In her book of essays entitled “Unexpected Answers” Barbara Bartocci tells the story of trying to find the perfect greeting card for her new husband on the occasion of their very first Christmas together. The only problem was that there simply did not seem to be any cards at the store that even came close to expressing all of what was in her heart for this wonderful man in her life. Finally, however, after several days of searching there was one card that caught her eye: a beautiful holiday scene pictured on the front, it read, “Sweetheart, you’re the answer to my prayers.” At last, this is the one, she thought. But upon opening the card her heart fell; because printed on the inside were the words, “Well… you’re not what I prayed for exactly, but apparently you’re the answer!”
Merry Christmas… and so much for the perfect “Hallmark Moment!”
Actually, that story does serve as a rather apt parable regarding the ways a whole lot of people approach this particular season of the year! I mean, you can see it playing out all around us about now: people driving themselves to distraction, debt and utter exhaustion in the effort to create “the perfect Christmas” – immersing themselves in the total Norman Rockwell/Currier and Ives/Bing Crosby/Rudolph and Frosty kind of holiday that lingers both in our collective memory and imagination – only to have that supreme effort fall somewhat short of the mark and be left disappointed and disillusioned with the whole experience! For far too many of us, friends, the holiday season ends not with songs of “auld lang syne,” but rather with the anguished promise that “next year, it’s going to be different.”
And honestly, much the same thing can be said about all the other things we hope for in this season; things like peace on earth and goodwill amongst the people; an end to violence and poverty; families and friends united in harmony and with love. Even those of us who, as people of faith, understand that these are promises of God that will come to pass cannot help but be shaken by the sheer level of darkness and despair that not only seems to permeate the news at times, but also has a way of taking hold of our own hearts and lives!
Don’t misunderstand me here; I don’t wish to dwell in the negative, especially at Christmastime, and heaven truly knows that as the church we are the people who seek to actively live out the reality of God’s promises in the world. But admittedly, it’s also true that given the way the world goes, the whole effort can leave us discouraged and more than a little bit tired – sick and tired, actually – struggling with what Isaiah refers to in our reading this morning as “weak hands… and feeble knees.”
What we’re talking about here is doubt: and not merely doubt in an intellectual sense, but doubt that’s emotional and spiritual; doubt that’s borne of a sense of hopelessness and despair; and erupts out of anger and bitterness, and which can blind the eyes to what God is really doing in the world. It’s what weakens us from truly living out of God’s promises, and it’s a spiritual condition, friends; one that as “Advent People,” – that is, the people who are to be preparing “the way of the Lord” – that we ought to address!
And that’s one reason I really appreciate the story of John the Baptist! Actually, there are many reasons: first of all, you’ve got to love a guy who subsists on a diet of dead insects and wild honey, and whose fashion statement consists of the look (and likely the smell!) of camel! Moreover, he’s blunt and unapologetic about the need for a baptism of repentance; and as we’re learning in our advent Bible Study, even before he was born John played an important part in the whole story of Jesus.
But what’s interesting to note is that for all his fiery speech and a life wholly devoted to preparing the way for a Messiah, at the end of his life even John the Baptist had begun to doubt. And there were reasons; first of all, the Messiah he’d been preparing for turned out to be nothing like he or anyone else, for that matter, had expected; and secondly, the glorious life that was anticipated in the Messiah’s coming had thus far turned out to be more of the same, only worse! For all his trouble, John ended up rotting in a Herod’s royal jail cell; so it’s understandable that he’d send his disciples to ask a simple, pointed question: Jesus of Nazareth, he asks, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
The funny thing is, though, that when John’s disciples find Jesus to ask the question, Jesus is really too busy to answer. Too busy touching the misshapen legs of a man who couldn’t walk; too busy speaking intelligibly to a little girl who couldn’t hear; too busy bringing hope to hearts worn numb by grinding poverty and hopelessness! And when he finally does stop for a moment, Jesus looks toward the questioning crowd and asks: what were you expecting, anyway? What kind of Messiah were you looking for; some rich, powerful ruler with beautiful robes and a golden throne? Look at what you hear and see; remember what you’ve experienced: “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.”
This is your hope put into action!
And then Jesus says something that kind of loses something in the translation to English: “And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” While that translation is accurate, if you go back to the Greek and Aramaic text, you’ll find that what Jesus is saying to this man who’d baptized him many months before and yet had begun somehow to feel as though his faith had been for naught was “Happy are those who do not lose heart because of me.”
Think back to Isaiah and that wonderful vision of a barren desert wasteland that’s become a flowering pasture with cool, clear water flowing in abundant supply. We’re told that there’s a highway through this desert, a “Holy Way” for God’s people in which “no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.” It’s on this very road that the people who were once in exile, “the ransomed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with singing; [and] everlasting joy shall be upon their heads,” for there will no longer be any danger nor threat of life. Yes, here “the eyes of the blind shall be opened,” the lame will jump for joy and those who are without voices will sing out!
This is who Jesus is! Our “holy way” is the life, death and resurrection of Christ, who restores our wholeness and sets before us a clear pathway in the midst of our world’s harsh and relentless desert wilderness. But John, for all his vision, could not see this; and truly, it’s easy for us to miss as well!
But the thing about a desert is that oftentimes its look can be deceiving; at first glance it may well seem barren and lifeless. But keep looking – perhaps after a rainstorm, or maybe in the cool of the evening – and everything which before was hidden begins to bloom; that which seemed dead and lifeless flourishes, and where there was no hope at all is now filled with joy and gladness. That’s how God’s love still works in our lives; and that’s how doubt dissipates and true Christmas comes into our lives, like the “abundant blossoming” of a desert in our own lives.
And it’s amazing just how many incredible ways, and in how many settings, that can happen. For instance, a few years back on my visits to play guitar at an area nursing home, I encountered a woman who, to put it gently, did not like my singing at all! In fact, confined to a wheelchair, this woman would purposely wheel herself into the day room where we were all gathered and knock my music off the stand on to the floor! And every time she’d say the same thing: “All right, that’s enough! You can go now! We’ve heard enough of this!” Now, I learned a long time ago that most of the time in these situations, you just keep going; and so I’d just keep singing my song; but the woman was not about to give up, and she’d just keep saying over and over again in a very sharp and shrill voice, “Shut up… just SHUT UP!”
The other residents would get very upset at this and the nurse would come and wheel this woman out of the room, telling her she couldn’t stay if she was going to be disruptive. But ten minutes later, she’d be back; wheeling right up and saying over and over again, “Shut up! Just Shut UP!” And understand, friends, this didn’t just happen once but over a course of a year or so, every single time I’d go to sing at that nursing home! I don’t know if it was my voice she didn’t like, or the guitar, or just me in general (!) – but it got to the point where my kids would hear that I’d gone to the nursing home that day and they’d ask if “the shut up lady” was there!
Well, come Christmastime I was there again, singing carols and songs of the season; and sure enough, after a few minutes, here comes “the shut up lady.” And I’m thinking, here we go… but this time as I’m singing she just stops there in front of me, and begins to sing along with me… and she does it beautifully! It turns out she has this incredible soprano voice, and she’s singing the words of this Christmas carol in clear and dulcet tones with all due sincerity and emotion. And not just the first few lines of the song, either, but the obscure verses that nobody remembers; and yet which she knew by heart. Eventually I just stopped singing altogether, strumming the guitar as she sang from her heart and soul to all of us who were gathered in that room.
It was a holy moment. And then she was done, the room was silent and she just heaved a little sigh. And there’s this other woman sitting next to her, and she reaches her hand over to gently pat the arm of this woman who’s just sung, and says, “That was beautiful, deah.” And to this, she replies, “SHUT UP!”
Granted, it was a moment short-lived, but make no mistake, suddenly the desert had bloomed! I know it did, because I remember to this very day what she’d sung to us. And it’s since come to be my favorite verse of the song:
“And ye, beneath life’s crushing load Whose forms are bending low, Who toil along the climbing way With painful steps and slow: Look now, for glad and golden hours Come swiftly on the wing; O rest beside the weary road And hear the angels sing.”
To hear the angels sing! Even in the midst of seeming hopelessness, weighed down with life’s greatest pain and its harshest indignities, this woman could still look for “glad and golden hours” and rest beside life’s weary road, to hear the angels sing and to know the peace that only the Lord can give. In that brief, powerful moment of singing God had gotten through, the desert had gloriously bloomed, and Christmas – true Christmas – had come.
“Strengthen the weak hands,” says Isaiah, “and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong, do not fear!’” Because God comes in glory!
That’s right; even amidst the deep darkness of a midnight clear, the light of the world still comes, with “angels bending near the earth to touch their harps of gold.” Let us not lose heart, beloved; and let us look with faithful and attentive hearts to see what the Lord is doing even now, for in doing so we might just discover even more than we could possibly dream!
Thanks be to God who indeed brings to us joy and gladness in Jesus, our Emmanuel.
AMEN and AMEN!
c. 2013 Rev. Michael W. Lowry