A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, December 11, 2016
On the way. We’re anxious to be on the way, but then we’re not entirely sure which way it is we are to be on? Where are we headed and how will we know we’re following the right route? There’s no electronic voice assuring us that our route guidance will begin once we’ve backed out of the driveway. However, we have some voices in today’s texts which we may find helpful. Isaiah says of the wilderness, stretched out between Babylon and Jerusalem, “A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way…” Dietrich Bonhoeffer proclaims that “God travels wonderful ways with human beings…” John the Baptist wants to know if he and his followers should journey with Jesus or wait for another guide.
Let’s see if we can discern some direction from these fellow travelers this morning. Isaiah has written a beautiful poem about a way that will lead inevitably to the joy of homecoming. Physically, culturally, and spiritually it’s a long way from Babylon to Jerusalem, especially if you’ve lived for over 100 years, exiled in this strange land. Remember, how the psalmist laments, “How shall we sing God’s song in a strange land?” (Psalm 137). In that length of time there probably had been a whole lot of assimilation to Babylonian ways. The return would be largely on foot, and you’re not sure you remember the way. Though it’s about 500 miles from Babylon to Jerusalem as the crow flies, the journey in the time of Isaiah would have been something more like 900 miles. Strange language, strange food, strange music, strange gods, yes, but – long distance, desert terrain, wilderness wandering, fierce animals? There is a certain comfort in exile. It’s easier to settle for the trouble we know than to face the great unknown. They’re not so sure they want to be on the way.
So, Isaiah sings to his people “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…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 redeemed shall walk there. And the ransomed of the Holy One 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.”
It sounds like one of those marvelous marching songs that help us keep moving along the way. “I’m with you and you’re with me and so we are all together as we march along.” Or, “I love to go a-wandering along the mountain track, so joyously it calls to me, come, join my happy song.” Or, “We are marching in the light of God.” You probably have a favorite journey song of your own. Miriam Therese Winter, whose beautiful setting of Mary’s Magnificat we just sang, has a great song that sings, “It’s a long road to freedom, a-winding steep and high. But when you walk in love with the wind on your wing, and cover the earth with the songs you sing, the miles fly by.” I believe she has captured Isaiah’s vision. The question is, will his people? Will we catch the vision or even see the signs?
Isaiah, as he so often does, is trying to offer his people hope for the future and strength for the journey. He’s been painting an awfully grim picture of the mess his people have gotten into, with destruction of the city and the temple, the desolation of the land, and the dragging of the key leadership into exile. He seems to know something about the fierceness of the wilderness, the aridity of the desert, the threats to life in such a setting. His words of promise come directly from the depths of despair. “They shall see the glory of the Holy One, 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. God will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. God will come and save you.’” There is a way, even when and where it is hard for them to see that way. The prophet insists that it is so.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a great lover of the Advent/Christmas season. Some of his most beautiful writing reflects on this time of year. In today’s Words of Preparation, he muses on the Advent way. “God travels wonderful ways with human beings,” he claims, “but he does not comply with the views and opinions of people. God does not go the way that people want to prescribe for him; rather, his way is beyond all comprehension, free and self-determined beyond all proof. Where reason is indignant, where our nature rebels, where our piety anxiously keeps us away: that is precisely where God loves to be. There he confounds the reason of the reasonable; there he aggravates our nature, our piety—that is where he wants to be, and no one can keep him from it.”
Well now, how is that helpful? It sounds as if God is some sort of trickster, a merry prankster, leading us in ways we’re not sure we want to go, challenging us to think outside the box, to live away from our comfort zones, to let go of control and ride the roller coaster hands free. Along with Isaiah, he sounds as if he has caught a bit of Mary’s vision of the great reversals that occur when we let God be our guide. “Only the humble believe him and rejoice that God is so free and so marvelous that he does wonders where people despair, that he takes what is little and lowly and makes it marvelous. And that is the wonder of all wonders, that God loves the lowly…God is not ashamed of the lowliness of human beings. God marches right in. He chooses people as his instruments and performs his wonders where one would least expect them. God is near to lowliness; he loves the lost, the neglected, the unseemly, the excluded, the weak and broken” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, God Is in the Manger: Reflections on Advent and Christmas).
Where does that leave us? Does it mean we must be humble, little, lowly? Is it vital for us to identify in some way with the lost, neglected, the unseemly, the excluded, the weak and broken in order to find our way? Remember when Jesus called Matthew, the tax collector, to be a disciple and the indignant Pharisees wanted to know, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” They thought Jesus was going out of his way to offend them. After all, weren’t they the theologians, the religious leaders, the righteous. Shouldn’t Jesus be hanging out with the “right” people, namely them? But when Jesus heard them, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners” (Matthew 9:9-13). What does it mean that “God does not go the way that people want to prescribe for him; rather, his way is beyond all comprehension, free and self-determined beyond all proof”? Somehow you have to let go and get down to get the gospel. That’s just the way it works.
“Jesus, Jesus, are you the One or should we look for another.” Poor John, who had been such a trailblazer himself, out there in the heart of Isaiah’s wilderness, calling the people to account. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” “Prepare the way of the Holy One, make his paths straight” (Matthew 3:2-3). Now John’s in jail, incarcerated for calling out old Herod Antipas once too often for his illicit relationship with his brother’s wife. As with Bonhoeffer centuries later, you’re not inclined to be as certain in your proclamations when you’re behind bars as you were when you walked in freedom. You tend to become more reflective, doubts arise, and you find you have questions about the way.
Nesting with Dietrich and John, Frederick Buechner has written, “Joy is home…God created us in joy and created us for joy, and in the long run not all the darkness there is in the world and in ourselves can separate us finally from that joy, because whatever else it means to say that God created us in his image, I think it means even when we cannot believe in him, even when we feel most spiritually bankrupt and deserted by him, his mark is deep within us. We have God’s joy in our blood (Frederick Buechner, The Longing for Home, p. 128, quoted in Walter Brueggemann, Westminster Bible Companion: Isaiah 1-39, p. 280). “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.”
At the river, John had tried to stop to Jesus, “I need to be baptized by you, do you come to me?” (Matthew 3:14). He knew who Jesus was, or at least he thought he did. “This is the Messiah whose salvation I came to proclaim – isn’t it?” Now, as he faces his own execution, unjustly sentenced by a despotic ruler, he’s desperate for a word of reassurance. “Please tell me I got it right, that all my work was not for nothing.” I love Jesus’ response to John’s plea. He doesn’t just jot on a post it, “Sure. Sure, man, that’s me.” He makes it plain, in words that must have touched John in the depths of his being, bringing joy to his heart in the midst of his suffering, pain, and impending death. “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” The believing is in the doing.
On the way. We’re anxious to be on the way, but we’re not entirely sure which way it is we are to be on? Where are we headed and how will we know we’re following the right route? Hopefully you see some markers, some road signs in the writings of Isaiah and Bonhoeffer and Matthew. As we face turbulent times in our own lives and in the life of our nation, these signs become more important than ever. How will we know we’re on THE WAY – the blind see, the lame walk, the mute sing for joy, weak hands are strengthened, feeble knees made firm, the sick are healed, fearful hearts are freed, the poor have good news to celebrate, the neglected, the unseemly, the excluded, the weak and broken are lifted and loved, the dead are raised. I know it all sounds pretty unrealistic, kind of utopian. Even if we glimpse the way, how will we find it and ourselves on it? Well, here’s the catch. In finding our way, we have to help make the way. Remember, we spent last year exploring Brian McClaren’s claim that we make the road by walking? If the great reversals are to happen that will bring to life God’s Beloved Community, we have to read the road signs and make them real.
“They shall see the glory of the Holy One, 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…God will come and save you…the redeemed shall walk [on the way.] And the ransomed of the Holy One 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.”