{Recorded at Denver International Airport on the way to Ivory Coast, Africa.  Ryan Paulson and Aaron Bjorklund went to help at a leaders’ and pastors’ conference.}

The English word ‘advent’ comes from the Latin word ‘adventus.’  It means coming or visit.  It’s a four-week season in the church calendar where churches all around the globe prepare for the birth of Christ.  It’s a time that’s epitomized by three postures of the soul.  One of those postures is intentional waiting.  We remember that there’s a certain transcendent longing within us for something more, and we allow ourselves to hope.  The second posture is anticipating.  This emptiness that we sometimes feel in our soul?  We expect that God will come in and meet us and fill us.  Then there’s this posture of preparation.  We take some inventory of our life, we take time to think and we invite the Spirit of God to work in us and move in us that we would become little bit different people, over the course of the next four weeks.

No one really knows when the season of Advent started.  The church universal has been practicing it since 567, at least.  It was that year that a number of monks decided to undertake a season of fasting leading up to the birth of Christ.  Their practice of fasting was adopted by the church to eventually become the season we now know and celebrate as Advent.

One of the main postures is the posture of waiting, so it makes sense that we would film this portion of this sermon in an airport, where, literally, everybody is waiting.  They’re in between.  They’re not where they’re going yet and they’ve left where they’ve been.  It feels a little bit like that’s the way life is, doesn’t it?  I read a study, earlier this week, that said human beings spend approximately six months of their lives waiting in line for things.  Can you imagine that?  For the average life span, that averages out to about three days a year that you and I spend waiting in line.  The average person (the same study said) spends about 43 days on hold, in the course of their life, with an automated customer service.  On the phone waiting.  You’ve been there and I’ve been there.  Also, those who take the bus or train to work, the study estimated that they will spend 27 days of their life waiting on the platform for the next train or the next bus to come in and eventually take them where they want to go.   My guess is if you’ve driven up or down Broadway over the last few months, you’ve found yourself, at some point in time, waiting.  And just when you thought the wait was over, they decided to tear it up and do it again.  Awesome!

We can relate, can’t we?  We don’t just wait in cars and we don’t just wait in lines.  We also wait on things that are more meaningful and deeper than that.  I’ve talked to a few of you over the course of the last few months who are waiting to get pregnant.  I’ve met with a number of you who are waiting for a beloved child to come back, who’s wandered away from you or maybe from the faith.  There’s a number of you who are waiting for that job to come through and you’re not sure if it’s going to happen.  Or maybe you’re waiting on the healing to come and you’re hoping, and you’re anticipating, and you’re preparing.  That’s what Advent’s all about.  It’s all about waiting, anticipating, preparing.  Every human person waits.  In fact, I would encourage you to write this down:  Waiting is a universal human reality, but waiting on God is an intentional choice.

There’s a wall that we built in the church lobby.  It’s the black wood wall and there’s gold note cards for it.  We’re calling it the Waiting Wall.  Sometime today, as you walk out of the service, I would encourage you to write a one-sentence description of during this Advent season, here’s what I’m waiting for, and what I’m choosing to wait intentionally for.

As I’ve thought about it, there’s two challenges or roadblocks that we often have toward waiting intentionally on God.  The first thing is that in order to wait intentionally, we need to release control.  I’m reminded, even in this airport, that I have very little control.  I’ve little control over whether or not my plane’s going to come in on time.  I’ve little control over whether or not all the mechanics are going to work right or the pilot’s going to do his job right.  It’s a good reminder that when you think about life, we’re in control of fewer things than we’d like to think.  When we wait, we wait well, we release control to God and say, “God, this is in your court, not mine.”

The second challenge we have in waiting is that we often wait for the wrong thing.  As a pastor, I’ve met with so many people who are in the midst of pain and in the midst of loss, and they’re waiting on God.  Their question is, “God, why?”  Why did this divorce happen?  Why did we lose this child?  God, why, why why?  I can remember when my mom passed away.  That was the question I was asking.  Why did this 58-year-old woman, who I dearly loved, who was a saint, pass away?  It hit me one day, if I had the answer to that question, it wouldn’t matter.  To know why is not a deep enough question.  In order to wait well, I don’t think we need to answer the question ‘why?’  I think what we’re actually waiting for is not an answer given to us, but an arm around us.  We don’t need the objective ‘here’s why this happens,’ we need to know that someone’s in it with us.  Specifically, we need to know that God is in it with us.

I can remember the worse night of my life.  Kelly and I had just had a student from our youth group die in our arms.  We got home and reality started to set in.  The reality of grief, and lament, and loss, and questions, and pain were almost overbearing.  If I could describe it, it was a deafening silence in our house.  Then there was a knock on our door.  It was 11 o’clock at night.  Two of our friends, who we loved dearly, showed up.  Unannounced and uninvited.  They just came and sat with us.  At that moment I didn’t know that that’s what I needed, but as they were there and as they cried with us…..they didn’t have any answers.  They just had an arm around us.   If we’re going to be people who wait intentionally, and wait intentionally on God, we’re going to need to choose to say, “God, we release control.  This is in your court,” but we also need to wait for the right thing.  We need to wait for God, and we need to wait for His presence, and we need to prepare and anticipate and expect that He’s going to meet us in the darkest of valleys and on the highest of mountains.

This year, we are joining with churches all around the globe by using lectionary passages to journey through this season of Advent.  We’ve chosen to use the passages from the prophet and poet, Isaiah.  There’s a lot of debate about when Isaiah was written, but the passage we’re looking at today is either a vision of exile or it’s Isaiah standing in exile when his people have been displaced.  It’s interesting because now we’re in the northern part of Ivory Coast and this is actually part of the country that’s been in exile recently.   Because of political strife and rebellion, they’ve had things ripped away from them, and so they know what this people (the Israelites) were going through.

You’ve got to imagine what it might have been like in 587 for these Israelites.  These people who loved Yahweh but were deviating from his teaching.  What they saw, in 587, was that the Babylonian army came in and completely destroyed their city.  They marched them off.  (The Israelites) left their homes, oftentimes separated from their families.  To say that this was a devastating incident for Israel is an understatement.  Isaiah is writing within exile to try to paint a picture of what God might do if they would turn back and trust Him.

Here’s the power of exile:  The power of exile causes people to relinquish the things that they’re holding on to.  But the danger of exile is that they would start to become accustomed to the Babylonian values, the Babylonian way of life, and the Babylonian way of worship.  So Isaiah prophetically speaks into that and he’s sort of the voice of this nation as they cry out to God.  Listen to his exile cry in Isaiah 63:15.  He’s talking to God and he says:  Look down from heaven and see, from your holy and beautiful habitation.  Where are your zeal and your might?  {Can you sort of imagine him going like, “Remember for a moment that you’re God and look at what’s happening to your people!”}   The stirring of your inner parts and your compassion are held back from me.   God, you’re distant.  Isaiah’s prayer and plea in Isaiah 63 is “God, look down!”

In Isaiah 64:1-2, we have one of the greatest prayers, I think, recorded in the Scriptures.  Listen to what the prophet Isaiah prays:  Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down, {This word ‘rend’ is to vehemently tear open. That you would tear open the heavens and would enter the pain.  That you’d enter the exile.  That you’d enter the disappointment, the displacement, the disillusionment.  That you would enter in.} …that the mountains might quake at your presence—as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil—to make your name known to your adversaries, and that the nations might tremble at your presence!   Isaiah’s prayer starts with ‘look down,’ and it ends with ‘come down.’  Isaiah recognizes that there’s moments in life where we don’t need an answer given to us.  We don’t need God to look down from a distance and say this is why or even act from a distance.  There’s moments where we don’t need an answer given to us, we need an arm around us.  What Isaiah’s pointing out {and I’d encourage you to write this down} is our deepest hope is God’s fullest presence.  To say it another way, God’s fullest presence is humanity’s deepest hope.

Have you ever prayed that prayer?  God, enter in.  God, come down….and enter into this marriage, because it’s dry and it’s broken and we don’t know if we’re going to make it.  Or God, enter into this relational situation, because I know I need to forgive, but I just don’t have the power within myself to do it.  God, enter into this job situation, because we don’t know how we’re going to make it one more month.  I love this because desperate situations stir in the human soul passionate prayers.  Rend the heavens and come down!  God, enter into this space.  I love the way a pastor named Jeff Manion says it:  “Desperate prayers may be an indication of spiritual health rather than a sign of spiritual deficiency.”  Maybe this Advent season you start to recognize….I don’t need an answer given to me, I need an arm around me, so God, I’m going to plead with you….come down, enter in.  Enter into my heart, enter into my soul, enter into this marriage, enter into this house, enter into this workplace, this neighborhood.  GOD. COME. DOWN.  Isaiah writes about it, Advent invites us to wait on it, and Christmas reminds us that that is a prayer that God loves to answer in the person and the work of Jesus.  This passage in Isaiah goes on to unpack for us what it actually looks like to position ourself to receive the presence that is the deepest longing in our soul.

What does it look like to wait well?  To be a people who wait on God’s presence well?  Isaiah tells us in Isaiah 64:3-4.  When you did awesome things that we did not look for, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.  From of old no one has heard or perceived by the ear, no eye has seen a God besides you, who acts for those who wait for him.   Notice that Isaiah is pulling this theme of waiting and of God’s presence into the picture for the Israelite community that’s in exile.  He wants to remind them that their portion of the story that they’re living right now isn’t the way the story started and it will not be the way the story ends.  He goes remember, you guys, remember…..God came down and met us on Mount Sinai.  REMEMBER that God led us through the Red Sea and he was faithful in bringing us out of slavery.  REMEMBER that God gave us a king like David and Solomon, who built the temple.  REMEMBER God has done great things in the past.  Think about the Israelite community in exile in Babylon.  Their hometown is in plunder.  Isaiah is inviting them into a subversive act….to remember God, you’ve been at work, you’ve been faithful, and your hand is not off us even now.  So, one of the ways we wait well is by remembering God’s past faithfulness.

It’s only memory that can allow you to walk faithfully with God, because the present dictates to you….man, all that’s in front of you is pain and hurt and sorrow.  Isaiah calls out the powerful act of memory.  But he’s not alone.  Listen to the way the psalmist writes it in Psalm 77:10-15 — Then I said, “I will appeal to this, to the years of the right hand of the Most High.”  I will remember the deeds of the Lord; yes, I will remember your wonders of old.  I will ponder all your work, and meditate on your mighty deeds.  Your way, O God, is holy.  What god is great like our God?  You are the God who works wonders; you have made known your might among the peoples.  You with your arm redeemed your people, the children of Jacob and Joseph.    If you read through the Psalms, you’ll have the psalmist remembering God, you’ve been faithful in every generation, as if to say, even though we’re in the valley right now, you haven’t failed us yet, you will not fail us now, and you will not fail us tomorrow.  If you want to wait well on God, you have to remember well.  I’d encourage you….maybe it’s remembering what God has done by reading the Scriptures.  Maybe it’s remembering what God’s done by listening to testimonies of people who’ve been walking with Him longer than you.  Maybe it’s looking back at your own life and intentionally tracing the fingerprints of God…through some dark seasons and through some really high mountains.  But, remember and do it intentionally.  It’s one of the ways we wait well and we call on the presence of God to meet us.

Here’s the second thing Isaiah says in Isaiah 64:5-6 — You meet him who joyfully works righteousness, those who remember you in your ways.  Behold, you were angry, and we sinned; in our sins we have been a long time, and shall we be saved?  We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.  We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.   There’s two things Isaiah is remembering.  One is that he and his fellow Israelites are completely mortal people, that one day they will not be.  In contrast to God who is immortal and who’s always been.  But he’s also remembering that he and his people have failed.  They’ve sinned.  God really clearly said to them, “I’m inviting you back,” all throughout the first portion of Isaiah.  Don’t forsake your God.  Continue to worship Him.  Come back to worship Him.  Forsake the idols and come and worship the True God.  And they didn’t.  So God brought them off into exile.

It’s interesting if you flip back to Isaiah 63:17.  Listen to what Isaiah wrote then.  O Lord, why do you make us wander from your ways and harden our heart, so that we fear you not?   One chapter earlier Isaiah is like God, this is your fault.  You made us do this.  And now in Isaiah 64, he owns it.  People that wait well don’t blame God for their sin.  They come to God and they admit it, they confess it.  The first thing we do in waiting is remember God’s past faithfulness.  The second thing we do is admit our personal shortcomings.

Sometimes I think we have this idea that if we’re good, if we obey, then we can control God.  We can say to God, God, you need to show up, and you need to move, and you need to do this, and you need to do that because I’ve been good.  Isaiah says you can’t control God and you’re not as good as you think.  In fact, he uses really, really vulgar language to explain just how dirty and offensive their sin is.  He says it’s like a menstrual cloth before you, God.  It’s filthy.  And yet….and yet, his prayer is God, come down.  God, meet us in our mess, in our filth, and in our despair.  God meet us.  But in order to do that, you need to admit, “God, I’ve sinned.”  I have not followed you perfectly.  That posture of humility prepares us to host his presence.  It’s not our righteousness and our perfection that prepares us, it’s our humility in coming before Him and saying, “Man, I don’t deserve this, and yet, God, you enter in.”

Here’s the next thing Isaiah says in 64:7 — There is no one who calls upon your name, who rouses himself to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have made us melt in the hand of our iniquities.   I love the prophet-poet Isaiah.  God, you’ve hidden your face from us.  You’re playing hide-and-seek with us, God.  Just the other day, my youngest son Reid, four years old, came up to me and said, “Dad, let’s play hide-and-seek.”  So I said, “Alright, let’s play.  Where are you going to hide?”  And he says, “I’m not telling you where I’m going to hide.”  I’m like, “Ah, sensei, you are learning.  Good work.”  After I praised him, he said, “But, it might be in this house (a portable tent).”  I’m like, “Oh man, you blew it.”  My four-year-old son Reid is TERRIBLE at hide-and-seek.

But sometimes it feels like hide-and-seek is God’s profession.  It SEEMS like, it FEELS like God is really good at hide-and-seek, doesn’t it?  Isaiah voices it.  He says, “God, you have hidden your face from us, or at least it feels like that.”  Here’s what people who wait well do:  First, they say back to God, “God, we remember your past faithfulness.”  Second, they voice their shortcomings or their sin.  Third, they honestly voice their frustration and their disappointments.  They say to God, “God, I wish you’d come in at this moment and acted.  I don’t know why you didn’t, but it FEELS like you’re hiding.”  Have you ever stood amongst the ruins of your faith and prayed, but felt like you were only talking to yourself?  Like your prayer was just hitting the ceiling?  Isaiah feels it.  The psalmist feels it in Psalm 13:1-2.  Why are you hiding your face from us, O God?  Why are you so far off?  Why don’t you hear?  Why don’t you respond?

I love the way the prominent author, Philip Yancey, when he said this in his book Reaching for the Invisible God: “I experienced the same sense of abandonment just as I was making progress spiritually, advancing beyond childish faith to the point where I felt I could help others.  Suddenly, the darkness descended.  For an entire year, my prayers seemed to go nowhere; I had no confidence that God was listening.  No one had prepared me with ‘the ministry of absence.'”   He goes on to say:  “God’s style often baffles me: he moves at a slow pace, prefers rebels and prodigals, restrains his power, and speaks in whispers and silence.  Yet even in these qualities I see evidence of his long-suffering, mercy, and desire to woo rather than compel.”  I love the fact that the psalmist feels he can say to God, “God, where are you?”  I love that Isaiah says in this prayer, rend the heavens and come down, but he’s able to say, “But God, sometimes it feels like you’re hiding your face from me.”

As I trace back the people who I’ve walked with, who I respect spiritually, one of the things that I think I respect most deeply in people is not necessarily the strength that they have, it’s the honesty that they exhibit.  It’s the willingness to say, “Man, some days feel like the mountaintop, and then some days feel like the valley.  Sometimes, God, it feels like intimacy, and some days it feels like distance.”  They’re people who honestly voice their frustration with God and refuse to let go.  Can I encourage you during this Advent season that this would be a season of waiting, it would be a season of anticipating, it would be a season of preparation, but one of the ways we prepare is by voicing what’s honestly going on in our heart?  God, I’m frustrated.  God, I’m angry.  God, I’m disappointed.  God, I don’t get it.  God, why didn’t you move like I thought you would and prayed you would? Why didn’t you rend the heavens and come down?  One of the ways we prepare to receive his presence is by voicing honestly some of our frustration and disappointment.  Here’s the beautiful thing:  If it’s in you, God knows it already, so you can tell Him.  There’s no danger there.  He knows it already.  You can tell Him.  It does something to our soul when we do.

Here’s the way that Isaiah ends the section of this passage (Isaiah 64:8-9) — But now, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.  Be not so terribly angry, O Lord, and remember not iniquity forever.  Behold, please look, we are all your people.   Here’s the fourth point and the last way we wait well according to Isaiah:  Reaffirming our dependence on God.  There’s two metaphors Isaiah uses.  One is that of a father and we are his children.  We’re waiting on our Abba, on Papa God to step in and to hold us.  And, we’re like the clay, the clay of a pot.  Both of these pictures are pictures of dependency.  The child doesn’t control the father.  The clay doesn’t control the potter.  They are at his fingertips to be used however, to be formed and shaped however.  But they’re dependent.  One of the ways that we wait on God well is by recognizing that we’re waiting on God.  That we don’t get the chance to control Him.  That He’s bigger, that He’s stronger, that He’s more powerful, that He’s like the father and He’s like the potter and we are the clay in his hands.  See, dependency is not a sign of weakness, it’s actually strength of faith.  It’s people who humbly come before God.  People who experience God’s presence are people who express dependence.  Let me say that again:  People who experience God’s presence are people who express dependence.  Will you be that kind of person?  Dependence like a lump of clay.  Dependence like a daughter or son needing to be loved.

So that’s how Isaiah teaches us how to wait well.  That’s how Isaiah teaches us to position our soul to cry out for our deepest need which is His fullest presence.  We remember His faithfulness.  We admit our shortcomings.  We voice our frustration.  We posture our soul, we reaffirm God, we are completely and wholly dependent on you.

Now, let’s talk about how to bring this into the soil and soul of our daily life here on earth.  We’ve seen that we’re not really looking for an answer from God.  We’re looking for an arm around us, that’s our deepest longing—-God’s fullest presence.  What does that really look like?  What does that look like on the ground?  What does that look like in real life?  What does that look like for us as a community of faith this Advent season?  I think the first thing it means is that we need to expect God’s presence in our life.  One of the things we learn as we embark on this season of Advent is that God loves to meet people exactly where we’re at.  If Christmas teaches us anything, it teaches us that God comes in unexpected ways and in unexpected places.  I love the way that Eugene Peterson paraphrases it in his translation of The Message when he says:  The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.  We saw the glory with our own eyes, the one-of-a-kind glory, like Father, like Son, generous inside and out, true from start to finish.   I love that translation….The Word became flesh and moved into the neighborhood.  What would it look like in your life if you started to expect the presence of God?  Not just in church services, but in your everyday life….like when you’re shopping in the market….if you expect God’s presence to show up?  Or when you’re on a walk or when you’re going to work.  What if we started to have eyes to see it and a heart to look for it?

Here’s the second thing to put our feet on the ground this Advent season and to really start to wait on God and hope for his presence.  It means we not only expect it, but that we enjoy God’s presence when it shows up, when it shows up in those strange places.  I think a lot of times we envision the spiritual life being some place where we’re trying to find God in a church or in a temple.  What if we started to just expect Him and enjoy Him when He did show up?  What if we started to envision walking with Jesus as looking for opportunities to realize where He is already at work in our lives?  Aaron was telling me a story about a missionary who used to say that when missionaries go to Africa, they’re not bringing God with them.  They’re going to find the ways that God is already at work.  That’s our approach as we’re here, we’re convinced God is at work in this marketplace, in the lives of people, and in your life, too.  What if you started to become a detective about the ways God’s at work, expecting it?  Then when you find it to take time to actually enjoy it.  That’s part of what it means to be a follower of Jesus.

Finally…..we not only expect it and we enjoy it, but we’re also called to embody his presence.  One of the ways God shows up in the lives of believers is through other people who are followers of Jesus.  In fact, some of our group had the opportunity to go visit a woman in the hospital.  When they showed up, they bring the presence of Jesus.  Aaron’s dad was recently in the hospital.  He shared a story with us.  One of the things Ivorians do really, really well is they embrace a ministry of presence, and throughout his time in the hospital, his room was filled with people the entire time he was in there.  It’s a picture of the way God’s intended us to live as followers of Christ.  We not only expect and enjoy God’s presence, but we embody it, we bring it.  In 2 Corinthians 1:3-7 it says that as we’ve been comforted from God and by God, we take that comfort to other people.  What would it look like for you this Christmas season to embody the presence of Jesus in the lives of other people?  I think it would mean that you would have to be intentional, because our culture is very different from this culture that we’re in right now here.  This culture values presence.  They value visiting people.  They value being with people in a different way than we do.  I’ve noticed that already.  What if we were intentional about being with people this Christmas season?

I think the second thing would be to be available.  To say to God, “I don’t know how you want to use me, but I’m willing to be used, whatever it looks like.”  Then I think the third thing it would mean is that we were flexible.  This doesn’t happen on our schedule, it happens on God’s.  I just want to encourage you to start to expect, enjoy, and embrace God’s presence.  My prayer for us, as a community of faith, this Advent season is that we would wait, that we would wait intentionally, and that we would wait well.  Hoping.  Expecting.  Anticipating God’s presence in our life and in our church.  We join with all followers of Jesus, around the globe, and our prayer is:  O come divine Messiah // come, divine Messiah! // The world in silence waits the day // When hope shall sing its triumph, // And sadness flees away.