This sermon, based on Abraham’s experience as detailed in Hebrews 11:8-13, helps us understand why we need to wait on God in our prayers, and how we can wait well. The key is to wait for God, not for things and to wait with God, not alone. Come and join us in the waiting room. God is already there.
I was rushing around on Monday, trying to get things done in the most efficient way possible. I needed a haircut but first I had to stop at the bank so that I could pay for it. But before going to the barbershop, I needed to go to First Baptist Church to see the pastor for a minute and drop off something for him. I go to the barbershop five minutes early and Steve was ready for me. All was well in Shayne Land. On the way home I stopped to fill the propane tank for our grill. The order of my stops was calculated for time efficiency and fuel economy.
The place where I stopped for propane was on the way home; that way, I wouldn’t waste any time. However, the office staff person told me that there would be no one available to fill the tank for about an hour. So, I drove to Walmart to exchange the tank. It would cost more, but I was in a hurry.
When I got to Walmart, I dropped off the cylinder first to save time, and then headed for a check-out line. There were only three cashiers working, and the lines were long. I had already stood in the shortest of the lines for about ten minutes when an employee stopped and said, “Don’t shoot the messenger, but we need to close this line. You’ll need to move to another line.”
So, I went to the rear of the next shortest line and waited again. And waited. I finally got to the cashier who took my money. She called for a clerk to make the exchange but cautioned that it might take a few minutes. “A few minutes” was an understatement. I got a sunburn waiting for the clerk to come.
Waiting is not something I do easily. But if a person is going to learn to pray well, they must learn to wait well. This is a theme one finds repeated throughout Scripture. Even the greatest of God’s people needs to wait. Hosea wrote, “But you must return to your God; maintain love and justice, and wait for your God always” (Hosea 12:6).
This is the prophet Jeremiah (Lamentations 3:20-25): “…his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion; therefore I will wait for him.” (If you cannot say, “The Lord is my portion,” you won’t say, “I will wait for him.”) “The Lord is good to those whose hope is in him, to the one who seeks him; it is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord.”
To God Isaiah says: “Since ancient times no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who acts on behalf of those who wait for him” (Isaiah 64:4).
Christians are, almost by definition, those who have “turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven” (1 Thessalonians 1:9). Jesus left his first followers with instructions to “wait for the Gift my Father promised…” (Acts 1:4). The church didn’t begin by doing but by waiting.
Waiting is the rule, not the exception. St. Paul tells us that all “creation waits in eager anticipation for the children of God to be revealed…” (Romans 8:19) – and we wait with it. Waiting is a skill every Jesus-follower must master. This is especially true when we pray. Prayer is more like slow roasting than it is like microwaving. Rush it, take the prayer out early, and it won’t be done. The psalmist said to God, “In the morning, O Lord, you hear my voice; in the morning I lay my requests before you and wait in expectation” (Psalm 5:3).
It is clear in Scripture that those who pray must learn to wait on God, but we are not good at it, and we do not like it. God’s Old Testament people were the same way: “In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength, but you would have none of it.” Instead of waiting on God, which requires faith, they rushed into action and missed the good things God had planned for them. “Yet,” the prophet says, “the Lord longs to be gracious to you; he rises to show you compassion. For the Lord is a God of justice. Blessed are all who wait for him!”
I’ll mention two more things before we read today’s text from Hebrews 11. Even Jesus, the Son of God and Lord of men, has to wait. In fact, he is waiting right now. After writing about Jesus’s great sacrifice, the author of Hebrews says: “Since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool…” (Hebrews 10:13). Even Jesus waits.
God himself waits. In that passage from Isaiah, we read that all who wait for God are blessed. But just before that we read, “The Lord longs to be gracious to you.” I word “longs” (I understand) is the same one translated “wait” later in the verse. Even God waits.
There is no getting around it. Everyone waits. One man who did it well was Abraham, the man of faith. That is no coincidence, for faith is essential to waiting. Without faith, we cannot please God (as the author of Hebrews put it), but neither can we wait for him. When faith fails, we run ahead and try to force things to come out right on our own. We see this correlation between faith and waiting in the story of Abraham. He can help us understand the role of faith in waiting and the role of waiting in the lives of God`’s people.
Let me read what the author of Hebrews says about him in Hebrews 11, starting with verse 8.
By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God. By faith Abraham, even though he was past age—and Sarah herself was barren—was enabled to become a father because he considered him faithful who had made the promise. And so from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore. All these people were still living by faith when they died.
You heard the refrain “By faith.” The power to wait on God comes from God and reaches us through faith. Faith itself is not the power but rather the transmission line that conducts the power. The electricity in your house is not produced by the electrical wires that run to and within your house, but by the power plant. But when the wires are broken, you miss out on the power. When faith short-circuits, you miss out on the power, including the power to “be still and wait patiently for the Lord” (Ps. 37:7).
“Abraham, the man of faith” (as the Apostle Paul called him) was able to wait because he believed God; he trusted him. He was not so much waiting for things – land or descendants – as he was waiting for the Lord. Persons inspire faith; events and things do not. “Abraham believed God,” as the Scriptures repeatedly and emphatically state, and so he was able to wait.
Notice what we learn about Abraham’s faith in verses 8-10, which give us the when, what, where, how, and why of faith. We find the When in verse 8: “By faith Abraham, when called . . .” Faith is not something we manufacture within ourselves from our own resources whenever we find ourselves in need of it. Faith is voice-activated. It is triggered by God’s word. Nowadays, if you have the right software downloaded, you can speak to your TV and it will play your favorite program. Faith is like that TV. When people have the right download (God’s Spirit), God’s word activates faith. When God called Abraham, his voice made a faith response possible.
Abraham was capable of exercising faith when God spoke to him. That was the when. Next, we find the what of faith. The text says (verse 8): “he obeyed and went.” The what of faith has two components, one of which is the same for every believer and one of which can vary from believer to believer. Whoever you are, at whatever point in history you’ve lived, in whatever strata of society you’ve occupied, the what of faith is obedience. When Abraham received the call that makes faith possible, he obeyed.
The original language here is as economic as possible. It is just four words in Greek. English Expressing it in requires a few more: “By faith, having been called, Abraham obeyed.” You could substitute your name or mine (or any believers) for Abraham’s: “By faith, having been called, Jim obeyed.” “By faith, having been called, Jenny obeyed” or “Rob obeyed” or “Megan obeyed.”
The first component in the what of faith is a given that is always the same for every believer: obedience – “the obedience of faith,” St. Paul called it. The second is a variable, which can differ for different believers (or for the same believer at different times in his or her life). Abraham obeyed (the given) and went (the variable). Shayne obeyed (the given) and preached (the variable). Jim obeyed and forgave. Jenny obeyed and shared her faith. Rob obeyed and gave his money. Megan obeyed and went to visit her neighbor. Obedience remains a given for of all of us, but your “and blank” may be different from mine.
Now here is where we get into trouble. We overlook the first element of faith – the given, obedience – but insist on the second, the variable. Here’s what that looks like. The Lord speaks to me about giving a sizeable percentage of my income to the church for its fundraising drive. I hear him, obey, and give the money. All is right in Shayne world. But then I start thinking that other people should be doing what I did. If they don’t, they cannot be good Christians – and maybe they’re not Christians at all! I assume that Jim’s and Jenny’s and Rob’s and Megan’s “and blank” must be the same as mine.
This leads to an ugly legalism and to the judgmental spirit that Jesus strictly forbids. When it comes to the things Scripture clearly teaches, we should all be in unity. But in things the Scripture is not clear about, it is wise to leave room for diversity. And in the personal guidance we receive – the “and blanks” – we must expect diversity.
Next, there is the where of faith, which might better be called the wherever of faith. The end of verse 8 tells us that Abraham “did not know where he was going.” That is not surprising, for in faith there is always an element of not knowing. The unknown gives faith room to breathe and grow. The unknown may be about the where (as it was for Abraham) or it may be (and is frequently) about the how or even about the when or why, but there will be an unknown. Without it, faith has no opportunity to function. Yet we do everything in our power to eliminate the unknown. If we could, we’d wrap faith up so tight in a straight jacket of certainty that it couldn’t breathe.
Next, we have the how of faith: “By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise.” The when and where and what inevitably lead to the how. If we hear God when he speaks, follow where he leads, and obey what we know, the how will eventually become clear. The danger for us is that we will demand to know the how before we say “yes” to the what. We may call that prudence or common sense, but it is a faith-buster. It makes faith impossible.
For Abraham, the how meant living like a refugee in the land promised him. Verse 9 says, “By faith he made his home [that translates a single verb that means he sojourned] in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents . . .” Had Abraham insisted on knowing the how before he said yes to the what he might never have left the city of Ur. But God always gives grace for us to live the how, even to thrive in doing so, when we say yes to the what.
Now we’ve come to the why, which we discover in verse 10: “For, he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” Abraham could live in tents like a refugee while waiting and praying for the land promised him, and the descendants to occupy it, because he was looking forward to the city with foundations. He could succeed in the insecurity of the present because he was certain of the security of the future. He remained confident, as only people of faith can, that God “rewards those who earnestly seek him” (Hebrews 11:6).
Abraham was taken by God into God’s big story. He was promised the Land and promised descendants who would dwell in the land, and a particular descendant who would bring blessing to all the people of the earth. That is a big story and big stories take time to unfold. Never forget that you too have been taken into a big story.
Now all of this raises a question: why did God make the promise so long before acting to fulfill it? Why make Abraham wait for the fulfillment of the promise and the answer to his prayers? Waiting is uncomfortable. Waiting is tedious. Pretty much everyone everywhere hates to wait. So, why not make the promise a few days – a few hours – before delivering on it?
For that matter, why make us wait at all? Why not answer us the moment we pray? If God operated that way, just think of strong our faith would be!
But would it? Does the child whose parent gives her everything she wants when she wants it become more trusting or more demanding? Does she develop the mindset that will help her become a compassionate, faithful, and strong person? The reality is just the opposite. Faith grows in the waiting. People are shaped in the waiting. It is a major component in character development. While we wait, the coming savior not only gets nearer to us, but we get nearer to him. There is a kind of spiritual magnetism at work. We get closer to him. He gets closer to us (James 4:8) and that changes us. The strength of that attraction continues to grow until the day when “Christ our life appears,” and we appear with him (Colossians 3:4).
God has us wait because it is in the waiting that we come to know him. Our relationship with him deepens as we wait. It was during the 25 years that Abraham waited that he grew so close to God that Scripture calls him “the friend of God.” How did they become friends? They waited … together. Abraham didn’t just wait for God; he waited with God.
Another reason God also has us wait: it is during the waiting that his Spirit adjusts our prayers until they align with his will. (If you didn’t hear the sermon from June 19th, go on the website and listen to it. It is titled, Just Ask.) This alignment is not just a matter of praying for the right things but –more importantly – becoming the kind of person who can – and regularly does – pray for the right things.
Another reason we wait: God gets greater glory from receiving our trust than from answering our prayers. I’ve often heard people say things like: “Just think how much glory God would receive if my friend/family member was miraculously healed.” Yes, but he will receive even greater glory if you and your friend/family member continue to trust him – and even increase your trust – while you wait.
But how do we do that? It happens with us in much the general way it happened with Abraham. First, we hear God’s word to us. Remember that faith is voice (God’s voice) activated.) If, like Abraham, we obey his word to us, faith will grow. But we must expect to wait for things that we want badly, things that we are desperate to have, even things that God intends to give. Waiting is not the exception to the rule. In our broken world, it is the rule. Expect to wait.
Understand too that waiting does not mean wasting time. Abraham worked while he waited. He was a man of action and a man of faith. When we divide faith from work, we do injury to both. Faith is the root; work is the fruit. Faith is potential energy; work is kinetic energy. Faith is the flame and works the light that proceeds from the flame.
Prayer is to faith what the light is to the flame. If you are having trouble praying – you are tired of waiting, beginning to doubt, ready to give up – it may be that you are waiting for God but not waiting with him. That’s what happens when we wait for things but not for God. It’s what happens when we wait for God but not with God. Come into the waiting room; God is already there.