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Advent | Instead | Isaiah 61:1-11 | Week 3

If you haven’t been here for the first two messages (of this series), let me catch you up a little bit.  Advent is a time in the church calendar….it’s actually the English translation of the Latin word adventus, which means coming or arrival.  It’s a season where we carve out space to hope and space to long.  There’s three postures of the soul that we embrace during the Advent season.  One is waiting.  The other is anticipating and the third is preparing.  We’re preparing for the once again coming of the Messiah into the world.  This year we’re journeying with the prophet Isaiah using our lectionary passages.  We’re using the Isaiah passages to point us to the birth of the Christ child.  Two weeks ago, out of Isaiah 64, we said that our deepest longing is God’s fullest presence.  Oftentimes what we need isn’t an answer given to us, it’s an arm around us, and that’s what we get at Christmas.  Last week, we said that God is able to use the barren wilderness to birth beautiful life.  In fact, you don’t have to leave the wilderness to encounter God, he builds a highway to meet you there.  This Sunday we’re going to be camping out in Isaiah 61.  Dr. Jeff Brodsky from Joy International is preaching with me today, so we’re team teaching this message.

As I was thinking about Isaiah 61, I was reminded of one of the most popular Christmas movies of all time.  I think it’s been played as much or more than any other Christmas movie.  It’s It’s a Wonderful Life.  How many of you have seen this movie?  It’s the story of George Bailey who grows up in this town and has big dreams, and then he encounters….LIFE.  Things don’t turn out the way that he hoped.  One evening it gets extremely dark for him and he’s standing on a bridge and he jumps off of it, intending to take his own life.  A guardian angel, Clarence, comes in and saves his life.  After he saves his life, Clarence takes him on a tour of his life.  Clarence’s goal is to allow George to step back from his life and look at it and to see the difference his life has made.  If George weren’t a part of this world, things would have gone drastically different.  His brother, whom he saved from drowning, would have drowned.  The pharmacist he saved from accidentally killing this one boy would have gone through and done it.  Clarence takes George on, what I’ll call, a tour of “insteads.”  Instead of this thing that did happen, this would have happened.  Instead of that, this would be the new reality of the world we live in.

Instead is a powerful word, isn’t it?  It’s a word of exchange.  Instead of this, you get that.  This week I had an experience with the word ‘instead.’  I installed a new—-I’m not exactly Mr. Fix-it—-light dimmer on the light in our kitchen.  Instead of the light in our kitchen turning on, the light in our bathroom turned off.  So I called my friend Gary, who’s an electrician, and right when his wife answered the phone, she said, “Ryan, what did you screw up?”  This may have happened before.  I told her what happened and she said, “How about this?  How about you stick to the Bible and let us stick to electricity?”   Fair enough!  Instead is a powerful word, isn’t it?  Think about it:  Instead of economy, you get first-class.  That’s a good instead.  Instead of just barely squeaking buy in a final in school, instead you aced it!  Instead’s a powerful word.

It’s a word Isaiah picks up as he points to this ‘instead’ exchanged reality that comes as a result of the divine Messiah.  Let me lay some ground work for these instead that Isaiah’s going to point out.  Isaiah 61:1-2.  The prophet Isaiah is writing and looking forward to a time where Israel will be taken into exile and then they’ll start to come home.  God’s going to work, and God’s going to move, and God’s going to bless, and listen to what Isaiah points towards.  The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn.

Isaiah, to a group of people heading into exile, points to a deeper, a bigger story that’s going on.  He says that one day God’s going to speak into your captivity and he’s going to bring freedom.  He’s going to proclaim LIBERTY (or freedom) to the captives.  Isaiah points out that before God can start any sort of exchange in your life, any sort of ‘instead’ that he wants to bring about—-and there are some he wants to bring about—-the very first thing he must do is speak a word of freedom over your life.  Freedom is the foundation of living in God’s favor, in God’s blessing.  I know that in a room this size, this morning, there’s a number of people here that need a word of freedom today.  I just want to invite you to lean in, to listen close, because this good news is for you.  If we want to experience God’s favor, God’s blessing, we must first receive his freedom.  It’s exactly what Jesus came to bring.  Christmas is a liberty celebration.

Here’s the way Isaiah builds on that word, that word of freedom.  He’s going to give us three ‘insteads.’  The first one is 61:3 — To grant to those who mourn in Zion—to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes….  You have to imagine a person in exile.  Their home’s been destroyed.  Their temple has been wiped out.  Every dream that they’ve had has been dashed, and they’re being marched in chains off to a town that isn’t their own to be in a culture that isn’t home.  It’s in THIS situation that this word comes….instead.  Do you know how hard it would have been to hear this for those exiles?  It would have been as hard to hear as it might be for you today.  That this ‘instead’ life can be a reality.  The first thing Isaiah wants to speak into is this idea of fatalism that we often carry on our shoulders.  Here’s the lie that fatalism tells us:  The way it is now is the way that it will always be, and there’s nothing you can do to change it.  Isaiah speaks into that lie using this metaphor of ashes.  Ashes were, in the ancient world, something people would place on their head and they would go down over their body and over their face, and it was a picture of a life that was just burned out.  A life that had been decimated.  A life that was sort of done.  {Ashes might be the way that we describe the Denver Broncos’ season.}

Isaiah says that instead of ashes there’s a beautiful headdress.  He has in mind a green headdress woven from either laurel leaves or meadow flowers that they would often place on the head of a victor after an athletic contest.  Here’s the picture Isaiah is painting — It’s one of victory INSTEAD of defeat.  The captives are not only freed, but they are turned into conquerors. Listen to the way it’s recorded in Isaiah 61:4 — They shall build up the ancient ruins; {The ancient city of Jerusalem that’s destroyed.}  …they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.  God’s going to take where there’s rubble and he’s going to start to rebuild.  I got this sense that there’s people in this room where there’s some rubble that God wants to rebuild on.  It may be your faith that’s in shambles.  It may be your hope that is absolutely decimated and completely destroyed.  It may be your joy that’s just zapped.  I want to tell you this morning that I believe that God wants to rebuild some things in your life if you let him.  He wants to speak this word over you and over me this morning.

Here’s the second ‘instead’ — …..the oil of gladness instead of mourning….   When people mourned, in the ancient world, their skin would dry out, and it was a public symbol of ‘man, we are walking through the valley of the shadow of death.’  They epitomized externally what was going on internally.  It was a way of inviting others….hey, we’re in the thick of it, and if you’d like to, you can join us in mourning.  Isaiah says that there was an oil people would put on their skin to liven it up again, and that’s the picture that Isaiah begins to paint.  Instead of this dry mourning, an oil’s coming.  All throughout the Scriptures, oil would signify both the Spirit of God and the presence of God.  Look at the way he says it in (61:7) — Instead of your shame there shall be a double portion; instead of dishonor they shall rejoice in their lot; therefore in their land they shall possess a double portion; they shall have everlasting joy.  That’s a great word, is it not?  That what God’s going to do to this nation of exiles—people in waiting, anticipating, and hoping—is he’s not only going to bring them back to their land, but he’s going to expand their land and he’s going to take away their shame and lead them into joy.

Imagine the shame an exile would have felt.  Their life’s work being decimated.  Everything they hold dear ripped from their hands.  They’re in a culture that’s not their own.  Guilt is when we feel bad about what we’ve done; shame is when we feel bad about who we are.  God (through the prophet Isaiah) speaks this word of hope into the deepest places of our souls.  I love the way Brené Brown puts it: “Shame is the most powerful, master emotion.  It’s the fear that we’re not good enough.”  God says no, no, no, no, no, I am speaking a word of joy instead of shame.  He’s building on ancient ruins, he’s leading us from defeat into victory, and he’s speaking a word of everlasting joy into our narrative of man, I wish I wouldn’t have, or I wish that didn’t happen, or that thing that person did to me just replays over and over and over in my mind and assaults my soul.  Isaiah says there’s a better word.  It’s a word of everlasting joy.  {Will you look up at me a moment?}  You and I can either hold onto our shame or we can hold onto God’s joy, but we cannot hold onto both.  We can’t hold onto both.  It’s impossible.  The only way that the word of hope gets in our soul is if we open our hands and release our shame and invite God into our pain and say, “Would you come in?  Would you speak a better word?  Would you do what you say you’ll do through the prophet Isaiah, and would you lead me out of shame and into your joy?”  I think that maybe today is a hand-opening day for some people.  Jesus, I’m not even sure if you can, but if you can, I am inviting you into my pain and I’m asking that you would start to bring this everlasting joy and instead speak a word of ‘instead’ over my pain and lead me to it.

Here’s the way it closes (61:3) — ….the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit…   The picture of a faint spirit is when you wake up in the morning, open your eyes, and your initial thought is I think this is as good as it’s going to get today, I might just stay in bed.  Has anybody else been there?  It’s the idea or the feeling of being depleted, of being weak, of being decimated.  In contrast, a garment was something, in the ancient world, that they would put on when they were going out into the world.  They would go out to do business.  They would go out to meet somebody or visit somebody’s home.  It was a way of saying we are prepared for whatever the day is going to bring.  A garment of praise.  We are not decimated.  We’re not weak.  We’re not faint.  We’re ready, at the drop of a hat, to praise.  What Isaiah’s word says is praise instead of sorrow.

This word of praise that Isaiah speaks is not a word of praise that goes back and just undoes everything that happens in the past.  You and I know that’s not possible.  Right?  It’s a pointing towards the future of what God will do.  When we wear that, we wear it with anticipation.  We wear it with imagination…..God, what are you up to?  How might you lead out of this darkness and into your light?  We wear it in the same way the people marching to Jerusalem in the Psalms of Ascent would sing: When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream.  Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy. (Ps. 126:1-2)    Part of having a restored spirit is embracing new dreams.  God, what might you do?  How might you move in this dark situation?

For the nation of Israel, we have to step into their story a little bit or else the impact will be lost on us.  As they’re getting dragged off by the Babylonians in 586 BC, as they see Jerusalem destroyed, how real do you think these ‘insteads’ might have seemed to them?  Not real at all.  They would have been a distant fantasy at best.  This is where memory would serve us well, because they were in captivity for 70+ years, but God was good on his promise in Isaiah 61.  He brought them back to the land.  He restored them.  They rebuilt the temple. They reenacted their praise to their great God.  It didn’t happen overnight.  But it did happen.  But it was only a partial fulfillment, because if you know anything about the ministry of Jesus, Jesus actually begins his public ministry by quoting this same verse.  Look at Luke 4:18-21 with me.  Jesus is in his hometown of Nazareth and is in the synagogue on a Sabbath day.  They give him the scroll of Isaiah and he found the place where it was written, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  {Sound familiar?  It should, it’s Isaiah 61.  It’s what Jesus says right after that gets people upset.  Here’s what he says….}  And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down.  And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.  And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”   Freedom to the captives.  Liberty to the oppressed.  Chains broken.  Hope given.  And nothing changes.  You can just imagine (after saying all this)….Jesus of Nazareth. Mic drop. Out.  Everyone’s going, “Wait a second.  We thought you were going to come and be the military ruler.”  We thought you were going to come and overthrow Rome, who’s absolutely decimating us.  We thought you were going to come and do something that would really be helpful for us.  This fulfillment isn’t exactly working.  It’s not what we had in mind!

I think we often get it wrong, too.  How many of you have ordered a gift for somebody off of Amazon this Christmas season?  This is what happens:  When you order a gift off of Amazon, you get an initial response via email that says your order has been placed.  Then a little while later, you get a followup email that says your order has been fulfilled.  That means whatever you’ve ordered has left their processing center and is on the way. Do you have the package yet?  No.  It’s not on your doorstep yet, but it’s on the way.  It’s coming.  When Jesus says this promise has been fulfilled, he’s saying that you’re going to see glimpses of this fulfillment all around you.  You’re going to see people healed.  You’re going to see people freed.  You’re going to see people who were oppressed who are walking in joy.  You’re going to see all of these things, but you’re not going to see it in all of its fullness just yet.  One day the package will be here.

You and I live between two poles—we live between the incarnation and the resurrection of Jesus, where all of these promises were inaugurated, where they started. But we also live in between the Second Coming where it will be fully realized.  It’s in the incarnation, in Jesus of Nazareth, that Jesus brings ‘instead’ life into eternal reality.  Instead of sin that causes death, we get life.  Instead of separation, we get acceptance.  Instead of brokenness, we get beauty.

Israel was horribly disappointed with their Messiah.  So much so that they tried to kill him.  Just keep reading in Luke 4.  His inaugural ‘this is my ministry’ speech doesn’t exactly go well because they wanted him to overthrow Rome. {Lean in for a moment.}  We often want the same thing.  The wholeness and beauty that Jesus brings.  The forgiveness.  The life.  The invitation to follow and be part of his kingdom.  We often want THE END.  We want the package to come and Jesus says oh, oh, it’s on the way.  Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man.  He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.  He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away. (Rev. 21:3-4)  That day is coming!  Amen?  But it is not yet.  And we live in this in between—in between incarnation and in between Second Coming.  Here’s how to live in the in between:  KNOW that God is the God of ‘insteads.’  He wants to speak it into your life, and he wants to speak it through your life.  So he calls us to himself and then he send us out as ambassadors of hope.  As carriers of joy.  As citizens of the kingdom of God to be chain breakers and joy bringers in the lives of the people around us.  That this Isaiah 61 ‘instead’ might become a reality for more and more people.  In your life and in mine.

I can tell you, I have never met anybody that lives this calling out better than Dr. Jeff Brodsky.  Jeff’s going to close out our message, because like I said, I think his life beautifully paints the picture of this God of ‘instead.’  Jeff, tells us about that God and how you’re following him.

Dr. Jeff Brodsky/Joy International:  I was really blessed when I received a call from Pastor Ryan, to share the pulpit with him today.  I believe he’s the epitome of a five-fold ministry pastor/teacher.  I was honored he asked me to share with you this morning.  When I saw the message, especially the passage with Isaiah 61, I thought, “Oh my!  That’s my life verse!”  God has definitely called me to set the captives free.  That is what my whole life is about.

I can’t thank you all enough for your prayers, especially over the past 5-6 weeks now.  It’s been quite a nightmare for me.  It was actually just a few days after I got back from a trip to Cambodia, which was an extremely powerful time there.  Two days later, I went through, literally…..I was bedridden for five weeks.  We didn’t know if it was cancer or what.  Thank God, it wasn’t.  Thank you so much for your prayers.  I really appreciate it.  Still healing.  Not 100% but I’m getting there.

So when it talks about bringing good news to the afflicted and setting the captives free, freedom to prisoners, oh my gosh, that’s Joy International!  Talking about an ‘instead’ life….  Ever since 1976, when I accepted Jesus into my life and became a Messianic Jew.  I was born and raised Jewish in Brooklyn, New York.  The day I accepted Jesus into my life, I was ready to go into the ministry immediately.  First thing I did was call my parents and told them, “Jesus is really the Messiah.”  I expected them to get excited.  They did not get excited.  As a matter of fact, it was 22 years later…..literally, on his death bed, I led my father into a relationship with the Lord.

In 1979, I was in real estate.  I was on the verge of becoming a millionaire in real estate.  I was a young person in Fountain Hills, Arizona.  I thought, “Oh my gosh!  This is great!  I made it big!”  A nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn, he wants a big bank account.  Something was wrong.  I was miserable.  I wondered, “What is wrong? Something’s not right here!”  About two o’clock one morning (which is when I usually wake), I lay down flat, spread-eagled before the Lord and poured my heart out to him.  Isn’t it interesting the way you pray?  When you pray you’ll ask God for a million things and say in Jesus’s name, amen, then you’ll get up and walk away and do what you’re going to do.  I wonder how many times God says, “Uh, excuse me, didn’t you want an answer?”  Well, I wanted an answer so I just shut up and waited and hoped that he would speak to me.  He did that night. That was the night he called me into ministry.

Little did I know, two years after that I was sitting in the back of a car reading the words of Jesus and John 15:11, where it Jesus says I speak these things to you that my joy…..  {It’s interesting that even the candle that was lit today was for joy.  All the times the word ‘joy’ was spoken today I was sitting there going, “Yeah!!!”}   John 15:11, Jesus is speaking:  I speak these things to you that my joy would be in you so that your joy would be complete. (His paraphrase)  I have found my life that by putting JOY……Jesus first, others second, yourself third.  If you live your life by putting Jesus first, others second, yourself third, that’s the way to experience true joy.  It was that day that Joy International was born, thirty-seven years ago.

As far as me being barefoot….   I’m not going to share the whole story.  You talk about an ‘instead’ life, well, instead of being nice and comfortable and wearing nice warm socks in the winter or shoes going through the snow….   Yes, I walk in the snow barefoot.  Weather doesn’t play a part.  I have not had a sock on either foot in 2,708 days, and yes, I’m counting.  I’m hoping and praying that one day God will say, “Okay, you can put them on again.”  I hate being barefoot.  People think I like being barefoot after seven-and-a-half years.  I hate it!  I would give anything for God to tell me, “Okay, it’s time.”  But until he does….   People think I have a disease from walking around in third-world countries barefoot, especially after my last health issues with my right leg.  I don’t think God has called me to experience that {a disease}.  As long as my being barefoot will motivate people to action in a way that will help us rescue more girls……

Our organization, Joy International, rescues children from brothels.  We have rescued children as young as four years old.  There is no worse crime, there is no worse evil perpetrated against a child than this.  These girls have to service 10-15, sometimes 20, men a day.  Every day.  Seven days a week, until they’re no longer desirable and they’re tossed in the street like trash, if they don’t die of disease or take their own lives because they can’t take it anymore.

My ‘instead’ life started the day called me into ministry instead of being a millionaire.  He told me to win millions to him, millions of souls.  We’re getting there.  Somewhere between 300,000-400,000 since I went into the ministry.  Instead of a life of comfort, God asked me to live humbly, being totally barefoot.  I don’t know why.  I do know that when God asks you to do something you have to say yes or no.  There is no maybe.  Maybe is ‘no’ until it becomes a ‘yes.’

I never realized how my being barefoot affected other people as well.  I remember six weeks ago when I was in Cambodia…..   I have teams now of highly-skilled, trained men that train Special Forces, including military.  I have two former members of Israeli Special Forces that are going with me (in four weeks) back to Cambodia to do training with the police with my Director of Global Police Training and Tactical Operations.  When I was there six weeks ago at the closing ceremony, we had trained twenty anti-trafficking police.  One of the eleven generals there at the ceremony came up to tell me how he was affected by my story.  I had shared with the all the trainees and others there, “You have seen me all week getting off the tuk-tuk barefoot, and I noticed you all laughing at me.  Many of you don’t know the story.”  So I shared my story at the closing ceremony.  General Pithei got up afterwards, in tears.  He said, “I have never respected a man more than this man for what he has chosen to do for our people.”  He went on, “Many of you don’t know, with the killing fields, that so many of our people had to escape into the jungles, including my parents.  They lived in the jungle, barefoot, for two years.  They had to leave their homes.  Millions with no shoes.  They had no choice.  This man has a choice and he does it to help out people.”  It overwhelmed me.

The Christmas holiday is upon us.  I love to celebrate the holidays with my wife and family, but in the back of my mind it’s always the girls.  It’s a nightmare for them!  Holidays are a nightmare for these girls.  Holidays like Christmas, and especially Valentine’s Day.  That’s when lonely, frustrated men take out their loneliness and frustration on the girls.  It’s a nightmare for them, until they’re set free, then they can really celebrate.

I worked for five years to put together a team that could train police (to rescue the girls).  I went undercover for many years.  It was incredibly risky.  If they caught us, they would either severely injure or kill us.  We would spend weeks collecting footage from the brothels and bring it to the police.  When we’d go the next day for a raid, everybody was gone!  There was so much corruption.  I said to God, “God, there has to be a better way.  I can’t believe you brought me this far to fail.”  That’s when he gave me the idea to train police.  They would be extremely vetted (to know that they’re not corrupt), and we finally put this team together in Cambodia.  The success that they’ve had is unbelievable.  Since we’ve started with this team, it’s been about 830 or 840 rescued children.  In a little less than 60 days, we’ve had 30 rescues.  Of those rescued, we had 13 men that were being trafficked from Cambodia to Malaysia for forced labor.

The work isn’t over.  Once the girls are rescued more hard work begins.  Instead of the life they had, they have an opportunity for new life.  The last night I was in Cambodia, we had a raid happen and had six girls rescued, three of them only fourteen years old.  We always have a prosecutor and two female social workers with us when we rescue, because those girls are deathly afraid of men.  Even police.  So many corrupt police will act like they’re rescuing them and then sell them to a brothel that’s even worse, where the beatings are worse.  We had a prosecutor making the arrest and it was so wonderful seeing the woman brothel owner being arrested and taken away.  The life expectancy of these girls is five to seven years before they’re no longer desirable.

Our fight and work continues every day.  I recently learned of a new nightmare.  General Pithei shared a new thing happening all across Southeast Asia and China with organ harvesting of young children.  There’s another group called breeders.  They want the pregnant girls in the brothels to have the babies.  They’ll actually train the babies to service and satisfy men from infancy, so that when they’re older they won’t feel as though they’re doing anything wrong.  It’s a nightmare, what’s happening in our world today, especially to children.

So what’s God’s answer?  I know I’m one of them.  WE are!  We’re the answer.  Instead of hands that cause hurt and pain, these girls want arms that can embrace them tenderly.  To show them that they’re safe and cared for.  That can happen with you.  We bring teams overseas to hug these girls, especially you women.  Instead of vile evil men using these girls for repulsive, degrading acts, God created her with lips—not to perform degrading acts—but to sing praises, and to worship and glorify Him with their mouths.  Instead of a life of sorrow, I want to see these girls have praise.  Instead of defeat, victory.  Instead of shame, joy.  I’m a five-fold ministry and want to see everyone saved.  I don’t know how people cannot accept Jesus when they find out who He is and what He can mean in their lives.

When a girl is rescued, you would think she is ecstatic.  She is terrified!  Absolutely terrified!  Shaking!  Screaming!  Crying as they’re being carried out.  When they get to a safe house where other girls have already been rescued and the girls surround them, the other girls say, “You don’t have to be scared no more!  They going to love you here.”  You talk about instead of sorrow….praise.  “They will love you here.  You don’t have to do those bad things anymore.”  The look on the rescued girl’s face when she realizes her nightmare is over is JOY!  I can’t begin to tell you how I feel to know I play a part in that.  And those of you who give to Joy International also play a part in that!

The end result that I look for in the lives of every single one of these girls, without question, is salvation.  I want to see them enter into a relationship with the Lord.  And when they do…..the joy that they have as they sing praises and worship Him.  {A video showing the children praising the Lord, singing worship songs, is shown with comments by Dr. Brodsky voiced over.}  This is the end result I look for in the life of every girl after she’s rescued.  You’ll notice that some of the girls (and boys) here are very young.  When I go to one of these worship events, I’m overwhelmed when I think of the ‘instead’ life now instead of what they were doing with their bodies.  To see their bodies in praise and worship to the Lord…..oh my!   There’s no greater sound than hearing children singing praises to the Lord, but there is another sound I enjoy hearing and the sound you should hear from a child.  {Video shows children laughing and playing games and just being kids!}  This is one of our team members in one of the villages where we minister.  We bring bags of rice for the families.  We bring shoes.

How can South Fellowship minister to the least of these?  How can South Fellowship bring good news to the afflicted?  Bind up the brokenhearted, proclaim liberty to captives, and bring freedom to prisoners?  By joining forces with me as you have.  Sending me and my Special Forces team to……not just Cambodia.  We’re doing this training all over the world.  When we come back from Cambodia, I’m going to Minnesota to do a training at the airport there for the police.  Not everyone is called to go, but everyone is called to give.  There are many ways you can do that.  The upcoming training trip to Cambodia will cost $7500.

What greater gift can you give this Christmas than the gift of freedom?  Once these girls are free that’s when they’ll experience a life of joy instead of shame, victory instead of defeat, and praise instead of sorrow.  Instead of captivity, they pray for rescue.  Instead of slavery, they dream of freedom.  YOU can be the answer to their prayers.  Thank you so much, pastor.

{Pastor Ryan returns to front.}  We’re going to close our time together.  We serve an ‘instead’ God, don’t we?  This is an ‘instead’ holiday.  Instead of just soaking in the glory of heaven, Jesus cloths himself in flesh, in humanity, and steps into your world and mine.  The same thing that Jeff does for these kids all across the globe is what we celebrate on Christmas.  It’s a rescue mission.  It’s an invitation back into the life that God has for us.  I would love for you to leave this place convinced that (1) God wants to bring you freedom from whatever you’re walking through.  Second, that you would be convinced that He’s empowered you to be someone who speaks freedom into the lives of others, whether it’s in your home, in your neighborhood, in your workplaces, in your family over this holiday season, that He’s an ‘instead’ God and He has an ‘instead’ message to speak through you.  Maybe you invite someone to come with you on Christmas Eve.  Or, you reach out to someone in your area of influence, but man, he’s an ‘instead’ God and it’s an ‘instead’ message and you’re one of his carriers.  Let’s pray.

Father, today, every person in this room is in a different spot.  Lord, I know there’s some people here today and they walk in with chains, and they walk in with baggage, and you have a word of freedom for them today.  Lord, I pray, even right now, by the power of your Spirit, you would minister.  That you would break chains.  Where there’s defeat, you would lead to victory.  Where there’s sorrow, Lord, you’d bring us to joy.  Where there’s shame, you would lead us to praise, please.  Lord, we lift up Jeff to you and we’re grateful for the ministry that you’ve called him to and our partnership with him, and Lord, I pray that you would continue to use his life for the joy of many, for the freedom of many, and that as we as a church partner with him, that we would get a taste of some of the excitement that those girls have in singing their praise to you.  Lord, we thank you for that word this morning.  You’re an ‘instead’ God and we’re your ‘instead’ people and we praise you in the name of Jesus.  And all God’s people said……Amen.

Advent | Instead | Isaiah 61:1-11 | Week 32024-06-12T16:26:10-06:00

Advent | Comfort | Isaiah 40:1-11 | Week 2

ADVENT: Comfort   Isaiah 40:1-11                                            (1st Service)

Turn with me to Isaiah 40.  We’re journeying with the prophet Isaiah as he points us to the coming Christ, in this Advent season.  We’re using lectionary passages, passages the church universal has decided on, in a given year, to lead us to the birth of Christ.  This Sunday’s passage is Isaiah 40:1-11.

As I was reviewing it on the plane back this week, I had an experience come back to mind.  I was a backpacking guide throughout my college years.  One night we were in the wilderness outside of Crested Butte.  There were high schoolers packed in next to me in our fly.  There was a sound out in the field.  It was a sound that could only be described as heinous and death!  If you’ve been in the wilderness at all, you know you hear everything.  There’s some things you don’t want to hear and that was one of those things.  I was lying there, packed in like a sardine and I hear a mauling going on in the field near me.  I snuck deeper in my sleeping bag, trying to give the aura of confidence to the high schoolers who were with me.  As I slid my feet down to the bottom of my bag, I encountered a little plastic bag that I had slid in there, and it had beef jerky in it.  I’m like, “I’m about to be the beef jerky!”  I said to everyone in my tent, “Hey, guys, good news-bad news.  Good news is you’re going to get a snack.  Bad news is you might be a snack if you don’t eat it quickly.  Hurry!”  I gave out the beef jerky because I did not want to get mauled by whatever I heard earlier.

Wilderness can be a scary place, can’t it?  If you spend much time out there, you know that you’re at the mercy of the weather, you’re at the mercy of the wild, you’re at the mercy of the animals, and that can be a nerve-wracking place.  The Israelites knew a little about wilderness themselves.  They knew about the wilderness of being slaves in Egypt.  They did that wilderness for 400 years.  After they got out of that wilderness, they crossed through the Red Sea and wandered around in the wilderness for another 40 years.  It was during that season of wandering that the Israelites were solidified as a nation.  It was in that wilderness wandering that they grew to trust God, they grew to know God, and they were given the commands of God, solidifying them as a people and a nation.

God gave them two primary commandments.  He gave them a lot of commandments, but you could summarize them in two categories.  One was that they would be a people epitomized by love.  That they would love God and that they would love others.  The second was that they would be a people of justice.  All throughout the Old Testament, they are reminded you came out of slavery, remember what it’s like to be on the bottom.  And they didn’t.  They didn’t remember.  So, even in the season of judges and the season of kings, there’s this slow drift that starts to happen to the nation of Israel until God finally says, “This isn’t what I had in mind for you.”  You were suppose to be a people of love and justice, and you’re a people of idolatry and injustice and I just can’t have it anymore.  So God sends the Babylonians in 586 to completely destroy Israel.  They’re taken off into exile…another wilderness.  It’s in that exile that Isaiah looks forward to.

There’s a lot of debate about the book of Isaiah — when it was written and whether it’s Isaiah standing in exile or Isaiah looking forward to exile.  Isaiah 40 is a passage written to people in a wilderness.  In order to really understand what Isaiah 40 is saying, you need to understand the heart of a wilderness wanderer.  Maybe the best place we see that is in the book of Lamentations.  The prophet Jeremiah says in Lamentations 1:2, looking at Israel in ruins, personifying Jerusalem to have a voice for herself — She weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks; among all her lovers she has none to comfort her.  (Verse 16) For these things I weep; my eyes flow with tears; for a comforter is far from me……Zion stretches out her hands, but there is none to comfort her.  You sort of get the sense that the wilderness stirs up in Israel this longing for comfort.  It’s like a picture of a child throwing a temper tantrum or just having an absolute breakdown.  If you’re a parent, you’ve seen that — DAILY — where it almost feels like your kids are unconsolable, thrashing about.  This is Israel.  Is there anyone to comfort?  Is there anyone who hears?  Is there anyone coming to our aid?

Comfort could be defined as relational, coming alongside of to fortify.  To strengthen.  To build up.  To point to a better day and to put an arm around someone.  As kids, we found comfort in all sorts of things, didn’t we?  Comfort in a blanket maybe.  Comfort in a parent’s embrace.  As adults, we find comfort in different things.  We have terms like ‘comfort food.’  We have comfy pants.  We have comfortable scenes that just seem to create a certain sense of aahhhh!  But then there’s also moments where we can relate to the Israelites lament.  Is there anyone to comfort?  Is there anything that could be a healing balm over this pain?

We experience the wilderness in all sorts of situations.  Maybe it’s a circumstance that you’re walking through right now.  You’re going, “I don’t know how this situation is ever going to work itself out.”  Is there any comforter for this abuse that I’ve walked through?  Is there any comfort for this job that I’m looking for that just seems so illusive?  Maybe it’s a relational comfort that we’re crying out for?  Let’s be honest, Christmas is a time where families get together.  For some of you that’s really exciting.  For some of you, you’re going, “My eyes weep! My eyes overflow with tears for comfort is far from me!”  Right?  Maybe it’s relational and there’s a seed of bitterness you just can’t seem to stamp out.  Is there any comfort?  Maybe it’s spiritually.  You’re just in a wilderness and you feel like you’re wandering, and God seems distant and he seems like his ears are plugged. He feels far away. The Bible seems dry and your prayer life is parched and you’re going, “God, I don’t get it.  Where are you?”  I love reading Jeremiah’s cry in Lamentations — Is there any comfort?  It’s a common lament of humanity.  You’ve cried it and I’ve cried it.  It’s part of our universal language because we live in a world that’s broken.  Is there any comfort?

It’s in THAT situation that Isaiah begins to write in Isaiah 40.  Isaiah could be termed a ‘mini Bible,’ of sorts.  There are 66 books in the Bible and 66 chapters in Isaiah.  There are 39 books in the Old Testament and 27 in the New Testament.  If you were to look at the entire book of Isaiah, here’s the way you could divide it.  You could divide it between chapters 39 and 40.  One through thirty-nine is Isaiah talking about exile, saying, “We got to repent, you guys, we’ve got to turn back to God.  We’ve wandered away and God is going to come and he’s going to lead us back to him and it’s not going to be pretty, so let’s just go ourselves.”  Chapters 40-66 is Isaiah envisioning not only their place in exile, but the God who shows up in exile.

If we could read the Lamentations passage together and then read right into Isaiah 40, I think you get the picture of what Isaiah’s saying.  Lamentations 1:16-17 read like this:  For these things I weep; my eyes flow with tears; for a comforter is far from me, one to revive my spirit; my children are desolate, for the enemy has prevailed.  Zion stretches out her hands, but there is none to comfort her; the Lord has commanded against Jacob that his neighbors should be his foes; Jerusalem has become a filthy thing among them.   There’s none to comfort her.  Isaiah 40:1-4 — Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.  Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.  A voice cries:  In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.  Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.  And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.   Is there any comfort?  Comfort, comfort my people says your God.

In 1741, one of the greatest Christmas pieces ever written, George Frideric Handel begins his oratorio Messiah with these words, “Comfort.  Comfort is coming.”  Comfort is on the way.  Your God is coming.  Your God is on the move.  Can you imagine for Israel standing in exile how hard that would have been to believe?  Oftentimes we read the Bible, but we don’t put ourselves in the place of the people receiving it.   We do ourselves a disservice because we start to think that this is just some pie-in-the-sky type of comfort.  No, this is a wilderness wandering type of a comfort.  This is the comfort that says to the people of Israel, “You don’t need to leave the wilderness to encounter comfort.”  You don’t need to leave the wilderness to meet your God.  Your God is making a highway that’s coming to you, not to just take you out of the wilderness, but to meet you in it.  That’s the power of this passage.  Comfort is coming and it’s coming IN your wilderness.  It’s not just taking you out of it, it’s meeting you in it.

So, the voice says, “Prepare the way.”  Flip over to Mark 1:1-3.  Mark’s the very first gospel, chronologically, that was written.  Mark begins his gospel account by saying this:  The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  As it is written in Isaiah the prophet, “Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way, the voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.'”    Does that sound familiar to anyone?  It should, because what Mark is doing—-this is probably Peter who’s writing through Mark—is saying “Something new is going on.”  There’s a new promise that’s being fulfilled and it’s happening in our midst.

If you’ve ever watched a movie about Jesus, it probably had John the Baptist in it.  My guess is he’s one of your favorite characters, right?  Because he’s got this crazy hair, a coat made of camel skin, he’s eating bugs and honey.  Right?  They get John the Baptizer right in the movies because you go, “Oh, he’s a lunatic!”  And he was!  He’s doing what the prophets often did….he’s acting out what he’s saying.  He doesn’t go to the civic center of Jerusalem and say that God’s coming.  No, no, no.  He goes out to the wilderness.  Outside of the city, where the land is barren, where the water is sparse, and where the ground is dry, and he says, “Prepare!  Get ready!”  You don’t have to leave the wilderness to encounter your God.  He builds a highway to meet you there.  In all the dryness.  In all the desolation.  In the barrenness, and the pain, and the failure, and the regret…..God comes!  Here’s what Advent reminds us of:  God uses the barren wilderness to birth beautiful life.

Please look up at me.  We need to get this this Christmas season.  You don’t need to leave the wilderness to encounter God.  It might be the very place that he’s put you so that you can actually hear his voice.  So Isaiah says, not, “Leave Babylonian/Persian exile so that you can meet God.”  He says no, no, no, no, no, there’s a highway being built and God is coming to meet you there!  Everybody’s going to see it and every valley shall be raised up and every mountain will be made low.  But if we don’t expect and we don’t prepare to meet God in the barren wilderness, we might miss him.  So the prophet says, “Prepare!”  Stir your heart, anticipate.  Like kids on Christmas Eve night.  Putting out milk and cookies to welcome Santa to their house.  Prepare.  Get ready!  Get ready in your dryness, get ready in your despair, get ready in your barrenness, in the wilderness.  Get ready to encounter your God.  In Littleton, prepare.  In Denver, prepare.  They’re preparing in Cote d’Ivoire because God is coming.

If you read through the prophet-poet Isaiah’s voice here, you don’t see God saying listen, just endure it.  Quit your whining.  This is what you deserve.  May I remind you that you are here because of your covenantal unfaithfulness and disobedience, so get over it!  Would that have been true if he would have said that?  Yes!  But it would not have been gospel.  He comes and he preaches gospel.  Isaiah 40:9 — Go on up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good news.  {In the Greek translation of the Old Testament, called the Septuagint, this is the first place we read the word ‘euangelion,’ which is Greek for ‘gospel.’}  …lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good news; lift it up, fear not; say to the cities of Judah, “Behold your God!   Behold, your God is coming and He’s meeting you in the wilderness.  Friends, if we avoid the wilderness, we avoid one of God’s greatest workshops in our life.

Over the course of this week, over plane flights and down time, I had a chance to read a book entitled Where Breath Becomes Air.   Great book.  It’s about this neurosurgeon who has as many accolades as you could possibly acquire.  Stanford trained.  At the top of his game and at the top of his profession.  His name is Paul Kalanithi.  He was diagnosed with a lung cancer that moved into his brain.  After a number of attempts of staving off the cancer, it eventually took his life.   He knew the end was coming and started to write this book.  He started to search for meaning, because when you’re in the wilderness some of the old ways of walking just don’t work anymore.  {Anybody want to say amen?}  He started to think that there had to be more to this life.  In this real poignant part of this book, he writes a letter to his young daughter named Lucy.  He wants to give her a message:  “The message is simple:  When you come to one of the many moments in life when you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world, do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man’s days with a sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more, but rests, satisfied.  In this time, right now, that is an enormous thing.”  For a man who was at the top of his class and the top of, what many of us would say is, the human ascent, he goes, “It doesn’t matter.”  Here’s what matters:  Love.  Relationships.  Family.  That’s what matters.  He gets the picture of the reality.  You know this, and I’ve seen it to, that God often births beautiful life in barren wilderness.  He did it there and my prayer is that he’d do it in us.

For the next few moments, I’d like to preach good news into your spiritual deserts, into your wilderness wanderings, because my conviction is that your next breakthrough, spiritually, will not come on a mountain top but will come in a dark valley.  That will be the catalyst for what God does next in your life, moving your forward.  That it will be the word of comfort that comes in the barren, darkness that actually propels you forward.  You may ask, “How does that happen?”  That’s what the prophet Isaiah talks about in Isaiah 40:6-7 — A voice says, “Cry!”  And I said, “What shall I cry?”  {Don’t you love this banter?  It’s like we get this insight into what Isaiah and God’s relationship is like.}  All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field.  The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the Lord blows on it; surely the people are grass.  It says it a little bit different in the NET translation:  All people are like grass and all their promises are like the flowers in the field.  Isaiah is writing that one of the things the wilderness reminds us of is that we’re inconsistent.  That we come up short.  That we’re often unfaithful in our word.  A pastor friend of mine tweeted out this week that advent reminds us not that we are faithful in our waiting, but that God is faithful in his coming.  That’s what Isaiah’s remembering.  Oh man, I’ve messed this up more times than I can remember and so have my friends. Here’s what happens in the wilderness:  We’re stripped of our sufficiency and forced into dependency.  You can circle the word ‘forced,’ because oftentimes, if you’re anything like me, we need to be forced into dependency, we don’t go there on our own.

I would argue that this is the point, and the power, of the wilderness.  As if we throw our hands up in the air and go, “I don’t know what else I can do here.”  I’ve tried everything I can for the Israelites…..Jerusalem, our crown city, lies in ruins and we’re under the thumb of the Babylonians.  We’ve got nothing left to offer.  God goes, “Aahhh!  Perfect!  I’ve got you exactly where I want you.”  The wilderness pushes back against our rugged, Western individualism and reminds us that we cannot do this on our own.  Self-sufficiency dies in the wilderness.  That’s the power of the wilderness.   I love the way the prophet Hosea writes it, recording the words of God and why God takes his people into exile.  Therefore, behold, I will allure her,  {This is ironic language because the way He does this is through the hands of the Babylonians.  Not exactly with tenderness, but listen to what his goal is.}  …and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her. (Hosea 2:14)    As if to say, maybe, just maybe, in the wilderness the voices will be quieted, the pride will be softened, and the ears opened.  Maybe, just maybe, we’ll be able to hear differently in the wilderness than we could in the loud, boisterous, sufficient city that they used to live in.

It may be the very reason that from a very early stage in the Christian tradition, the first few centuries, there would be a monastic movement of what we would call the Desert Fathers and Desert Mothers.  They would journey into the wilderness in order to hear the voice of God.  Aaron and I had the opportunity, on a long layover in Paris, to stand in Notre Dame.  This great gothic cathedral in Paris.  Then we ran over to this church at Sacred Heart and had a similar experience of looking up at the vast ceiling.  The architecture and the art.  Sensing this holy awe that it stirs in you.  Before there was ever a Notre Dame or Sacred Heart, there were people who said we want to hear the voice of God, so we’re going to the desert.  To the middle of nowhere.  Here’s the power of the wilderness wandering for you and for me.  It’s that the sufficiency that we have in ourselves doesn’t work anymore.  It falls flat.  We need to lean on the journey of others.

If you’re in the wilderness, can I give you encouragement this morning?  There are wells that other people have drilled and walked through the same road that you’re walking through that are available to you.  It’s part of the beautiful tradition of being followers of Christ.  You can grab a Common Book of Prayer and read through some of these liturgies.  They’re wells that you didn’t dig, but there’s water that’s available for you.  We get the chance to lean on people who have walked this road before us going, “Listen, we can’t do this on our own, and actually, God, we need you to show up.”  In the wilderness in Egypt in ancient times, there were people that would wander all around on trade routes and they would mark the wells by putting little cairns along the way, stacks of rocks to encourage you to keep going, there’s water coming up. I just want to say to you, if you’re in the wilderness today, keep going!  Lean on the journey that others have taken before you.  Trust the words of the Apostle Paul that when we’re weak, we’re strong.  Even if you don’t feel faith, you can choose it.  Sometimes you have to in the wilderness.  {Anybody want to say amen?}

Isaiah and his people are being stripped down and ironically, they’re being put in the place that they have the most power.  Dependent.  Dependent on God.  Here’s the way the passage continues.  Go on up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good news; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good news; lift it up, fear not; say to the cities of Judah, “Behold your God!”  {Or, hey, look up at me!}  Behold, the Lord God comes with might…(Isaiah 40:9-10)  He’s coming in the wilderness!  Behold, behold, behold…   Here’s what the prophet’s reminding us of:  The wilderness has power to transform because it’s often in the wilderness that we reach out for a comforter because nothing is comfortable.  There’s something about being human where we won’t reach out for a comforter if everything’s comfortable.  We’ll settle for the temporary trinket-type of comfort. But when all that’s stripped away, that’s when we start to reach out, that’s when we start to connect with God.  I love the way the great pastor, Eugene Peterson, put it when he said:  “We all need comfort because we are separated from our origins in God and our future in Christ.”   We need comfort because sin separates us from the Author of Life, so Isaiah writes reach out, behold your God!  Take him in.

Mary, the mother of Jesus, is a great example of this.  Luke 2:18-19 records this about Mary.   The angels declare the greatness and the goodness of God.  Peace to him on whom his favor rests.  And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them.  {They were amazed and thrown off a little bit.  What’s happening?}  But Mary… {The conjunction ‘but’ separates Mary’s response from everybody else’s.  Everybody wonders, everybody marvels, everybody goes, “That’s crazy, amazing, but good!”  But Mary….}  ….treasured…  It literally means to gather up all the pieces of the story.  She treasured it and pondered them in her heart.  She gathered them up and then she intentionally dwelled on them.  She beheld her God.

The wilderness causes us to reach out for a comforter because nothing is comfortable.  I just want to encourage you this Christmas season…..Behold your God!  Don’t just marvel.  It is marvelous.  It’s glorious.  It’s shockingly beautiful!  But don’t leave it there.  Treasure it.  Pull it together and ponder it.  Look on it intently.  Whatever we behold we eventually become.  It’s no coincidence that Isaiah says ‘behold your God,’ and ‘herald good news’ all in the same passage.  Because whatever we behold we tweet about.  We talk about.  You don’t need to be around each other too long to know what we behold, because it naturally comes out of us.  Whatever we behold we eventually become, and whatever we behold we eventually proclaim.  It was true of Mary.  It’s true of Isaiah, and it will be true of you.  {Look up at me for a moment.}   Please, please, please, please, please, don’t let Advent pass you by without reaching out and beholding your Comforter.  He’s coming!  Will you take the time to behold?

A number of the elders have been inspired this season.  In light of the way Advent started…..a group of monks journeying out to the wilderness to fast for the forty days leading up to Christmas, a number of the elders are going to take one day a week during the Advent season and fast and ask God to show His face in a different way.  Would you want to join us?  Pick a day and intentionally say, “I just want to behold.”  Maybe it’s every day during this Advent season that you go on a walk around your neighborhood and you behold the beauty that’s around you and you just say, “God, in every step I take, I want to remember the story that you clothed yourself in humanity and stepped into your story to redeem an obstinate people.  Remind me of it again, Lord.”  Or maybe you grab one of the devotions we have and you journey with us in this Advent season.  Whatever you do, would you intentionally behold?  Because your God is coming.

Isaiah finally says here’s the power of the wilderness and here’s what we start to see (verses10-11) — Behold, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; behold, his reward is with him, and his recompense before him.  {It’s this picture of God as a general of an army, who’s just going in, powerful, strong, and ready to take names.}  He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.  We’re suppose to read that and go…..well, these two pictures don’t usually go together.  Certainly, in an ancient world, they did not.  Rulers ruled with an iron fist and there’s a practical reason they did this.  They got killed if they didn’t.  If you’re a weak ruler, you got run over or run through, or maybe both.  Isaiah says no, no, no, when our God comes, when he comes with comfort, when he comes with that healing balm, when he comes, he comes with both might and he comes gently, he comes with mercy.  As the prophet Micah, when foretelling the coming of the Christ, said:  He’s both the ruler and the shepherd. (Micah 5:2)

I think it’s when we’re in the wilderness that we start to see this sort of dual dimension of God.  That he’s strong….and that he’s tender.  He’s the ruler and he’s the shepherd.  In the wilderness we need him to be both, don’t we?  Because if he’s just strong and not good, it doesn’t do us any good, and if he’s just good and not strong, it doesn’t do anybody any good.  But in the wilderness, we see the dual dimension of God.  He comes alongside of us, like a shepherd, to tenderly care for us, AND he’s strong and he transforms us.  That’s the power and that’s the reason that barren wilderness often births beautiful life.  We encounter a God of both mercy and might.

There’s this verse that we haven’t read yet.  It’s Isaiah 40:8 – The grass {Isaiah has already defined it in verse 6 as us, as humanity, as flesh.} …withers, the flower fades,  {It’s this picture of humanity being unfaithful, inconsistent, and unwilling to journey with God, oftentimes.  It’s the reason that in the wilderness the grass withers and the flower fades.}  …but the word of our God will stand forever.   Flesh is inconsistent, but our God is faithful.  Flesh is mortal, but our God is immortal.  What might happen if we were able to combine these two things?  What if the word became flesh?  What if all of the faithfulness of God was embodied in fleshly humanity?  What if God could step in, in all of his perfection and immortality, and clothe himself in mortality and, in the failure of the first Adam, step into life as the second Adam and become a flesh that’s faithful??  Well, here’s what we’d have……Christmas!  We’d have incarnation!  We would have hope.  We would have peace.  We would have joy.  We would have love.  We would have the Comforter.  Because as John 1:14 says:  And the Word became flesh and moved into the neighborhood.   Therefore, it’s safe to cry out because at Christmas comfort became incarnate.  His name is Jesus.  In all of your wilderness wanderings, in all of your shortcomings, in all of your failure, He loves to meet you there at Christmas.  It’s the virgin’s wilderness womb that gives birth to eternal life.

Friends, this is the gospel.  This is good news.  This is the reason it’s safe to cry out.  Our hope is rooted in the assurance that God pays personal, tender, and powerful attention to us.  What wilderness do you need him to meet you in?  What comfort are you crying out for?  I have a word for you.  Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.  He’s speaking tenderly to you and inviting you to reach out, behold, rely on your strong, tender God.  The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.  Hope has an arm around us.  Comfort has a name and his name is Jesus.  Let’s pray.

God, I pray over my friends in this room today who are in a season of wilderness, or who are headed for one.  It seems like that’s the thing about wilderness, Father, is that we don’t need to look for it, it seems to find us.  Lord, you have a way of finding us there as well, and I pray that you would.  I pray that there would be people today who would cry out and say, “I’m dry.  I’m desperate.  I’m at my end.”  And that you would make a highway to meet them in that desert, in that wilderness, and that in the barren wilderness, you would birth beautiful life.  Praise you that your solid, faithful, eternal word took on mortal flesh in order to redeem people who are like grass and fading flowers.  Thank you.  We celebrate you this Christmas season, Jesus, giver of Life.  It’s in your name that we pray.  And all God’s people said……Amen.

Advent | Comfort | Isaiah 40:1-11 | Week 22024-06-12T16:26:17-06:00

Advent | Presence (sermon from Africa) | Isaiah 64: 1-9 | Week 1

{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.

Advent | Presence (sermon from Africa) | Isaiah 64: 1-9 | Week 12024-06-12T16:26:24-06:00
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