Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church
December 16, 2018
Third Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 35: 1-10 (CEB)
The desert and the dry land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom like the crocus. 2They will burst into bloom, and rejoice with joy and singing. They will receive the glory of Lebanon, the splendor of Carmel and Sharon. They will see the Lord’s glory, the splendor of our God.
3Strengthen the weak hands, and support the unsteady knees. 4Say to those who are panicking: “Be strong! Don’t fear! Here’s your God, coming with vengeance; with divine retribution God will come to save you.”
5Then the eyes of the blind will be opened, and the ears of the deaf will be cleared. 6Then the lame will leap like the deer, and the tongue of the speechless will sing. Waters will spring up in the desert, and streams in the wilderness. 7The burning sand will become a pool, and the thirsty ground, fountains of water. The jackals’ habitat, a pasture; grass will become reeds and rushes. 8A highway will be there. It will be called The Holy Way. The unclean won’t travel on it, but it will be for those walking on that way. Even fools won’t get lost on it; 9no lion will be there, and no predator will go up on it. None of these will be there; only the redeemed will walk on it. 10The Lord’s ransomed ones will return and enter Zion with singing, with everlasting joy upon their heads. Happiness and joy will overwhelm them; grief and groaning will flee away.
Several years ago, I was sitting in my church office a few weeks ahead of Christmas. I was working away on the computer when a phone call came through. When I answered the phone, a woman on the other end of the line asked if we did any kind of assistance for Christmas. Now, one of the things about being a church is that people are calling the church all the time needing help. And the simple fact of the matter is that it is impossible to help every single person that calls. With that in mind, I asked the woman what kind of assistance she needed. In a now quavering voice, the woman explained that she was a single mother trying to “do” Christmas for her children. She told me that she had called the police department, but because she lives outside the city limits, she does not qualify. I listened to the woman, keeping in mind the commitment the church had already made to provide gifts for several Angel Tree families. When she was done, I tried as gently as possible to tell her that the congregation was already committed to helping several families for Christmas and our little church just wasn’t in a position to take on any more at that time. On the other end of the phone, I heard the woman begin to cry, and then she hung up.
That phone call haunted me for months. I still wish I could take it back. I wish that I hadn’t been so concerned with what the church was already doing that I forgot what it is possible for a Christian community to do when someone is in need. The truth is, that little church could have helped another family; they could have found a way to make it work, I know they could. Ken and I could have helped her. But I didn’t even allow for that possibility. I made a mistake that could not be undone. That one phone call has shaped how I have handled many other requests for help in the years since, but that phone call also opened my eyes to another reality.
At first, I was simply struck by how sad it was that I had turned that woman away. But as time went on, I started thinking about how disappointing it was that she, in such a sad state, had to call churches to begin with. If our culture wasn’t so off-track about what Christmas is about, that woman never would have been so upset about having difficulties providing “Christmas” for her children. But she knew that if there weren’t toys under a tree for her children at Christmas-time, it would be devastating. She knew that her children would return to school after break only to be shown all the latest and greatest toys and gadgets that their friends got for Christmas. Then the kids would be sad, and upset, and angry that they didn’t get the same awesome toys as their friends. She was probably even worried that her children might feel resentment toward her for not giving them a “Christmas” as great as their friends had. So the mother cried; all because when it comes to Christmas, we tend to look for joy in all the wrong places.
This morning, we lit the candle of joy on the Advent wreath, and as we continue through the messages of the prophets who foretold the coming Messiah, we have here in Isaiah a picture of immense, universal joy. The problem these days, though, is that we have come to measure Christmas joy according to how high the stack of gifts is under the tree. Yet, the forced expectations of joy at this time of year often highlight what is wrong or missing in people’s lives, as it did with the young woman who called the church office that December day several years ago. She saw a stark contrast between the life of her family and the “cultural norm,” and as a result, she felt inadequate, isolated, depressed. Whether we acknowledge it or not, such isolation and depression is widely felt this time of year, and for a lot of different reasons. Some people, like that mother, are upset because they are unable to provide “Christmas” for their family. These feelings of inadequacy creep in. Then there are those who each holiday miss their loved ones; spouses, or children, or parents, who are no longer living. There are others whose loved ones are somewhere far away, perhaps serving in the military overseas. Maybe some feel the isolation of living in a new town with no friends or acquaintances, and no one to go home to on Christmas day; not even friends with whom to have a Christmas gathering. There are so many circumstances that can make it difficult for us to feel like Christmas is a joyful time of year.
But the thing is, the “Christmas joy” we expect from all people at this time of year is not real joy. Joy is not a surface-level happy; it is deeply seated in one’s character. You see, true joy may not always manifest itself in smiles and laughter, but rather in grace and assurance. Real joy might be described as knowing that something better exists and holding onto that which is better, even when times are rough. If we remember that Christmas is about God’s moment of incarnation, taking on flesh and living among us, might we not feel joy even when there are no presents under the tree? When we remember that because God in Christ Jesus came on Christmas day, our lives are filled with his love, might we not know joy even in the midst of longing for loved ones? When we remember that Christmas is about Jesus Christ coming to walk beside us, might we not know joy even when we sit alone during the Christmas season?
The promise of Christmas is that God is with us. The most wonderful thing about Christmas is that because of Jesus Christ, joy can prevail. And that is what Isaiah is reminding us of in this passage we heard this morning. He is writing to the Israelites in captivity. Exiled from Jerusalem and their promised land, God’s people are in a miserable state under Babylonian rule. Into this situation, Isaiah speaks a message of promise and hope to the captive children of Israel. God is going to free them from their oppression and open a road through the parched desert to the holy city of Jerusalem. The image of this redemption of God’s people is described by Isaiah as a desert springing to luxuriant life, free of ravenous beasts. The beautiful vision is meant to bring strength and hope. God is present with his people and will shortly reveal his saving might!
The parched land will be glad! The wilderness will blossom! The feeble will be strengthened! The blind will see and the deaf will hear! Where there was only misery, there will now be hope! Where there was only despair, there will now be joy! And that’s what we celebrate at Christmas as well. We may not be able to find joy in gifts or in the company we miss during the holiday season, but we can find joy in the Christ-child! We can find joy in the grace and love that is showered upon us because Christ was born on Christmas day! And that is true joy!
At the end of this passage, Isaiah describes the “Holy Way.” He says, “…a highway will be there. It will be called The Holy Way…it will be for those who walk on that way…no lion will be there, and no predator will go up on it. None of these will be there….” Does anyone know why some roads are called highways? It is because the road is elevated above the surrounding terrain. This makes the road visible, it makes travel easier, and it helps assure the survival of the highway. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t still bogs, or animals, or any number of other hindrances that could impede travel. But such a “high-way” transcends these things and makes it possible to travel past obstacles without any trouble.
The same is true of the “Holy Way” that Isaiah describes. Our lives are filled with things that leave us despairing. We miss our loved ones. We struggle in the face of unemployment. We are broken in the midst of divorce and changing relationships. We are mired by the pain of disease. But the “Holy Way” transcends these many challenges. It is a “high-way” that carries us through all the difficulties and straight to the true source of joy! And Jesus Christ has made this way possible! God in Christ Jesus who came among his people on that first Christmas so long ago; this is the great source of true Christmas joy!
Wherever we travel, God is present. What makes the Holy Way different is our intentional following of the path that Christ has set for us, keeping us in constant contact with God’s sustaining grace in the midst of our everyday struggles. God’s promise, suggested to us through Isaiah’s beautiful words, is that on the Holy Way we discover a joy that is deep; so deep that it renews our souls. Then, walking in holiness, we find a path to reunion with God.
This is what Christmas is really all about. Christmas is a celebration of the good news of God’s care for the people of God. Christmas is a celebration of Jesus Christ who came to make a path for us, a high-way leading to the Promised Land of God’s love. Even in the midst of loss, even in the midst of disease, even in the midst of failures and inadequacies, there is joy! For those who experience their lives as exile, those who pass through a wilderness, those who are weak or even disabled may shout for joy, because God will transform all things!