Isaiah 35:1-10 • James 5:7-10 • Matthew 11:2-11
I was 27 when we moved to Seattle. Chris and I had left every single person we were related to back in NC. We didn’t know anyone here. But we moved in September and it was gorgeous! North Carolina had been hot and humid when we left and we got here; there were beautiful blue skies and moderate temperatures…best of all there was no humidity. Our apartment had been this chaotic sea of packing boxes and awaiting us here was a brand new house. I could do this! September gave way to a pretty and mostly sunny October but then November and December came. I was used to a lot of sunlight and turning my headlights on to drive in the middle of the afternoon was surprising and it made me a little depressed. I didn’t know anyone here and there were two other people in my family…one was two years old and the other one worked all day. It felt a bit like an exile.
I imagine some of you know how this feels in the Seattle winter, like your energy is just drained by the constant grayness. I still remember the winter solstice that year. I had never seen a sunset listed in the paper as 4:40 pm…not that it was much of a sunset hidden behind dark gray clouds but the next day on December 22nd, it happened like it does, we gained slightly less than a minute of extra sunlight. It’s not real noticeable here is it? I imagine if you are one of those folks struggling with seasonal depression, forty or fifty seconds of light isn’t much to hold on to. And I wonder if it might make you feel like you are in an exile yourself.
This morning’s reading from Isaiah is about people dealing with life in the exile. They are being asked to trust in something they can’t really see or feel. They are being asked to trust in something that must have felt like a few seconds of extra sunlight with dark clouds in Babylon and God seeming far away.
They were exiled in a wilderness but this time the wilderness is described as blossoming and filled with life. The prophet is talking about rejoicing and claiming hope. Isn’t wilderness scary and dangerous? When you think of being exiled in the arid wilderness do you think of something life giving? It even says the wilderness shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice. This passage is talking about something new, about wilderness being not just a struggle but an opportunity to look for and claim hope but don’t you imagine that was hard for them? It would be for me.
In vv. 8 and 9, Isaiah says in the wilderness there is a highway and it leads to Zion, to safety in God. He is asking them to have hope even though what they hoped for was far from their present reality. They are being reminded that God hasn’t taken off on vacation but is also in the places of exile. Claiming and trusting God’s presence will give them the necessary courage to keep going even though the road is hard.
In May of 2009, almost 16 years after our move to Seattle, my husband Chris was diagnosed with Stage Four Colon Cancer. He was 45, I was 42, Emily was 18 and about to graduate high school and Eric was not quite 13. It goes without saying it was a devastating diagnosis. Over the next nine months our family went through treatments, surgery and sepsis, the last three weeks of which were in ICU with Chris on a ventilator until he died late in the evening of March 4, 2010.
I drove home from Swedish hours later with the kids. I remember the numbness, wanting to be a good mom, knowing how exhausted they were. I slept for a couple of hours and got up realizing there was nothing in the house to eat. There was much to be done, family would be coming, I had a funeral home to talk to and plans to make. So I went to Safeway. Now I had been going to the Fairwood Safeway for 16 years at that point, I knew that store and I knew the people there but suddenly, even in that familiar place, I was in exile. I still remember what line I was in…my cart was full. I remember that I was second in line and someone else was behind me and that I made eye contact with the person in front of me and she said, “Pretty day, isn’t it?” And I remember saying, “Yeh, it’s nice.” I wanted to scream at her truthfully, I wanted to say, “actually it sucks…truth is that I am exhausted, not sure what life holds for me now. I just lost my husband and the father of my children and the ample sunlight is really the least of my concerns.” I was in exile and just like the Israelites I was looking for hope even though what I was hoping for was far from my present reality and the road ahead looked pretty hard. It also occurred to me for the first time that day that I actually had no clue what exile might be in the hearts of those standing next to me in my daily life.
We all go through moments in life where we feel blind to hope, don’t we? Most of us know what it feels like when you don’t think your legs will hold you up much longer. The prophet is telling the Israelites and us today that despite how we feel or what our present circumstances tell us the eyes of the blind will be opened and the lame shall leap like a deer. That doesn’t mean it’s easy. Faith at those dark moments of exile can be hard for even the strongest of us. It can be hard to hold onto hope when our circumstances scream out otherwise.
I get so much of comfort out of John’s question in Matthew’s gospel this morning. This is John, the one who predicted Jesus. I mean this is John, the one who baptized Jesus and now he is asking if Jesus is the one? Jesus hadn’t changed, John’s circumstances had. He was in prison, in his own wilderness, in exile. And now John is asking “is he the one?” If John can have moments like that, then I’m allowed to have moments like that and we’re all allowed to have those questions.
But look what Matthew tells us about how Jesus answered John’s question…when John’s disciple shares the question with Jesus, Jesus says, “Go and tell John what you hear and see, the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear…” John’s place of exile was preventing him from seeing so Jesus tells his disciple, “YOU go and tell him what you hear and see.” The good news is that God is already there working but sometimes our circumstances foster doubts and questions that make it hard to hang on to hope.
When I came home from getting groceries that March, I went for a walk through the backyard. On Mother’s Day the year before Chris had planted two apple trees for my present. I hadn’t given them any notice all fall and winter. That day there were pretty little white blossoms all over them. It was an early spring that year and those tiny little apple trees were filled. It was like that extra minute of sunlight that first December, God was at work in those trees and in me even though I just couldn’t see it at the time and once again I found hope.
Every year we light these candles and we sing songs welcoming this little baby. And we reclaim God’s promise to us. God came into the world and is with us. In The Message, Eugene Peterson translates John 1:14 as “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.” I love that.
There are still going to be moments of exile. But that’s why we keep lighting these candles year after year, to proclaim the truth that God is here no matter what our circumstances are, that the Word became flesh and moved into the neighborhood with us. This little baby is going to grow up and be at work in the world in a new way. And hope comes in the blossoms that result from a winter of internal growing that we can’t see.
Maggie and I were in a meeting on Friday, she quoted a professor we’ve both had. “If it’s true, it won’t go away.” I love that. That’s how God’s presence is, it is truth and it won’t go away no matter what.
But we have to hold that truth for one another as people of God. One day a few weeks after Chris died, the doorbell rang, and it was Karen Lutz, bearing wine and chocolate. Those are excellent grief gifts, by the way. She handed me this bag on my front porch, she didn’t try to have a long visit, she just wanted me to know she cared, that she was praying. She gave me some hope that day and my cup was a little more filled that night.
We have to keep watch together, not only this Advent season but always, watching for the signs of hope and joy that we just can’t always see alone. We have keep watch together but not in silence. That’s what it means to be church, to claim the light and the life together and to share it with one another. It is in the telling that transformation happens. I want to keep watch with you and share stories of faith and hope because I know that I will need to hear yours and they will support me in those moments where I, like John, will have questions and doubts.
The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad. Let us keep watch together.
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