samuel 1).
- When Jesus hears that his friend Lazarus is sick, he waits for several days before going to him, not arriving until Lazarus is dead and his sisters think it’s too late (John 11).
Although I have no doubt each of the waiters in these stories was molded and shaped by God in the waiting process, Scripture doesn’t indicate that God’s purpose in the waiting was some kind of divine grounding. Rather, the waiting seems to be a gigantic neon sign to the world that God wasn’t doing something ordinary here. The waiting built the anticipation for something extraordinary, spelling out in bold letters, “PAY ATTENTION! I am about to do something big!”
And indeed, that’s what happened in each story:
- Abraham and Sarah’s son was no ordinary child; not only was he a beloved heir, but he also ignited the family line of God’s chosen people.
- Moses was God’s chosen instrument to set the Israelites free from slavery and later to lead them to the Promised Land.
- Hannah’s son Samuel grew up to be a priest who heard directly from the Lord and led Israel through a dark time in the country’s history.
- And when Jesus finally arrived at Lazarus’s side, he did a greater miracle than healing a sick man; he proved he could bring the dead to life.
But perhaps the greatest fulfillment of waiting in all of Scripture is the birth of the Messiah.
In today’s passage in Zechariah, we read about the hope of the coming Messiah:
“On that day there shall be a fountain opened for the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and uncleanness” (13:1).
The Messiah would be the fulfillment of everything the people waited for, longed for, ached for. He would be the one to bring cleansing and forgiveness and wholeness to people in desperate need of hope.
But Zechariah penned these words some five hundred years before they came to pass. Generations came and went, each longing and hoping and waiting for God to reveal himself, clinging to the divine whispers that the Savior would come. But year after year, God seemed to be silent. Had he forgotten his promise? Did he not care? Was this long wait some kind of punishment?
“In the silence of a midwinter dusk there is far off in the deeps of it somewhere a sound so faint that for all you can tell it may be only the sound of the silence itself. You hold your breath to listen.” —Frederick Buechner
In those years of waiting, some people abandoned hope and lost sight of the promise. But others continued to hold their breath, expectantly, until at just the right time, in the little town of Bethlehem, the cry of Immanuel was heard.
So what was God doing in all those years of waiting? I have to believe that the long gap was his way of building anticipation for the great and marvelous thing he was about to do.
Are you waiting for something right now? Does it feel like God is mute or has forgotten about you? If you’ve been feeling beaten down, wondering if the silence is your fault somehow, I’d like to suggest that maybe the waiting isn’t because God is punishing you. Maybe it’s because he’s doing something grander than you can even imagine.
“The extraordinary thing that is about to happen is matched only by the extraordinary moment just before it happens.” —Frederick Buechner
“Pay attention,” God is writing on the script of your life during this waiting. “I’m about to do something big.”
And when he appears, in all his Christmas morning glory, may he find us waiting well.
Stephanie Rische is a senior editor of nonfiction books at Tyndale House Publishers, as well as a freelance writer for publications such as Her.meneutics, Today’s Christian Woman, Christian Marriage Today, and Significant Living magazine. She and her husband, Daniel, live in the Chicago area, where they enjoy riding their bikes, making homemade ice cream, and swapping bad puns. You can follow Stephanie’s blog, “Stubbing My Toe on Grace,” at StephanieRische.com.