by Mathew Block
“How long, O Lord?” It’s a question I’ve asked several times over the past two years. The COVID-19 pandemic upended normal life for many across the globe, as governments established restrictions on travel, work, public gatherings, worship services, and more. Now, with a new wave sweeping the world and the rise of another variant of concern, it’s very possible those restrictions will be renewed—and just in time for Christmas.
The whole thing can leave you feeling exhausted and longing for a return to daily life as we once knew it. “How long will this last?” we cry out. “How long, O Lord?”
It’s a question that the Israelites also asked, albeit in different circumstances. It’s the cry of David, fleeing from the wrath of Saul: “How long, O Lord? Will You forget me forever?” (Psalm 13:1). It’s the cry of a people watching their nation—and the promised continued kingship of David’s family—seem to fall apart: “How long, O Lord? Will You hide Yourself forever?” (Psalm 89:46). It’s the cry of the people of God weeping over the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of their enemies. “How long, O Lord? Will You be angry forever?” (Psalm 79:5).
These are the prayers of a people longing for salvation—longing for the day when God will finally come and set things right. In that sense, then, the question, “How long, O Lord?”, ultimately reflects a deeper desire: namely, the culmination of God’s promise to send a Messiah. “How long, O Lord? How long until You send the One who will redeem Israel? How long until our Saviour comes?”
An answer to this prayer was longer in coming than many people would have wished. Centuries passed before God’s promised Redeemer arrived. And even then, He did not come as the people expected. He came not as a king or a conqueror, not even as a rebel working to free the subjugated nation of Israel. He came instead as a child—as an infant so apparently unimportant that He was relegated to a manger bed because no one could be bothered to make room for Him in the inn.
And yet, this child was the fulfillment of God’s many promises throughout Scripture—the answer to all those questions asking, “How long?”, which have been posed to God ever since humanity’s first fall into sin. How long, O Lord? Just so long as God had always intended: “When the fullness of time had come,” St. Paul writes, “God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Galatians 4:4-5).
How does God accomplish this salvation for His people? Not with a sword. Not by instituting an earthly kingdom. Instead, He humbles Himself. He takes on “the nature of a servant, being born in the likeness of men”—and being found thus, He humbles Himself even further “by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:7-8).
It is not the answer people expected. But it is the answer that they—that we—need. The waiting is over; the time of fulfillment is at hand. Our God comes. He comes in compassion, to seek and save the lost. He comes with mercy, to rescue sinners longing for salvation. He comes in humility—as a babe in a manger, as a convict on a cross.
God lowers Himself in the incarnation in order that He might raise us up through His resurrection. For the entirety of Jesus’ time on earth—His birth, His ministry, His death, and His resurrection—are all one and the same work: the work of salvation. They are all the same answer to humanity’s cry of “How long?”
How long, O Lord, until You save us? How long must we wait? The answer is no longer; He has already come. He has already saved us. And though we still face trial and tribulation in this world—though we long for an end to this or that present suffering—we know that God is with us even now, bearing us up with His grace and mercy. He has come. He has saved us. He is with us. And He will bring an end to our present sorrows, whether in this life or in the life to come.
May the knowledge of that gift of salvation—the knowledge of the love and mercy of Christ—bring you peace this Christmas and always.
Mathew Block is communications manager for the International Lutheran Council and editor of The Canadian Lutheran.