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I wish everyone could feel it. But the war in Afghanistan goes on. Families that lost loved ones on September 11th are preparing for a holiday that, a year ago, they could have never imagined. There is a certain dissonance to the season. Trips to malls and stores with the sacred Muzak in the air singing of "Joy to the World" or "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" mock the harsh realities.
Did you happen to see "Ally McBeal" Monday night?(1) The program opened with Ally slowly making her way home after some Christmas shopping when she spies a man standing in a cemetery looking down through tears at a new gravestone. Ally gently asks if there is anything she can do. The response: not unless you are an angel...or a prophet. As he turns to Ally, his overcoat, open at the neck, reveals a clerical collar; it turns out he is a Methodist minister. He tells Ally that the gravestone belongs to his wife, just recently murdered by a nervous robber who shot her while she fumbled too long in her purse. He also notes that he has just lost his job - his congregation's Administrative Board fired him. Why? "They say because I can no longer do my job."
"Why do they say you can longer do your job?"
"Because I don't believe in God."
Far-fetched? A minister losing his faith? It can happen. And if it can happen there, it can happen anywhere...maybe even right here.
The temptation is great to leave it at that, to wallow in self-pity. But then, good church folks no matter what, we find ourselves in worship. It happens to be the third Sunday in Advent - the rose candle in the Advent Wreath is lit, the candle of JOY. That dissonance strikes again. But then we hear the lectionary texts, the same ones that millions of others are hearing on this day, and a new light sneaks through.
There is that gospel lesson. Poor John. All his life he had been dedicated to the service of God - before he was born he had been divinely commissioned.(2) An angel had told his father, "Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous--to make ready a people prepared for the Lord." And John had been faithful to his commission. He had lived an ascetic life. He had been a powerful preacher, ready to comfort the afflicted or afflict the comfortable, whichever was needed. He knew his place in the divine scheme - forerunner to God's anointed one, the Messiah. In fact, this anointed one, this Messiah, was John's own cousin: Jesus, son of his Aunt Mary. At least, that is what he had been brought up to believe.
But now, John began to wonder. After these years of faithful preaching, he finds himself in jail. He had angered Herod by publicly calling attention to the king's marital misconduct. Herod Antipas of Galilee had paid a visit to his brother in Rome. During that visit he seduced his brother's wife. He came back home, ran his own wife off, and married the sister-in-law whom he had lured away from her husband. Publicly and sternly John had rebuked Herod. Now Herod was taking his revenge; John was in the dungeons of the fortress of Machaerus in the mountains near the Dead Sea,(3) and was about to pay for his boldness with his life.
But could his cousin, the Messiah, not intervene? After all, the popular picture of God's Messiah had always been one who would be the people's powerful protector, the one who would come with terrible swift sword to overthrow Israel's oppressors and rid this holy land of foreign domination. All right, Cousin Jesus, is not now as good a time as any to get with the program? Well? Jesus? Jesus?
Meanwhile, Jesus is not doing what Messiahs are supposed to do. True, he is traveling about the country, but not recruiting an army. Yes, crowds follow him, but he never calls them to arms in defense of the nation. He spends an inordinate amount of time with those on society's margins - the weak, the hurt, the outcasts - not the stuff of which great fighting forces are built. A teacher and a toucher, this Jesus. Can we blame John for wondering? "Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?"
Suddenly, we jump back to 2001. Again the sacred Muzak sings, "Joy to the world, the Lord is come." But our hearts are still hurting, and like John we remain prisoners...of our private, personal pain. John's question well may be ours. John may be speaking for any who were once sure of their faith but now are not sure at all (like the minister on "Ally McBeal"), or for those who wonder, "Is there really a God who knows and cares? Does this God have a plan for the world? For me?" Lord, are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?
If you notice, Jesus does not answer the question directly. The response is, "Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor."
Familiar sounding words to a man of faith like John. He remembered the poetry of the prophet Isaiah to God's people more than 500 years before. The mighty empire of Babylon had conquered the tiny nation of Judah, all that remained of the great kingdom of David and Solomon. They had stripped that nation bare. Whole cities had been burned to the ground. They took the crops and livestock of every farmer and left nothing but scorched earth. They killed or captured the rulers, the teachers, the scientists, the priests, the heads of corporations and took the survivors to Babylon as prisoners. The physical and emotional and spiritual devastation was horrible.(4)
The book of Lamentations captures the desolation in its mournful poetry. "How deserted lies the city, once so full of people...All her people groan as they search for bread; they barter their treasures for food to keep themselves alive...They say to their mothers, 'Where is bread and wine?' as they faint like wounded men in the streets of the city, as their lives ebb away in their mothers' arms."(5) Picture the destruction and poverty in Europe following World War II, or the images of children foraging for food in Bosnia. Or hear the weeping of people culling through the remains of their homes after the bombing of their city. It was to these sad people that Isaiah 35 came.
As they picked through the ruins of their lives, the prophet gave them a beautiful vision of the future. Farms had reverted to wild ground, but that land would be covered again with flowers and fruit. All the trees had been cut down either for warfare or for firewood. But soon the land would be covered with the cedars of Lebanon, trees so big it would take twelve people to encircle their trunks. In many places, rivers and springs had been poisoned, wells had been destroyed, dams and levees had been ruined. But once again water would flow in the desert to replace the mirages on the sand. Villages had been abandoned, but were now the headquarters for thieves and scavengers. Soon they would again be safe places, filled with people.(6) John in his dungeon would remember the words - a time when "the eyes of the blind [will] be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy." Wow!
The message of Jesus to his questioning cousin was, "Open your eyes. What you see will give you your answer." Open your eyes...and you will find hope for your hurting heart.
A story. It's been around for awhile; it's even been set to music.(7) He was driving home one evening on a two-lane country road. Work, in this small mid-western community, was almost as slow as his beat-up Pontiac. But he never quit looking. Ever since the Levi's factory closed, he had been unemployed, and with winter raging on, the chill had finally hit home. It was a lonely road. Not many people had a reason to be on it, unless they were leaving. Most of his friends had already left. They had families to feed and dreams to fulfill. But he stayed on. After all, this was where he had buried his mother and father. He was born here and knew the country. He could go down this road blind, and tell you what was on either side - with his headlights not working at the moment, that came in handy.
It was starting to get dark. Light snow flurries were coming down. He almost did not see the old lady, stopped on the side of the road. But even in the dim light of dusk, he could see she needed help. So he pulled up in front of her Mercedes and got out. His Pontiac was still sputtering when he approached her. Even with the smile on his face, she was worried. No one had stopped to help for the last hour or so. He did not look safe, he looked poor and hungry. Was he going to hurt her? He could see that she was frightened, standing out there in the cold. He knew how she felt. It was that chill which only fear can put in you. He said, "I am here to help you, ma'am. Why don't you wait in the car where it's warm. By the way, my name is Joe."
Well, all she had was a flat tire, but for an old lady, that was bad enough. Joe crawled under the car looking for a place to put the jack, skinning his knuckles a time or two. Soon he was able to change the tire. But he had to get dirty and his hands hurt. As he was tightening up the lug nuts, she rolled down the window and began to talk to him. She told him that she was from St. Louis and was only passing through. She could not thank him enough for coming to her aid. Joe just smiled as he closed her trunk. She asked him how much she owed him. Any amount would have been all right with her. She had already imagined all the awful things that could have happened had he not stopped.
Joe never thought twice about any money. This was not a job to him. This was helping someone in need, and God knows there were plenty who had given him a hand in the past. He had lived his whole life that way, and it never occurred to him to act any different. He told her that if she really wanted to pay him back, the next time she saw someone who needed help, she could give that person the assistance that they needed, and Bryan added "...and think of me."
He waited until she started her car and drove off. It had been a cold and depressing day, but he felt good as he headed for home, disappearing into the twilight.
A few miles down the road the lady saw a small café. She went in to grab a bite to eat and take the chill off before she made the last leg of her trip home. It was a dingy looking restaurant. Outside were two old gas pumps. The cash register was like the telephone of an out-of-work actor - it did not ring much. The waitress came over and brought a clean towel to wipe her wet hair. She had a sweet smile, one that even being on her feet for the whole day could not erase. The lady noticed that the waitress was very pregnant, but she never mentioned it or let the strain and aches change her attitude. The old lady wondered how someone who had so little could be so giving to a stranger. Then she remembered Joe. After the lady finished her meal, she paid her check with a hundred-dollar bill. As the waitress went to get change, the lady slipped out the door.
She was gone by the time the waitress returned. She wondered where the lady could be, then she noticed something written on a napkin. There were tears in her eyes when she read what the lady had written. It said, "You don't owe me anything, I have been there too. Somebody once helped ME out, the way I am helping you. If you really want to pay me back, here is what you do: Do not let this chain of love end with you."
Well, there were still tables to clear, sugar bowls to fill, and even a few more people to serve. The waitress made it through another day. That night when she got home from work and climbed into bed, she was thinking about the money and what the lady had written. How could the lady have known how much she and her husband needed it? With the baby due next month, it was going to be hard. She knew how worried her husband was, and as he lay sleeping next to her, she gave him a gentle kiss and whispered soft and low, "Everything is gonna be all right. I love you, Joe."
God's word, as we move through this Advent season, as we experience the dissonance of "Joy to the World" as a serenade to hurting hearts, as we wonder, "Are you the one...or should we expect someone else," is open your eyes and look around. With eyes of faith you will see.
And what do we see? Yes, there are the occasional roadside Joes and the generous ladies who can spot the need for help. But ultimately there is the word from on high. Isaiah presents us with a wonderfully hope-filled scene in a chapter worth memorizing. As these folks who long ago gave up looking for any joy in living, these who have suffered a period of spiritual or emotional "exile" because of a long illness, recovery from addiction, or even the tragic death of someone very special, whether in a TV drama like "Ally McBeal," the global-impact drama of September 11th, or any of life's cruel and painful dramas in between, as these desperate people scavenge the ruins of their lives, they see an eruption. "The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom. Like the crocus, it will burst into bloom...Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert. The burning sand will become a pool, the thirsty ground bubbling springs." LIFE EVERYWHERE!
And in the midst of it, there is singing. The sound is distant at first. But it swells and grows. Then a mighty parade comes into view. The ransomed of the Lord - those who had languished in exile - return to their homeland. There will indeed be "Joy to the world, the Lord is come." Yes! "Gladness and joy," says the prophet, "and sorrow and sighing will flee away." Praise God! Even in the midst of life's dissonance, there IS hope for hurting hearts. And all God's people...people then and people now and people forevermore...ALL God's people can say, AMEN! And Amen! And...
1. David E. Kelley, "Nine One One," FOX Broadcasting, 12/10/01
2. Luke 1:5ff.
3. William Barclay, CD-ROM, Daily Study Bible Series, (Liguori, MO: Liguori Faithware, 1996) Used by permission of Westminster/John Knox Press
4. Lowell Hennigs, via Ecunet, "Sermonshop Sermons," #1099, 12/11/98
5. Lamentations 1 & 2, passim
6. Lowell Hennigs
7. "The Chain of Love," a story whose author is unknown to me but which is widely available on the web (e.g.: http://www.getfed.com/texts/topics/love/chainlove.shtml). Country music artist Clay Walker recorded a version of the story written by Rory Lee & Jonnie Barnett.