Sermon Title “My Way and the Highway” by Pastor Rosanna McFadden
Good morning! We are continuing to reflect on God’s simple gifts and the prophecies of Isaiah. It’s the third Sunday of Advent and we’ve heard from Isaiah previously on issues we could broadly characterize as Peace and Hope. There’s a lot in this passage which Scott read for us: depending on what frequencies your ears are tuned to, you may have heard the words about weak hands and feeble knees — things I can relate to after a couple days of gripping a trim brush and going up and down the stairs of Ulrich house. There’s also a verse about vengeance and terrible recompense — that is, pay-back — which is not something most of us are eager to experience. But those ideas are wrapped in a bigger concept of joy: a wilderness which rejoices, and a desert which blossoms abundantly, the blind being able to see and the deaf hearing clearly, the lame jumping for joy and the speechless breaking forth into song. All of these images of personal, physical restoration are metaphors for the restoration of Israel; a nation which was in ruin and in exile, but has been given the promise of joy.
Some of you may know that when I was in college at Manchester and for 5 years or so afterward, I worked for a greeting card company called the Joyful Scribes. I learned a lot during those years, mostly not about being a lettering artist. The owner of the company was Patricia Helman, and joy was a very important quality to her. She turned any coffee break into a tea party, and any consultation about a project had to happen over dinner in a nice restaurant — and she always picked up the tab since I was a poor student. It may not have been a great business model, but Pat taught me about the value of joy, and about how easy it is to find if you know how to look. One of the earliest card offerings by the Joyful Scribes was a quote from French Jesuit Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, “Joy is the infallible sign of the presence of God.”
I believe this prophecy of Isaiah locates us directly in the path of Advent as we are gearing up for the birth of Jesus Christ, God-with-Us. If God is with us — as God was with the people of Israel and Judah, even when their kingdom was defeated and their Temple was sacked and looted and their people were taken hostage or left behind to starve; if God was with a poor couple from the backwater town of Nazareth when they were far from home and gave birth in a stable to a baby boy; if God was with God’s only Son through his crucifixion and death and raised him to life on the third day; if God was with the church on the day of Pentecost and has been with those who believe through Christian history — if God has been with us through all of that, well then, there had better be evidence of joy where God has been. That joy isn’t going to be in church structures or institutional by-laws: we, who believe and have received salvation through Christ should be the evidence of that joy.
Isaiah describes this path in Isiah 35:8 the Holy Way for God’s people. It isn’t a road for the foolish or the unclean; there aren’t lions or other ravenous beast lurking in the bushes. This is a highway for the redeemed and the ransomed to walk on and to come home to Zion. It may be difficult for us to imagine the power of these final verses of Isiah 35. This was written to people who had been exiled from their homeland for a generation: folks who were too young to remember Zion for themselves, and had only heard about it from parents or grandparents who were now dead. These were the children of prisoners of war. I don’t know if you can imagine the joy of being redeemed and ransomed. I hope you can, because we are also the redeemed and ransomed.
We are here in this place, preparing for the birth of Christ and getting ready to celebrate Christmas — and it will be a celebration — because God so loved the world that he gave His only Son to ransom and redeem us. Jesus was Emmanuel, God-with-Us, and by his death on a cross he created the Holy Way: the highway to home which each of us can choose to walk on. That ought to be tidings of great joy to all people. It is the greatest gift any of us can ever receive.
Now, you may be someone who is great a seeing the dark cloud with every silver lining; someone who can see the bad in every situation. I won’t argue with you — there is plenty of bad out there. I don’t need to list it: I read the news, I talk to people, I have some idea of the concerns which some of you carry. These concerns are real, and they are important, and I don’t want to minimize those things which weigh us down. But I would make a modest suggestion: you don’t have to do this for me, but you might consider doing it for yourself: practice joy. Look for things to be joyful about every day. They don’t have to be big things — but if we don’t rejoice in the small simple gifts which surround us every day, we might not be paying attention when the big ones come along.
Let me give you an example: the words of our call to worship this morning were taken from the gospel of Luke. They’re the words of a young woman who was unmarried, but pregnant under some very unusual circumstances, not entirely of her choosing. She lived nearly two thousand years ago in a society which had very strict codes about sexual relations outside of marriage, particularly for women. Conceiving a child outside of wedlock was considered adultery, and could be punishable by death — at very least, the woman and her child would be disgraced and live on the edge of society and the edge of poverty. You know who I’m talking about, Mary, the mother of Jesus. A woman who might be justified in being fearful about her situation and angry at God. Those are not the emotions which are recorded in Luke’s gospel. Mary’s words recorded in Luke chapter 1 are a song of praise about how her spirit rejoices in God, and how the Mighty One has done great things for her and how future generations will call her blessed. And we have: we do to this day. In the Protestant tradition, this pink Advent candle is a reminder of Mary’s joy in the midst of what could have been a dark time. Mary’s joy was a sign of God’s presence with her — literally inside her womb as the baby who is also God in flesh.
I don’t think any of us can top that as a cause for joy — or as a cause for concern. Our text from Isaiah is about God’s ability to transform dire situations into joyful ones: making deserts bloom and blind folks see and lame people leap like deer. I believe that God can do those things — we certainly have the biblical record of God’s Son healing the blind and the lame. Transformation is about healing and making whole, which is not always the same as a cure. That highway for the redeemed and restored, we still have to choose to walk on it. Nobody ever got healed by staying home and wringing their hands because their life is so hard. There are plenty of people who have put themselves out there and put their trust in Jesus Christ and done their best to walk the holy way of God’s highway, and you know what? They still have problems like everyone else. Bills to pay, ailments, family issues. These are some of the most courageous and the most joyful people I know. These are the folks who give Christianity a good name; these are the people who inspire me to come to work — or to volunteer at Camp Mack, or to support Children’s Disaster Ministry. I don’t know anyone whose life is perfect — I’d be intimidated if I thought they were. I know plenty of people who have walked and are walking on God’s Holy Way, and those are the people I want to walk with as we follow Jesus together. If you have received the simple gift of Jesus Christ, you have been given the opportunity to walk on God’s highway. If you are on the Way, rejoice and be glad, that is the path which leads through a stable in Bethlehem and the birth of a child who came for our salvation. It is the path which will take us home. Praise God.