Third Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 35: 1-10; Matthew 2: 2-11
I am about to make a confession. In 1980, at the age of 17 (now I’m dating myself, as well) I was in the thrall of Australian metal-band AC/DC’s new album, Back in Black. The guitar riffs of lead guitarist Angus Young were to die for and the irreverence and rebellious nature of the band appealed to a scrawny teenager who was typically more at home with John Denver and James Taylor than Iron Butterfly. One particular song I remember my other church-going friends and I singing with relish – an AC/DC tune from their previous album – was a piece called “Highway to Hell.” And in this rock-guitar-fueled anthem (Angus Young is depicted on the album cover with full-on horns and a tail worthy of Lucifer himself), the band rocks, “I’m on a highway to hell … a highway to hell… a highway to hell ...” Not terribly imaginative, but you get the idea. And, as a teen who was actually fairly straight and narrow up to that point – being on a figurative (of course) highway to hell meant, what? Why sing such a song? Well, perhaps it made me feel powerful; not in need of anyone or anything, and claiming that we all end up on the lost path eventually, anyway. I am not sure I actually believed that then and, of course, I certainly don’t now.
In retrospect, my actions seem like adolescent silliness and naiveté, but the memory resurfaced this week as I read the wondrous Isaiah 35 which was, most likely, the end of the first section of what would become 66 chapters. Beautiful, profound, and powerful is the image of Isaiah; we are drawn to it, aren’t we, to this “heavenly highway” and words like, “The burning sands shall become pools of water” … We long for the world to be the world of Isaiah’s vision – God’s dream, if you will – when the barren recesses of the human spirit and community would, through love, repentance and hope – finally live into the reality of God’s dream for us: mercy, grace, equality, and blessing.
Isaiah foresaw a people that would travel a different kind of highway; not a highway to hell but one called ‘The Holy Way.’ And on this road, this highway, there would be no predators, no pain or suffering, no one who wanted to bring everyone else down with them. On the Holy Highway of God’s Salvation, we are led to places of hope and resurrection, through even the desolate and barren land of our former lives, the world’s chaos, and the evil that is so prevalent in the world today. Isaiah communicates to us a rebirth that we are to experience when the Messiah comes, when all is made new, and light will overwhelm the darkness. Walking the pathway to God is an intentional act made possible because Christ has gone before to make our pathway straight and, after that, He walks the way with us.
Then, why is walking God’s holy way so excruciatingly difficult? Well, because the world breaks in, as we all know, into Isaiah’s image of our return to God. So, we become skeptical - amidst the world’s intense challenges - about the promises of God, even His presence, and the ‘dream of God’ becomes a waking nightmare, one in which we are falling and just want to wake up.
John the Baptist wants to believe in the Messiah that is Jesus Christ but the world hasn’t yet changed. John, who preached a message of repentance, perhaps had a difficult time imagining a Messiah who would heal and unite the world by sacrifice. He had baptized Jesus, seen the dove descend upon him, and declared him “the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” But the world was still as it had been, in a state of chaos and anger; Christ had not overthrown the Romans, made the captives free in the way the Messiah should…was He the One, after all? Can we place our hope in Jesus?
Yesterday was the seventh anniversary of the shootings at Sandy Hook. Reminders are all around us, reopened wounds each time another man, woman, or child is senselessly gunned down somewhere in this country. The world, when we look at it through the lens of the violence that threatens to overtake it, through the prism of Sandy Hook and situations like it, then Isaiah’s ‘burning sands becoming pools of water’ seems a faraway notion, indeed. Pools of water, places of safety, sanctuary, and refreshment actually appear to turn into stagnant and muddy puddles of fear, anxiety, and hopelessness. Christ has come and still we feel further away from ‘God’s dream’ and our march along the Holy Way seems impossible.
I came across a really wonderful little article in Time Magazine from 2017. It was written by Sophronia Scott along with her son, Tain, who was at Sandy Hook when Adam Lanza came blasting in and wrought such awful violence, followed by lives brought to destruction. But Mrs. Scott, in the article, talked about their introduction to Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Newtown, two years before the shootings. Bear with me, I think this is important.
“In January 2011, my husband, son and I went to church for the first time. We’d chosen an Episcopal parish for our potential spiritual home. At the communion rail, I tried to get Tain, then 6 years old, to dip his wafer into the wine, but he wanted to chew on the morsel dry and then sip from the cup. A woman lowered the silver chalice to his lips. Tain tasted the wine and recoiled. He didn’t spit it out — a relief — but his face exploded with disgust, and he rose from the kneeling cushion with his mouth open, his tongue hanging out. My husband took him to the bathroom to wash away the sting …
I know personal faith is important, and I wanted Tain to understand his own. But let’s not kid ourselves: developing a spiritual life for your child in this boisterously secular world is kind of like being Noah building the ark. You have the feeling people are looking at you strangely. What do you need that for? That thing is huge, unwieldy, unnecessary. What a waste of time! …
Still, the secular world presses in. Building that ark can feel like a quixotic endeavor. But here’s the thing:
Eventually, it will rain. And for my family, it fell torrentially.
Nearly two years after that first communion, Tain was sitting in his third-grade classroom in Sandy Hook Elementary when a gunman blasted his way into the building and killed 26 adults and children — including Tain’s godbrother, Ben. I barely have words for the grief that washed over us. We lived in an ocean of tears. I thought my heart would turn to stone, and I would sink forever.
One night, not long after the tragedy, I was putting Tain to bed, and I asked how he was doing, how he was feeling about Ben. I wasn’t sure if this was the right thing to ask, and I didn’t know what he would say. But he looked at me, his brown eyes wide with wonder. “Mama, I just have the feeling I’m going to see Ben again. He’s going to come down from heaven, and he’s going to be here with all of us.” “Yes,” I told him. “I think you’re right.”
I realized this is what faith does: It provides buoyancy, allowing you to rise to the surface and not drown in grief. In our ark we have a community including our pastor, family and friends who support us and affirm this sense of grace and God’s message that says, as the Christian writer Frederick Buechner put it, “Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you.”
Walking the ‘Holy Way’ does not require us to bury our heads in the sand and not see the world for what it is; we couldn’t if we tried anyway. Following Jesus along the highway to God, the pathway to life in our own day, requires an ability to see and know that God is with us. God can transform the desert places of our lives and world into life-giving joy and redemption. John has prepared the way; Jesus has made the way open to us all through His sacrifice and love. Rain will come, terror will descend and, without a sense of God’s divine intervention and presence, we could – we will - become lost.
Yet, we are not meant for destruction, my brothers and sisters in Christ, not made for a highway to hell; we are meant only for the holy way, God’s way, into a future of light and blessing. But we don’t walk the way alone; we are called to bring all of God’s people into the path of light. We are called to see that God’s redemptive and never-failing love sets the stage for sorrow and sighing, as Isaiah says, to flee away forever.
But we aren’t there quite yet. We must walk by faith, as yet, not by living in a perfect world. We are the people of God; its high time we claim the high road, the holy road that makes us aware of God in a way that perhaps we weren’t before. Walking the way of God takes only faith that God is with us and, with God’s hands around us, sometimes carrying us, we can walk the path that leads, for now, to a better world knowing that we are held, even in sorrow, by God.