Saturday, December 14, 2013

The People You Meet on God's Highway

Isaiah 35:1-10
Advent 3
December 15, 2013
William G. Carter

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God. Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.”

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes. A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God’s people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray. No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there. And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

Isaiah continues to share his Advent dreams. Throughout the thick collection of poems and prophetic visions that bear his name, there are extraordinary texts that speak of what God is going to do. They hold out hope before us, like a Christmas cookie on a stick to keep us moving forward, pressing on toward the future that God prepares.

This famous poem from chapter 35 is widely known for its vision of nature. The wilderness will be glad, the dry desert will blossom. Streams of water will break forth in arid land. The area we call the Holy Land is largely desert. The land receives an average of twenty-one inches of rain each year, seventy-five percent of it during the four months from November to February. Blossoms do not come often and gushing springs are extremely rare.

The prophet dreams of water as a gift of God, causing the dry landscape to flourish and rejoice. He must have been thrilled on Friday, when a freak snow storm dumped a foot of white powder in Jerusalem. They rarely get any snow at all. I’m going to guess that they were rejoicing!

But what I noticed on this time through the poem is how well populated it is. Isaiah dreams of a road, a Holy Highway he calls it. On the road, there are all kinds of people. They are moving toward God’s House on Mount Zion. All of them are singing songs of comfort and joy.

I paused to listen to the lyrics. “Rejoice, rejoice, believers, and let your lights appear!” “Good Christian friends rejoice, with heart and soul and voice, give ye heed to what we say.” “People, look east, the time is near of the crowning of the year.” It is clear to me that something is at work in these Advent People. They have every reason to be weak and feeble and afraid. But instead they are strong and firm and courageous. Today I want to pay attention to them and discover what we can learn.

A good friend named Dennis was traveling just the other day. He writes about going downstairs to the hotel lobby, ready to put his suitcase in the car. He saw a woman walking a dog, and they stopped to chat. Her dog was a rescue, and Dennis shared that his dog, back upstairs in hotel room, was blind and deaf. He put his things in the car, and then returned inside to grab some breakfast. The lady was also there.

They chatted again. Where are you traveling? She was going to Charleston, he to Myrtle Beach. All of a sudden, he says, she starts pouring out her life story: a difficult divorce, a daughter who had attempted to take her own life, a bout with cancer. Dennis just listened. “I wasn’t in any hurry,” he said, “and she certainly needed to talk. So I listened.” He offered her a basic human courtesy.

When she finished her tale and took a breath, she looked at him to say thanks. “I want to give you a hug just for listening,” she said. He said, “Merry Christmas. God’s peace to you.” That was it. They got in their cars and went separate directions, in some sense, however, traveling the same highway. My friend wrote, “You never know what lies beneath the surface of the strangers we meet each day. Everybody has a story. Everybody needs God’s peace.” My friend Dennis – he’s an Advent Person.

Isaiah dreams of these people. As they travel toward home, they stand tall. They walk deliberately. They are not afraid to listen to somebody’s painful story, and they know there is great strength available from God.

I heard a story on the radio about veterans with “bad paper.” That is, some of the soldiers who served for our country were discharged quickly for getting into trouble. They avoided a court martial. Sadly many have been denied veterans’ benefits, including help for the post-traumatic stress that may have gotten them into trouble in the first place. Now some are homeless, or they can’t get the medication they need.

But there is a woman named Sharon in Hampton Roads, Virginia. She works for an organization that steps into the gap. It can be overwhelming, she says, because there are a hundred thousand such veterans in the past decade alone. But every one of them needs some help. So Sharon helps to provide transitional housing, job education, counseling, and medical assistance for former soldiers who can’t get any other help. She is an Advent Person, declaring, “Be strong, do not fear.”

There is a certain quality to Advent people, a particular look on their faces, a clear observation about their demeanor. Simply put, they know they are heading toward home, moving toward God. They do not settle for the way things are, but strain forward to what God wants them to be. They are on the road, they are pressing forward, and along the way, they are changed.

Sometimes it can appear on the surface to be a small change. A man was telling me about cleaning out his closet. He didn't realize how many sweaters he had and how many of them did not fit anymore. Too many Christmas cookies, I think. Well, he put them in a bag and brought them by the church to donate to the local shelter. But it was late, and the church door was locked, so he decided to just drop them off at the shelter when he went next into the city.

As he took his bundle into the shelter, he was stunned by how many people were there. "I never saw all that need, but now my eyes are opened. I have to do more for the people who are cold." He was blind, but now can see. He is an Advent Person, moving toward home.

Isaiah’s dream is well populated. He describes not a solitary spiritual experience but rather a communal description of the power of God at work in those who are moving toward home. There is a constructive difference in their lives. God's Spirit heals those who are most marginalized: the sightless, the deaf, the lame, the speechless, and the hopeless. Something happens in them as they move toward home. They are healed in the deepest of ways.

John the Baptist should have known about this. He knew Isaiah’s dream, he preached Isaiah’s hope. But he found himself in prison and slipped into apparent despair. It seems he had called out King Herod for sleeping around, and it got him an extended vacation in Herod’s dungeon. As he languishes in his prison cell, he hears about Jesus, and he wonders out loud, “Is this what a Messiah is supposed to be doing? Jesus, are you the one we're waiting for, or should we look for somebody else?”

Jesus doesn't swoop down from the sky like Superman and rescue him from the prison cell. That’s not what this Messiah does. Instead he calls attention to what can be seen: the sightless are seeing, the stone-deaf are listening, and those with aching hearts and broken joints are dancing. Can you see this, John? If so, you join them on their journey toward home.

What we are talking about today is a spiritual skill, the skill of holy perception. It is the skill of seeing God at work when the rest of the world sees only gloom and despair. Like any other skill, it must be developed and sharpened. The proud and the self-sufficient might miss it entirely, as they slip down the hill on their toboggan and chide those who can’t keep up.

But for those who discover God’s grace and healing even as they limp or as they hobble, they will be the first to declare how God comes to rescue and restore. Specifically in the person of Jesus, God slips in quietly to make holy things happen.

So let me tell you about Jimmy Greene. A year ago yesterday, a young man with guns got into the Sandy Hook School in Connecticut, and he killed Jimmy’s six-year-old daughter Ana Grace in her first grade classroom. She was a pretty girl with curls in her hair and a toothy smile. She loved to dance, preferring it to walking. Her favorite color was purple, Advent purple. The gunman ended her life, along with twenty-five others. Jimmy and his wife Nelba were stunned. This sort of thing is never supposed to happen, and the fact that it goes on, and keeps going on, is a terrible indictment of our destructive and broken human race.

But let me tell you about Jimmy Greene. He is a saxophonist, and plays all over the world with people like Harry Connick Jr.  He and his wife made the decision shortly after the shooting that they were going to get through it, and they were going to get through it together. They were going to focus on the joy that they had with her, until the days returned when they felt joy again.

The day before her death, for instance, Ana Grace knocked over the family Christmas crèche. The Baby Jesus was still shattered in pieces on the floor when the six-year-old got home from Sandy Hook School. Rather than yell or make a fuss, mom and dad scooped up Ana Grace and her brother, took them out to dinner, took pictures of one another on Dad’s phone, and ordered a second helping of dessert. Those memories, said her mom, are “what give me comfort and joy.”

Here is the motto of Jimmy Greene and his family: Love Wins. As people of Christian faith, that’s how they agree on how they will get through the tragedy, by affirming love wins. That’s how Jimmy and his wife have agreed that their greatest aim in life is to raise Ana Grace’s brother so that he will be able to love and receive love from others.

Oh, I haven’t told you the name of Ana Grace’s brother. It’s Isaiah.

Here is the family request marking the anniversary of their daughter’s death:

“When your kids get off the bus tomorrow, blast the music and invite them to dance with you. If you can’t dance, wiggle a toe. Sing while you dance, especially if you sing out of tune. Your children may be embarrassed or wonder what’s going on. They may even ask you to stop. That means you’re doing a good job! Just keep going. Then give them lots of cuddles replete with ‘I love yous’ for no other reason than because you can.”

A family loses a dear child, and how do they respond? By declaring as loudly as they can, love wins. God’s love will always win.

For this is the Advent promise of the Lord: “The ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

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