Waiting with Those Who Are On in Years

Today’s author is Jim Gritter. His reflection is based on four characters from the birth narrative in Luke 1&2. You can read it below or listen to him deliver it by using the audio player below:

It sure seems that Christmas belongs to the young. Indeed, it is a never-failing delight to see how the age-old story captures their imagination, and the rest of us are tickled to see it happen.

In that frame of mind, however, we are at risk to overlook the importance of the old timers in Luke’s narrative. They bookend his telling of the story, Zechariah and Elizabeth setting the table and Simeon and Anna putting an emphatic bow on it all. Not only do these godly men and women bring gravitas to the story, perhaps they also teach something about waiting that the young have yet to learn.

Luke calls Zechariah and Elizabeth “upright in the sight of God,” and he notes that “they were both well along in years.” As an infertile couple, they had a lot of practice waiting. Relentlessly, month after month, their hopes rose and fell. Month after month their prayers went unanswered, and Elizabeth felt the growing scrutiny of her community as if she had fallen out of God’s favor. Still, the two of them persevered and nurtured their faith by “observing all the Lord’s commandments and regulations blamelessly.” As impressive as Zechariah’s obedience was, however, it did not defend him from a costly moment of doubt. When the angel came to him with astonishing news and announced that his prayers had been answered, he had the gall to ask, “How can I be sure of this?” Surely a reasonable wonderment, we muse, but this response was not up to the standards of the moment, and Zechariah was left to wait for his son’s arrival in silence. Was this deprivation a gift of sorts? Meanwhile Elizabeth remained in seclusion. Is there instruction in this? Might silence and seclusion contribute to an effective practice of waiting?

Simeon is described as “righteous and devout.” Though he is not explicitly called old, it is evident that he had death on his mind and a clear sense that his days were numbered. Ever since the Spirit revealed to him that he would not die until he had seen the Messiah, he had waited for the “consolation of Israel.” Two observations emerge from the way Simeon waited. First, he waited with resolute expectancy. He had received a special revelation that good news would come in his lifetime, and he was determined to hold God accountable and see the matter through to the end. One imagines that every morning he inquired of the Lord, “Is this the day?” Only when the promise was realized did he relent and retract his pressure. With the source of all consolation—the treasured baby—snug in his arms, he granted that the Lord could now “dismiss him in peace.” Waiting had been his mission, his reason for living, so once his purpose was satisfied, he was ready to rest in peace. The second outstanding factor is how immersed in the Spirit he was. Luke tells us that the Spirit was “upon him” and at the perfect moment “moved” him to enter the temple courts to discover Joseph, Mary, and Jesus and bless them. What a triumph! Waiting is a larger and bolder experience when one is rooted in the Spirit.

While Simeon was cradling the baby in his arms, Luke introduces us to Anna, an aged prophetess. We are not entirely sure how old she was as some translations state she was 84 while others indicate that she was a widow for 84 years following seven years of married life. Either way, she was, as Luke puts it, “very old.” She was in a phase of life where she didn’t get out anymore. Instead of traipsing through the city she stayed in the temple and served the Lord with all that was in her. Waiting was not an idle time for her. Rather, she “worshiped night and day, fasting and praying.” Having provided that fascinating background, Luke brings Anna into the story to join Simeon in praising God. “Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.” In that very moment, she ministered to all those who were waiting for redemption.

We must be careful not to exaggerate or overgeneralize about the waiting prowess of the elderly. Not all who are on in years excel at waiting. Aches and pains, incapacities, and anxieties about the unknown sometimes leave us churlish and impatient. And on the other hand, there just is nuthin’ sweeter than childlike faith.

Still, it is fair to say that perseverance requires time. Some things take a lifetime to learn and master, and some aspects of waiting shine most brightly in those who have endured the challenges of the long haul.

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