(Disclaimer: This is the sermon where I accidentally broke the pulpit. I had moved a small wooden lectern to the floor to be closer to the people rather than preach this week from their tall pulpit. Thank you, kind friends at First Baptist Church, Gloucester, for laughing with me at the absurdity. I’m grateful for generous and forgiving people.)
First Baptist Church, Gloucester
Advent 3: Sunday December 11, 2016
(sung) O come, O Wisdom from on high,
who ordered all things mightily;
to us the path of knowledge show
and teach us in thy ways to go.
Teach us in thy ways to go. Let us pray…
You know this: New England makes it as hard as possible to get from one place to another. I had to brave two rotaries just to get to your church this morning. And you on Cape Ann know just how hard it is psychologically sometimes to get “off island.” We have a fine variety of places in New England to get lost. You can get lost in the mountains, in the cities, in the suburbs where there are no road signs and in the country where there is no cell signal. You can get lost on the ocean, even! The New Hampshire Bureau of Fish and Game reports that someone needs to be rescued from the New Hampshire wilderness every 2.5 days. Unlike newer cities where the streets are organized with logic, our East Coast streets are designed by centuries old cow-paths and throwing spaghetti at a map.
On top of this, we are the worst drivers. Not just by reputation, but as documented by the AllState Insurance industry. In their 2016 report, of the 200 American cities with the worst drivers, Boston came in 200th, dead last. “Worcester followed in a close second—that is, 199th—while Springfield placed 196th. A Boston driver is 167.6 percent more likely to have an accident than the national average, with a new accident every 7.1 years.” We are a mess. We really can’t get there from here.
The people of Judah in Isaiah 35 are even worse off. They’ve lost “their temple, land, and sovereignty.” Everything that has oriented their sense of direction and purpose is gone. They are overwhelmed and they’re lost. The people are afraid, and they’re feeling far from God. In the passages of scripture right before this, the people are struggling mightily. But into their despair and confusion drops the poetry of Isaiah 35.
We read this poetry of Isaiah 35 on the third Sunday of Advent, the Sunday of Joy. After all the careful watching and waiting, we catch a glimmer of what might be possible when God breaks into human history. As we wait for Jesus to be born in Bethlehem, God retells the story of how God guided the people in every generation. Christmas is not the first time God led the people in the wilderness.
Wilderness meant something different to our ancient forbearers. There was no camping for fun, or thrill-seeking in the wilderness. For the Israelites, the wilderness was a place of danger, of testing, of utter dependence on God. There is nothing precious in the ancient wilderness. What awaits in the desert is peril.
But look at the vision of the wilderness in Isaiah 35! All Creation is transformed. The desert blooms, the water flows. Creation isn’t just restored, it’s alive. In verse 1, “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice.” God’s restoration is so thorough that even the landscape sings and praises God.
But for those of us who are lost, who fear the wilderness of the road ahead, who can’t see our way from here to there, we tend to treat God like AAA. We put in a call when we’re lost or we’ve had an accident, and we expect 24 hour road side assistance. We sing “Fix me, Jesus, Fix me” and cry out “Jesus, take the wheel.” The best we can hope for is a tow or a spare tire.
But the vision of Isaiah 35 is so much more. So very much more than a simple repair of a broken road. Instead, God transforms the entire structure.
[About here is where I broke the pulpit. The top kept sliding down, so I stepped on the foot to pull the top back up. The foot came off, the post fell forward, and my manuscript flew out of my hands. The people laughed and I made some lame analogies about how the life of faith is a practice of staying focused on what God’s up to even when things are falling apart… ]
Join me in looking at verse 8: “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.” Think of what this must have sounded like for the Israelites, so far from their home, their destination the temple destroyed, and here, Isaiah is promising a highway home. A highway for God’s people.
I spend a lot of time thinking about roads these days and a vision of zero fatalities. I ride my bicycle to get to my office, about 6.5 miles from my home. And it turns out, the roads are thick with human sinfulness. If you ever doubt human depravity, try Boston at rush hour when it’s raining. You’ll learn all kinds of new curse words. It turns out, humans are pretty awful on the road. We treat one another in ways that we never would if we weren’t encased in giant metal crates. The road is competitive, and almost intentionally violent. The road is where our worst latent prejudices become potentially fatal: a 2015 study from the University of Arizona and Portland State University found that black pedestrians “32 percent longer than white pedestrians to cross and were twice as likely to see multiple cars pass before one stopped.” Our implicit racial bias is so thorough-going that pedestrians of color are given less space to cross the street by potentially fatal cars! Our roads are sadly, dangerously often where we broken people work out some of our worst behaviors.
But here, in verse 8, God offers a different kind of road: “for God’s people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.” Isaiah sees a peaceable road, a road so calm and nonviolent and wide we can hardly imagine. Maybe it’s a bit like the Gloucester block party, when Main Street shut down to car traffic, and all threats subside, and the old ladies dance and the young children play and the music stretches into the cool summer night, without fear and where none are lost and everyone gets home. A road so safe and wise that “no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.” This Holy Highway carries all.
When God shows up, the salvation isn’t singular and personal, but communal and structural. God remakes the entire passage way for the people of God through the wilderness. This Holy Way is a HOV lane. We’re all on it together.
God doesn’t magically teleport us from the wilderness to the city of God. Instead, God promises to go with us, to clear a way, to create a protected Highway where we cannot get lost. The people of God are travelers. We are free to move, because we trust God’s provision. We make the road by walking.
We are not the same as the ancient people who were enslaved and in exile. But perhaps we too are feeling fear. We worry about what is ahead for our nation, for our church, for our grandkids. I know you worry about what’s ahead for this congregation. You too have been in some wilderness. And yet, as a regular meeting place for those seeking recovery, this church has been a way station in the wilderness of addiction. 365 days a year, people have met to find a way out of the wilderness. This church that has been home for so many of you. And, Isaiah reminds us our home is with God.
For as lost and fearful as we may be, Isaiah promises that there is no one so lost that God cannot invite back. No place so desolate that God cannot restore. No injustice so egregious that God cannot grant recompense. God’s Advent into human history in the person of Jesus Christ and into our lives means that there is a possibility for change, real change, big systemic and structural change, not just the changing of a flat tire, but the creation of a divine highway that gets us all the way home. This we believe: God comes into the world to save God’s people,
For you who have a fearful heart, there is a way in the wilderness. For you who feel lost, God creates the pathway where none get lost. For you whose legs are weary from walking, God “make(s) firm the feeble knees.” 4 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.”
The poet turns to the people and gives them a task: Verse 4 “say to those who are 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.”
The poet assigns these people, who are themselves hurting, the work of proclaiming the in breaking of God who turns the world upside down. Maybe that’s our task in the days ahead: to proclaim.
In Advent we are a people found.
(sung) “O come, O Key of David, come
and open wide our heavenly home.
Make safe for us the heavenward road
and bar the way to death’s abode.”