In the musical Hamilton, Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton have a complex relationship. Burr is Hamilton’s friend, enemy, colleague, adversary, and ultimately killer. If we didn’t know their history before watching the show, we know from the very first song that Aaron Burr is the one who shot (and killed) Hamilton. Burr is not a standard villain. In the first song he says that he was the fool who shot Hamilton, so we are encouraged to believe from the start that he regretted his actions.
But it is the song Wait for It that makes us have some sympathy for him. Although the song doesn’t tell us all of this, Aaron Burr’s father was the president of what became Princeton University, but he died when Aaron was only one. Aaron’s grandfather moved in with him and his mother. His grandfather was Jonathan Edwards, THE most famous fire and brimstone preacher, still known today for his sermon entitled “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”
The next year Aaron’s grandfather, grandmother, and mother all died. So at the age of two Aaron and his sister were orphans, ultimately going to live with a relative who was abusive. Burr received his Bachelor’s Degree from Princeton at age 16, and apparently had great pride in his heritage.
In the song Wait for It Aaron Burr says,
My mother was a genius;
My father commanded respect.
When they died they left no instructions,
Just a legacy to protect.
Death doesn’t discriminate
Between the sinners and the saints
It takes and it takes and it takes
And we keep living anyway.
We rise and we fall and we break
And we make our mistakes.
And if there’s a reason I’m still alive
When everyone who loves me has died
I’m willing to wait for it.
But then there’s Hamilton. Hamilton is also an orphan, but from very different circumstances. He has no legacy, no name, nothing to protect and therefore nothing to lose. So he just goes for what he wants and takes what he wants. In the song Burr says:
Hamilton faces an endless uphill climb
He has something to prove; he has nothing to lose
Hamilton’s pace is relentless
He wastes no time
What is it like in his shoes?
Hamilton doesn’t hesitate.
He exhibits no restraint.
He takes and he takes and he takes
And he keeps winning anyway.
He changes the game.
He plays and he raises the stakes.
Two completely different approaches to life: to wait or not to wait, to wait for the right opportunity, or to blaze your own trail, to play by the rules or change the game. Interestingly, it is when Burr stops waiting that the trouble between him and Hamilton really strengthens.
The juxtaposition of these two characters and ways of life have reminded me of my own struggle with some of our Bible stories. There are many stories of God telling the people to wait. God promised many descendants to Abraham and Sarah, and they waited years—decades, even—and no child. So Sarah determined that God must have meant that Abraham would father children through someone other than her, so she gave her servant Hagar to Abraham. God was not pleased. God told them to wait. But why? Why didn’t God act sooner?
Then there’s the story of Paul and Silas in prison. It was midnight, and Paul and Silas were still praying and singing hymns, and the other prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was an earthquake, and the violent shaking of the building opened all the prison doors, and everyone’s chains became unfastened. If it had been me, I would have yelled “It’s a miracle!” and headed for the door. But Paul didn’t. He waited. He assured the prison guard that they had not fled, and he then proceeded to tell the jailer about Jesus.
There are, of course, other times that God tells the people to go do something, and doesn’t want them to wait around. How were they—or we, for that matter—supposed to know the difference? Our worship began with us singing “Silently now I wait for thee…” and it will end with a call to action: “Come build a land.” But how do we know when we’re supposed to do which?
How do we determine whether to wait or move forward in other decisions? Let’s take worship, for example. We stopped worshiping in the sanctuary in March due to the pandemic. What are we waiting for in order to return? Should we wait for a vaccine? Should we wait for it to be completely safe? (Truth be told, church was never completely safe.) Should we wait until the emotional and spiritual need for in-person worship outweighs the danger? Should we wait until after school begins, to see what happens to the numbers?
Wait or push ahead?
It was seven and a half years ago, I think, that I began to realize that it was time to leave my beloved little church in Connecticut. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I was tired after a difficult year of pastoring, and I had grown weary of the unique skills needed in a small church pastor. I wasn’t at all sure I wanted to keep pastoring. Then a position came open in the national office of the United Church of Christ—a position that seemed like it would use much of my background and many of my gifts. I applied, and I made it through the first round. Then I made it through the second round. Then I was flown to Cleveland as one of just a few finalists. And all the while I kept waiting for clarity. Was this the next right step? Was this what I was supposed to do? Would it be right for my family? Was it God’s will, whatever that meant?
I kept waiting for clarity, and I just didn’t find any. And then I didn’t get the job. And I was mad that I didn’t get a job I wasn’t sure I wanted! And then I saw the profile for this church in Maine. I didn’t want to move to Maine. It’s cold in Maine. It snows a lot in Maine. I had already moved from the beauty of western North Carolina to the cold of Connecticut. Would God really call me to the frozen tundra?!
But I started to fall in love with the church represented in that profile, and I started to care about the people on that search committee. And the clarity I never found for the national job was in abundance. Then I remembered that for me, lack of clarity is an answer. When it’s wrong, I don’t feel certain. When it’s right, I do. I was waiting for what would never happen with the national job. But I’m glad I waited for what was right. But that’s a small, personal example. What about the big stuff? What about justice? What about peace? What about changing the world?
A pop song from 2006 proclaimed, “We keep on waiting—waiting on the world to change.” Yes, change—or at least true transformation—takes time. So do we sit back and wait for change, or maybe just try to be patient when it takes a while, or do we push for it? When do we push and when do we wait?
When I first started thinking about this sermon, I wanted some kind of formula to help us know when to wait. One thought that flitted into my mind was that maybe we wait for our own wants, but do not wait for someone else’s liberation. But that might imply that other people’s liberation was more important than our own; and I wouldn’t say to someone in an abusive relationship, for example, that their needs are less important than someone else’s. Speaking of relationships, are we always supposed to wait for them to get better? When do we say “I’ve waited long enough.” When do we wait, and for what are we waiting?
Let’s look at our scripture for today, Isaiah 40:28-31. This text from the book of Isaiah takes place near the end of the Babylonian exile. Fifty or sixty years previously, the Babylonians had destroyed Jerusalem, destroyed the temple, and forced many of the residents to move to Babylon. Their time there was long, and they had no idea if they would ever return. They had children. They had grandchildren. They had great grandchildren. All in captivity. At least fifty years of it. The people feared that God had abandoned them. Then the Babylonians were defeated, and the Israelites were told they could return home. But this was no easy joyful return. Scholar Christopher Hays puts it this way:
“The homecoming and restoration in Judah would have been a very difficult matter. The land had been devastated and not rebuilt. Thus, although the return from exile is often imagined as joyous…Nehemiah 11:1-2 reports that there was no crush of people begging to live in the destroyed city of Jerusalem. It was without a temple or effective walls; the comforts and protections that a city would normally have afforded in the ancient world were missing. In fact, the people had to cast lots to see who would live there, and they “blessed all those who willingly offered to live in Jerusalem.” After fifty or more years in exile, most of those returning would have hardly known the place. Exile was hard, but returning was difficult, too.
It is in this context that Isaiah says to the people:
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.
The Lord does not faint or grow weary; the Lord’s understanding is unsearchable.
God gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless.
Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted;
but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.
This is the message not to those who are staying behind in their new land. It is a message to those who are moving. To them Isaiah says: Those who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. In this context, waiting on God doesn’t mean not moving. Waiting doesn’t mean being passive. Waiting doesn’t mean lack of action. Waiting on God sometimes means that even when we are waiting to see the way, we take the first step anyway. Even when we are waiting to understand why, we respond in hope. Even when we, like our spiritual ancestors, wonder where in the world God is, we try to believe. Waiting means believing, or at least hoping, that God is with us and we aren’t alone. Waiting means taking a stand even when we don’t yet believe the change will really come.
If you’re struggling with why questions, you may have to wait for those answers. If you’re wrestling with too many variables and unknowns, you may have to wait for the way to be clear. If you’re tired of the restrictions brought on by the pandemic, you may have to wait until it’s safe to do what you want or even need.
Answers may have to wait. Pleasures may have to wait. But justice and peace have waited long enough. “Come, build a land where all of God’s children anointed by God, may then create peace: where justice shall roll down like waters, and peace like an ever flowing stream.”