Blue Christmas. Sermon 10 Dec 2017 by Rev. Peta Evans
I’ve not been to the wilderness of Israel and Judah myself, but I know those who have, and I’ve seen the pictures – done the research – and they are not an easy place to travel. I thought the Scottish Highlands were pretty tough, as walking trips go, but Israel is something else again. Quite apart from the thieves and wild animals that come into tales like the parable of the good Samaritan, it is a hard, rocky jumble of high peaks and steep drop-offs, parts of it that are massively below sea level, and others which are great mountains. The distance between the river Jordan and the dead sea, and Jerusalem, is huge. It’s a tough place. The roads are rough indeed. It is dusty, hot and dry for much of the year, and inclined to flash flooding in the seasonal heavy rains. The prophet knew what he was talking about when he spoke about mountains & valleys & winding ways. Both Isaiah and John the Baptist had travelled there, struggling up steep inclines and stumbling over loose stones, grateful for the occasional bit of shade and wary of the dangerous cliffs and ravines. They found there a picture of the human race’s weary journey searching for peace.
How often have we trudged, thirsty, wary, weary, through our lives, looking for hope and comfort? I’ve known so many, in church and out of it, souls in the wilderness, on a long tiring road that never seems to get anywhere. I’ve been there and at times I’ve felt God was simply unreachable – that for someone like me, God couldn’t be reached – I wasn’t equipped, wasn’t equal to the hardness of the road. Isaiah’s people, and John’s people, were the same. Lost, sorrowing, lonely and afraid.
I love it when we follow the narrative of the Bible, at times like Christmas, we travel along with Jesus and his disciples, or along with God’s people Israel, from Egypt to Canaan, from Israel into exile and back again. We don’t just hear the story, we get to re-enact it, we get to be in it, re-experience it. There’s a fancy scholars name for it, they call it ‘anamnesis’ – it’s the kind of remembering that a community does, where we don’t just remember, we bring the past in to the present, make it come alive again. It becomes our story, and we see our own stories in it, as part of it, We remember that we part of the relationship between God and God’s beloved world.
So in Advent, we step into the story of waiting. The history of God’s people has hardly been all uninterrupted joy and excitement and fruitfulness. Much of it was spent not knowing how, or even if, God would fulfil God’s promises; more time in tears than in triumph,
As a nation, they began with a single nomadic couple, who waited almost their whole lives to see the promise of a son fulfilled – and even then had to take it on trust that this one boy would be the seed of a whole people. Not long after that, the Israelites became slaves in Egypt, and after their rescue were forged into a people during 40 years of wandering in the wilderness. And no sooner had they become a great, settled nation, it seems, than they began to split apart, first amongst themselves, and then constantly having to fight for their identity between bigger and more powerful empires surrounding them. It ended with exile, and a long long wait for God to return them to their own land.
That was when Isaiah wrote to them. They’d been promised a Messiah would come, but a long wait was still ahead of them – he saw their struggles, their confusion about who they were, whether they were still God’s people, their despair as they tried to make sense of their lives without the old certainties. He used the familiar image of the bleak hills and ravines, the uninhabited and un-farm-able highland regions they would have had to travel through to get between the fertile plains and valleys. It became the metaphor for their doubt and lostness, the peace they hadn’t found, their hunger to be God’s nation again, to know God was with them.
But Isaiah saw more that the desert. More than the wilderness. He saw someone out there calling – ‘Prepare a way for the Lord’ Not a way to the Lord but a way for the Lord. God was coming to us. That is why the passage in Isaiah begins ‘Console my people, console them’
Or in the words of the King James’ version he says ‘comfort ye, comfort ye my people’.
Christmas may be many things – mystery, children’s story, tradition, wonder, subversive justice message, symbol of new light and hope, time of awe and wonder, or a lot of hard work. But for some of us, it isn’t ‘jolly’. It isn’t ‘merry’. It’s hard work finding ‘tidings of comfort and joy’ in a season that mainly reminds you of what you haven’t got, or once had and lost. It may be a time of being lonely, or cold and hungry, or grieving, or struggling to keep going, it may bring memories of bad times, and it doesn’t help with the rest of the world throwing relentless happy-happy at you as though you ought to be enjoying the things you simply don’t have.
We need Isaiah’s promise – ‘console my people, comfort them’.
If the wilderness is the image of our struggle to try and get close to God, to find, to understand, to break down the barrier we feel divides us, then Isaiah makes it clear that it is not us who will cross those cliffs and mountains – it is God. The lostness is ours, but the finding is all God’s. When John the Baptist came crying out in the desert ‘prepare a way’ – it was because he was heralding the arrival of God amongst us – not our imminent arrival with God. God breaks down all the mountains and fills in the gulfs between humans and the divine in the most dramatic way – by actually uniting God and humanity in Jesus. What more could God have done to bring about Immanuel, to bridge the gap, than to actually come and live our life with us?
That’s a comfort, if anything is – that we aren’t alone in this – that we don’t have to beg, or plead, or bargain with God, for crumbs of love, or scraps of God’s attention. God is already in it, God is already weeping with us, wandering with us, hoping with us, fearing with us. Jesus did all those things, and still does. And it’s not earned, it’s not to be paid for, and we don’t need to be a particular kind of person, or particularly good or special or holy, thank goodness! It just is. All will see the salvation of God, Isaiah says. All.
Not that that absolves us from all responsibilities. We are to ‘Prepare a way’, not to get ourselves to God, but to make it easy for everyone to see God coming. If there is one thing that the church has tried but failed to do over the centuries, it is this – to prepare a way so that ‘all humanity will see the salvation of God’ Whether it was the medieval church deciding that only those who knew Latin could have access to God’s words of comfort, and peace and hope, or various places today deciding to deny communion and fellowship to those who are just a bit too different; the road between Jesus and his people sometimes seems just as hard as it was for Israel thousands of years ago. Jesus is here now, but if you have been told all your life that you need to change, or become perfect, or conform yourself to someone else’s ideals (or your own) before he will come to you, how can you see? How can you see the Salvation of God?
We may not have intended to give such a misleading impression of God’s grace, but even when our words may speak of free gifts, of God’s profligate, generous welcome, our actions may do the opposite, by a thousand unconscious attitudes and judgements.
Looking back, I can see those times and places that people have directed me into the wilderness, telling me about all the cliffs and ravines in the way. But it’s harder to see where I have done it myself.
Where have I acted or spoken in such a way that someone thought – ‘God’s not here?’ Where have I caused someone to doubt Jesus’ good faith, or to believe that the church has no place for them?
That’s part of the preparation work. That’s part of the Advent work, am I not just saying, but living a life that prepares the way, in that I’m not blocking the view for those who are looking for peace, and hope? That’s why we keep praying, for God to help us to fill in the valleys we keep trying to dig between us and our loving God who didn’t want a valley there in the first place; and to tear down the mountains we throw up, however accidentally, in front of those who are looking for hope.
This is why we enter into the waiting, become part of the story – to feel for ourselves the longing, the long-held hope, so that we never forget what it is we have been given. The story should never become old, the joy and wonder of God’s tender and gentle approach to us should never fade away. Because if it does, we may forget as many still wait, still longing to see that loving face approach, Love is striding across the desert with arms wide open. We may forget that our task, the task that Jesus set us to complete, is simply to help others look and see that face, those arms, to experience that comfort and that wonder. Not to change them, not to judge them, not to choose their path for them – Jesus warned us plenty of times that those things were not for us to do. Simply to point the way, and stop blocking the view!
Do you remember the desert? What it felt like out there in the wilderness? When you thought the message of love was not for you? And what it felt like when you saw Love coming across the mountains, levelling a straight road to come and pick you up and take you home? Thank God by helping someone else to see hope coming too.
And if you’re still there? If this is shaping to be anything but a merry Christmas? If some days it’s too hard even to lift up your feet and stumble on? Then comfort you, Comfort you, my people. Because God is coming to you.