Isaiah 2 (The Mountain of the Lord): 3 Many peoples will come and say, "Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths." The law will go out from Zion, the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. 4 He will judge between nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. 5 Come, O house of Jacob, let us walk in the light of the LORD.
While we were keeping our 18-month old grandson the other day so his parents could catch up on their sleep with a weekend trip, my wife, Carolyn, and I were talking about this sermon. I had the idea but it lacked something. Carolyn had taken Benjamin, the grandson, upstairs for his nap. And about 15 minutes later, she came bursting into my study and said, "I've got it! Read this," and she thrust into my hand a copy of the book Oh, the Places You'll Go! by Dr. Seuss. As she was reading this book to Benjamin, she came upon these words:
The Waiting Place...for people just waiting.
Waiting for a train to go
or a bus to come, or a plane to go
or the mail to come,
or the rain to go
or the phone to ring, or the snow to snow
or waiting around for a Yes or No....
You know, it's Advent, and we are people, pregnant. Pregnant and waiting, and we long for the God/man to be born, and this waiting is hard. Our whole life is spent, one way or another, in waiting. Information puts us on hold and fills our waiting with thin, irritating music. Our order hasn't come yet. The elevator must be stuck. Our spouse is late. Will the snow ever melt, the rain ever stop, the paint ever dry? Will anyone ever understand? Will I ever change? Life is a series of hopes and waiting and half-fulfillments. With grace and increasing patience and understanding of this human condition of constantly unsatisfied desire, we wait on our uncompleted salvation. Advent invites us to understand with a new patience that very difficult state of being, Advent.
Advent is the waiting place. All of us have been called to spend more time than we want to in the waiting place. The children of Israel were caught there as slaves in Egypt for an impossible length of time. They were longing to be set free from Pharaoh's taskmasters. But their freedom would have meant nothing if they had not had the incubation of a long wait. Or fast forward to Moses leading them out of bondage. Instead of being able to go directly from Egypt to the Promised Land, they had to take a detour by the way of Sinai and a 40-year trek through the wilderness so they could be hammered into a nation that was strong enough, hearty enough, and hungry enough to overtake the land.
Now they wait again -- captives in Babylon, longing for the God of Sinai and the burning bush to tear open the heavens and come down. Three times in Isaiah 64 they demand God's presence to intervene again in history. Three times they acknowledge their failure and consequences. They confess their unclean condition and their garments being like filthy rags and that they will fade like a leaf. They finally realize that all strength is in God's hands and they are but clay, and they confess this in our text.
Creative waiting seems to be a part of the plan of God. Jacob waits in Laban's house for the right bride. Job and Habakkuk are no strangers to the waiting place. These two cry out desperately, wanting to know the mind of God in their own situation. The God who works for those who wait for him is almost directly opposite of the idea of God that is current in the late 20th century. We have seen God as some mountain to be explored or an argument to be understood -- something for us to control.
Only a few of us think of a believer as one who waits for God. In the Bible God takes the initiative at a time when it seems like we can only wait. We must wait as Israel waited in exile. It is like a mother carrying a child in her womb; she waits for the baby to be born. It is like parents waiting for a teenager to become an adult, or a child waiting for Christmas.
Ours is not a culture that wants to wait. We have been pushed ever faster in our desire to hurry up by the advances of technology.
But whatever technology has done to our culture, the ways of God have not changed. He still says to us, "Be still and know that I am God." Advent tells us to be still, to be sober, and to make ourselves quiet so that we can receive the truth, a truth that we have been culturally conditioned not to receive. Advent is the waiting place. It prepares us for God's greatest event.
Advent is like the hush in a theatre just before the curtain rises. It is like a hazy ring around the winter moon that means the coming of snow that will turn the night into silver. Advent means coming, and the promise of Advent is that what is coming is an unimaginable invasion. The mythology of our age has to do with flying saucers and invasions from outer space and the unimaginable enough. But what is upon us now is even more so -- a close encounter, not of the third kind, but of a different kind altogether. An invasion of holiness. That is what Advent is all about.
While in the waiting place, get quiet and receptive, like a child waiting to hear a bedtime story and the voice of his father. Hear again the story of the creation of the world, God's great garden, its destruction and his efforts to start over again. Hear the story build through the lives of the patriarchs, the kings, the prophets, then its explosion on a starry night in Bethlehem as God's new genesis begins. Through Mary and Joseph, a baby and a few shepherds, it all begins anew. When this rolls in upon us, we are seeing the waiting place as a place of incubation, a place of preparation before revelation and proclamation.
Waiting through a cold winter does not prevent the necessary activity preceding growth and development from occurring in the roots of trees and shrubs. Waiting through a pregnancy heightens the preparation for a child to be born. Gestation always precedes celebration. Everything worthwhile needs incubation. Nothing worthwhile comes without preparation. Nothing worthwhile can be born outside the waiting place.
"The greatest revelation is stillness," said Lao-Tse, and it is most often in the stillness that we become aware of the Holy Spirit and Jesus. It is in this engraced stillness of Advent that we, after the example of Mary, yield to being God-bearers in the world. In this stillness, we commit to being Christ's presence in the world, the flesh of faith, the unfolding of the incarnation.
God makes this plain: "They who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength" (Isaiah 40:31). "But when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son..." (Galations 4:4). In other words, we had to wait for God to get the world ready. Now, we wait for God to get us ready.
Thus, we need Advent to make ourselves ready for his coming. We need a season of soberness in a world of Christmas parties. We need Advent, the season of waiting, in a world that says go for it and hurry up. This waiting place called Advent not only prepares us for the birth of God in the flesh, it prepares each of us in our lives to receive him.
This place called Advent prepares us for God's surprise and joy, or as Dr. Seuss says in another place in that delightful book, the next place where we're going is where "boom bands are playing with banners flip-flapping." This is what it did for Nelson Mandela who spent 27 years - 10,000 days -- as a political prisoner in South Africa. During this waiting time, the revolution was shaping. Discontent with apartheid was brewing in the soul of a country. Twenty-seven years of waiting and wondering, 10,000 nights of loneliness and separation, 27 years of depravation and humiliation. But in that waiting place strength and focus, vision and determination were forged so that when the apartheid system fell, he emerged to preside over a free nation. "It was during those long and hungry years that my hunger for the freedom of my own people became a hunger for the freedom of all people, white and black. I knew as well as I knew anything that the oppressor must be liberated just as surely as the oppressed. When I walked out of prison, I knew my mission to liberate the oppressor and the oppressed, " he said.
The waiting place prepares us for the angel chorus announcing his birth. Without the waiting place, our hearts are not sensitive and our appetites are not ready. Welcome to God's waiting place. It is the necessary place of preparation. Christmas is God's response to the cry of our hearts. It is Jesus Christ, God's future, taking hold of our hearts--hearts that have confessed that they are falling leaves before the winter wind, hearts that are now ready to become molded like clay. This could not have happened without the waiting place.
The waiting place changes our eyes. Before the waiting place, Israel saw Babylon as their problem. But during the waiting place, they saw that they were the problem and Babylon was the setting.
The waiting place changes our hearts and confirms that we can do nothing but get ready. The initiative is in God's hands.
The waiting place confirms that someone somewhere loves us enough to make all things new, and this can begin with us. What we wait for determines how we wait. It determines life in the meantime.
While we wait, we live toward what we cannot begin to imagine. It's winter now; it's exile now; but what we expect on the other side, God's presence, his revelation, his salvation determines how we wait. The Christian in winter can wait for God to do what God has promised, knowing that nothing can ever tear us away from the love at work in our behalf. By waiting patiently and being open to the movement and processes of God, rather than stubbornly refusing his offer of spirit and vision, we hear the boom bands playing and become receptive to his gifts of himself. We are fully alive in the face of whatever life's situation we may find ourselves. ...No one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who acts on behalf of those who wait for him (Isaiah 64:4).
Henri Nouwen, from an article in Weavings entitled "Our Waiting," says that all action ends in passion because the response to our action is out of our hands. That is the mystery of work, the mystery of love, the mystery of friendship, the mystery of community--they always involve waiting. And that is the mystery of God's love. God is revealed in Jesus as the one who waits for our response. Precisely in that waiting, the intensity of God's love is revealed to us. If God forced us to love, we would not really love.
Will God come upon us in the power of holiness and find us unheeding, acting as if our salvation lies at the mall or in the catalogs or in the frantic face of holiday fever? Or will he come among us and find us actively waiting, open and present to the mystery of all mysteries? Will God find us "paying attention to Jesus," as John the Baptist mentioned, or to the hundreds of lesser lights that dim the reality of the coming light? Will we, in other words, be open to an Advent discipline that is truly preparatory, to experience what the Apostle Paul wrote: "For God, who said, 'Let light shine out of darkness,' made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ" (2 Corinthians 4:6)?
One wonders just where and how the hush in the theater before the curtain rises finds a place in our lives long enough to listen for the invasion of holiness. How and where does Advent in this sense of still waiting happen to us? How and where do we detach from, as Frederick Buechner says, "the mythology of our age"? How do we listen? How do we disengage from the invasion, from the worlds, long enough to see the hazy ring around the winter moon that means the coming snow that will turn the night into silver? Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the martyred Lutheran pastor, while imprisoned by the Nazis, wrote a letter before Christmas 1943, in which he said, "Life in a prison cell reminds me a great deal of Advent. One waits and hopes and putters around but in the end what we do is of little consequence. The door is shut, and it can only be opened from the outside."
We enter the reality Isaiah proclaimed. The glorious new creation is coming. The new heavens and the new earth are coming. "Jerusalem is a delight and its people a joy" (Isaiah 65:18b). God is faithful. The promise he made to our fathers, to Abraham and his children forever, is coming true. So stay awake. Be present. Move to the edge of your seat. The hidden is about to be made manifest. The ultimate exodus is unfolding.
This sermon is from Defining Moments, written by William L. Self, published 1999 by CSS Publishing Company, Lima, Ohio.
. Dr. Seuss, Oh, the Places You'll Go! (New York: Random House, 1990).
. Gertrud Mueller Nelson, To Dance with God (Paulist Press, 1986), p. 61-62, quoted from Synthesis, December 19, 1993.
. Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom (New York: Little Brown & Company, 1994), p. 64.
. Synthesis, December 23, 1993.