“Why is patience so important?”
“Because it makes us pay attention.”
― Paulo Coelho
On Monday I had my final exam of the academic year, a 90 minute paper on the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament. it’s been, as you may expect, very hard work, the language and some of the stories are very difficult for a 21st century mind to grasp. However, it was also very interesting work to look back at the stories, culture and religion of a Middle-Eastern tribal people from around 3-4000 years ago, which so massively influences the lives of many people today.
A great deal of the course centred around a quote from the theologian David Clines,
“The theme of the Pentateuch is the partial fulfilment – which implies also the partial non-fulfilment – of the promise to or blessing of the patriarchs. The promise or blessing is both the divine initiative in a world where human initiatives always lead to disaster, and a reaffirmation of the primal divine intentions for man.” (David JA Clines (1997) The Theme of the Pentateuch, Sheffield – JSOT Press)
The gist of this is that God created the world with a specific intention, but humanity screwed up royally and let sin into the world. God met this sin with judgement at every turn, but also demonstrated grace towards humanity at the same time. This happens over and over, not only throughout the Pentateuch, but throughout human history.
The question I had in the exam regarding this was to to with what is known as the “primeval history”; the first 11 chapters of Genesis from creation and Eden, through the Fall, the Flood, and culminating with the Tower of Babel.
The answer I wrote (which I really hope was right/good enough!) was that this pattern of sin, judgement and grace is repeated several times in the primeval history:
- God creates the heavens and the earth, tells the first man and woman they can eat any fruit, except from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, or they will die. They eat it anyway, but the punishment is banishment from paradise and separation from God; death will be over 900 years away.
- Cain, upset at God favouring Abel’s offering over his, kills his brother. Again, the punishment is banishment, rather than death. And God puts a mark on Cain to show he is not to be harmed.
- Humanity goes totally off the rails in a way which means God decides to wipe them out and start again. But, he saves humanity again in the form of Noah and his family, even going so far as promising never to do something so drastic as the flood again.
Sin, judgement, grace. Over and over again.
Then the people of Babel decide they want to be like God by building a tower so high that it signifies an attack on Heaven itself. Again the judgement comes, the people’s language is confused and muddled. They are scattered across the world. Humanity’s unity is gone.
And the grace? Well, nowhere. Nothing. It looks like God has finally given up.
Of course, he hadn’t. He brings Abraham, followed by his descendants, to a promised land (via Egypt) with the promise that “all nations on earth will be blessed”.
Obviously my answer was a bit longer than that, this was just an overview. It came back into my mind with a couple of other things this week, though.
Firstly, I read an excellent article in Christianity Magazine by Jamie Cutteridge about the need for instant gratification in the age of the Internet, smartphones, tablets etc. We have become an impatient generation; What do we want? Everything! When do we want it? Now!
Secondly was the preparation for the festival which some colloquially call “the birthday of the Church”, Pentecost. The disciples, having come back from the brink following Jesus’ crucifixion and galvanised by his resurrection, face more uncertainty as he ascends into Heaven, leaving them by themselves again.
However, Jesus promised that he would send the Holy Spirit to them and, on the day of Pentecost, that promise is fulfilled,
“Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues[a] as the Spirit enabled them.
Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. Utterly amazed, they asked: ‘Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia,[b] Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome(both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs – we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!’”
(Acts 2:1-11 NIVUK)
These fishermen, tax collectors and serial Messiah followers, none highly-educated, can suddenly speak different languages, proclaiming the Gospel to Jews from all over the region.
Finally! God promised land, he promised nations, he promised he would be the God of Abraham’s people and he promised that they would be a blessing to all nations. And here, with sin already being defeated on the cross, we see a reversal of the events at Babel. The unity of humanity is back once more, a mere 1500 or so years after the people were scattered.
And that’s the point I realised. The events of Pentecost are a reversal of the judgement at Babel, something made possible by the events weeks earlier on the first Easter. But that reversal wasn’t a quick process, it took centuries after the initial judgement for humanity to be in a position for them to be ready for this.
That’s a difficult message for us to hear in an age when our news, music, food and coffee need to be instant. Yes, we need to wait and sometimes the answer to prayer is “not now”. But sometimes, “not now” means “not in your lifetime”, or “not in your children’s lifetimes” or “not for many, many generations”. How on earth are we expected to take that when we can’t even accept a YouTube video buffering for 5 seconds?
Well, I don’t have a quick fix for that. It would miss the point by a mile if I did, obviously. My patience is appalling and this need to wait on God challenges me all the time. But I do have examples to look back on to see how to cope with it. When I read Genesis I read stories of the patriarchs, especially of Abraham and Jacob, who sometimes displayed a lack of patience and decided to take things into their own hands (which didn’t go too well for them), and also displayed real patience and faith in God, waiting for the fulfilment of a promise they knew would not happen in their lifetime.
The times they coped with the long wait was when they were nearer to God, speaking to him and listening to him. That assurance they got from his presence allowed them to keep that patience because they knew that God would make good on his promise.
At Pentecost, we remember that God is closer to us than ever, since the Holy Spirit was sent to the disciples and continues to work in us today. This divine presence strengthens us and focuses us on God’s will, not ours. But it can also help us to galvanise our faith that God will do what he promised; to bless all the nations and to redeem his people.
Ok, it may take another 1500 years, or more, before it’s fully realised. It may take decades or centuries for the fruit of our own work to bloom.
But what’s a few hundred years compared to an eternity?