Listening to Elyse Fitzpatrick’s excellent talk on the “life everlasting” at the recent Here We Still Stand conference, I was reminded of a hospital conversation with a parishioner. “Pastor, I just want to be with the Lord in heaven and for all of this to be finally over,” Ella exclaimed with an earnestness that let everyone within the oncology unit know she meant it. This was her third round of chemotherapy and the will to fight the good fight had diminished with each drop of poison introduced into her bloodstream. Ella joins the chorus of countless saints across the ages in expressing their desire for heaven where Jesus has promised He will, “wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death will not exist any more—or mourning, or crying, or pain, for the former things have ceased to exist” (Rev 21:4).
As much as we may long for heaven, even death itself does not usher us into the final state of the new creation. So, in life and death, we must wait. And as the philosopher, Tom Petty, sings, “Waiting is the hardest part.”
Waiting as Blessed Hope
Whether it's waiting in line at the DMV, waiting in traffic, or waiting for the results of a biopsy, one thing is certain—no one enjoys it. This is especially acute in a consumeristic culture continually bombarded with advertisements promising immediacy and instant gratification. Our impatience with God’s timing, however, is not unique to our time and place.
The Old Testament is replete with the refrain: “How Long, O Lord?” The tension in such a question is palpable but alleviated in part by the knowledge that God is not bound by the linear constraints of time. God is infinite, and therefore, lives in radical simultaneity in which past, present, and future co-inhere without being constrained as we finite creatures are in the succession of moments from past to present to future. Thus, Peter can say that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years and a thousand years as one day (2 Pet 3:8).
It is easy to view waiting with a negative attitude, particularly during difficult seasons of life; however, the Bible provides a more positive approach by stressing it is as “hopeful expectation.” The Hebrew words for “wait” most often employed in the Old Testament are closely tied to the concepts of trust and hope (qavah, yachal, chakah). We are to wait upon the Lord with hopeful expectancy⏤like children going to sleep on Christmas Eve in eager anticipation of the gifts that will be given and received come morning⏤because we are confident that our Heavenly Father will deliver on all His promises (cf Ps 130:5–6). Thus, the prophet Isaiah can say that 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” (Isa 40:31).
The Old Testament tells a story with a future-oriented focus pointing towards the promised Prophet (Deut 18:15), Priest (Ps 110:4), and King (Isa 9:6–7), who would usher in a kingdom where God’s reign would be fully realized by Israel and the nations. When we open the New Testament, the writers quickly demonstrate how the great promises of the Old Testament have been inaugurated and fulfilled in the person and work of Jesus Christ (Mark 1:15).
Through the means of grace, Christ grants us a share in all the blessings of this ancient hope.
Through the means of grace, Christ grants us a share in all the blessings of this ancient hope. The promised kingdom can be experienced and enjoyed now by grace through faith in the King’s death and resurrection. The gift of the Holy Spirit poured out in Holy Baptism is a guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of Christ’s glory (Eph 1:14). And yet, we followers of Jesus must await the full manifestation of these promises to come full bloom.
The tension of waiting for heaven is tied to the fact that we live between what theologians often refer to as the “already and the not yet.” Believers have received the promised end-time blessings through the gospel and already participate in the messianic age. But these blessings are ours by faith, not sight (Rom 8:24). Therefore, this present age is lived under the cross.
A Kingdom Under Attack
Life under the cross can be likened to a battlefield as we wage war with sin, death, and the devil. Many theologians have compared life between the “already and the not yet” to that of D-Day and V-Day during the Second World War. The death and resurrection of Jesus are like the invasion at Normandy, D-Day; Christ’s return will be like the celebration of V-day. C.S. Lewis similarly spoke of this present world as enemy-occupied territory:
Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us all to take part in a great campaign of sabotage. When you go to church you are really listening-in to the secret wireless from our friends; that is why the enemy is so anxious to prevent us from going.
Life under the cross presses us not only into a war within but also a war without. As Steven Hein warns, “Spiritual warfare also entails a battle against the forces of evil outside the Christian which can bring experiences of temptation, trial, and tribulation.” While we are assured of final victory, we live in the present fighting the good fight of faith. As such, we are called to arms with the weapons of faith (Eph 6:10–20). There will be times when we will grow weary and want to give up in the face of what seems like insurmountable odds, repeated failure, and trials of varying degree and kind. Like Ella in our introduction, we just want it to be over.
Our Lord’s timing often feels like it is moving at a snail’s pace. But Peter reminds us that the Lord’s delay serves a patient purpose: “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Pet 3:9).
Before Jesus ascended to the right hand of the Father, he gathered his disciples together to give them their marching orders: “As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you” (John 20:21). Thus, before the King returns, he has left his Church with the vocation of expanding his kingdom through the ministry of his word and sacraments (Matt 28:19–20). The church is the visible manifestation of Christ’s kingdom on earth, like a city set on a hill, shining the light of Christ so that all would know where to find safe passage and refuge (cf. Matt 5:14–16).
My grandfather used to regale me with sea stories in my childhood. He served as an engineer on a U.S. Navy ship that was sunk by a Japanese torpedo in the South Pacific. As he and his fellow survivors floated in the shark-infested waters amidst the wreckage awaiting rescue, my grandfather said he hoped for three things: (1) That he would be saved, (2) That his fellow sailors would be saved, and (3) that the rescue ship would reach safe harbor, so that they could finally go home. This hope of survival amid danger motivated them to band together to stay alive. Similarly, when we pray the second petition of the Lord’s prayer, Thy Kingdom come, we are not asking for the kingdom of power to come, for that is already present; we are asking that the kingdom of God’s grace would come into our hearts, and into our neighbor’s hearts, so that all would enjoy the blessings of the kingdom of glory to come.
To pray, Thy kingdom come, is searching and demanding.
To pray, Thy kingdom come, is searching and demanding. First, it means we are not the king and must lay down our kingdom-building projects, taking every thought captive unto the King’s command. Second, it is an acknowledgment that our citizenship is not gained through merit but by grace alone through faith alone in the finished work of the King alone, for we serve a benevolent King whose rule is not tyrannical, but compassionate, merciful, and loving.
As we lift this prayer unto God we begin with ourselves. “Use me, O Lord, to faithfully serve in Your kingdom through my earthly vocations, in my relationships, and through the resources, you have graciously provided.” However, this prayer is not given just for us, but corporately, for it begins with the plural possessive pronoun, “Our Father who art in heaven.” Here we must recognize that this is a battle we do not, and should not, fight alone for there is strength in numbers. Our King has promised, moreover, that all authority in heaven and earth are his, and as we carry out his Gospel mission, we have the comfort of knowing that he is with us always, even to the end of the age (Matt 28:20). Until then, we pray: “Come, Lord Jesus!”