Sunday, December 15, 2019

Isaiah 35:1-10 - The Holy Road of God

“I’ll be home for Christmas. You can count on me. . .” The idea of coming home, going home or finding out/remembering where home truly is, is a favorite Christmas theme of Christmas songs and Hallmark movies alike. When most of us think of “going home,” we think of all the best things from our childhood. We think of our parents, our siblings; friends and family all gathered around the tree, or a table heavy laden with all our favorite foods. This idea of “home” is warm and cozy, full of tradition, love and joy.
This passage is all about going home. By this time in Isaiah, God’s people have been living in exile. Living in a land far away from home, for generations they have been telling their children and their children’s children about home. They have been a people living in longing. Longing for a place they have never been; longing for a place where they belong; longing for home. The entire time Israel is in exile they are looking to return home; to live in the houses and the cities in which their ancestors lived; to be near the friends and family they left behind; to be reunited with loved ones from whom they had been separated for generations. The idea of going home and being reunited with loved ones, finding safety, security, love and belonging in a beloved place. THIS is what passages like this one are about.
This passage is a shout of joy, a sigh of happiness, it is that moment when you can see all you have ever dreamed of, everything you for which you have dared hope, is just about to come to be. You can see it right there before you. It is so close you can almost reach out and touch it.
One Christmas when I was 9 years old, I wanted a new bike. What child at some point has not wanted a bike for Christmas or as least their birthday, but this was the year I wanted a bike. I had a bike, but it was too small, I could no longer ride it. When we four sisters came down stairs on Christmas morning there were three bikes in the living room. There was a tricycle which was obviously for Katrina, a child’s two wheeler, to which I ran over and was disappointed to see was for Charla and then there was a ten speed, which I assumed was for Mona, who was a teenager at the time. There seemed to be no bike for me. I sat down on the floor utterly dejected and began to cry. I was the only one who had even asked for a bike. Everyone got a bike but me. It was not fair and I was devastated. It took a minute in all the excitement for my parents to realize I was crying and they asked me what was wrong and I told them that I had really wanted a bike and had not gotten one. I can remember my Dad chuckling and pointing at the ten speed. I told him that was for Mona. Then he told me to go look at it. So I did and there was a tag on the bike with my name on it. I had not realized that I was old enough and big enough for a “grown up” bike. When I realized that not only had I gotten a bike, but I had gotten a bike that was even better, I began to cry even harder. But his time they were tears of joy, at not only was I receiving what I had wanted, but something that so exceeded my expectations of what I could possibly receive, that I did not even realize it could be for me. It was more than I what I had asked for, more than I had dared hope for, the more than I could have even imagined. And I was overwhelmed with joy.
This is how the people of God must have felt when they heard this message from God. They had been dreaming of going home. And God was taking them home but what God was promising them was more, so much than they could have ever dared to dream. God was leading them home, through a blooming dessert, along a road that was straight and smooth, down a path on which no enemies or predators would tread.  
God promises the wilderness, which lay between and home, would bloom with flowers. It would be so rich so fertile, so full of life that it would be as if it had broken out in song. The colors of the flowers which would surround them would the very ground rejoicing, the joy of the land made manifest in vegetation. All that was once barren and dry would be full of water, overflowing springs and covered in grass, and reeds and rushes. The dessert would bloom like garden, like a rich fertile land.
Not only would God bring new life to the dead places of the wilderness, but God would renew all those who are enfeebled with age. The elderly would be going home full of strength and vitality, they would walk along this road with strong legs and would pick the abundant vegetation with hands no longer crippled with age. God would give strength to the enfeebled and wholeness and healing to those who need it. The blind would see the wonders of the fertile, water filled, blooming dessert. The deaf would hear, the water running, the bird songs, and the people all around them as they sing with joy. The lame would not only be able walk along this road, but will jump and leap like a deer. And those who have been unable to speak will be able to sing with joy and exultation.
The road home would be one paved with justice, a holy road on which all those who have been harmed, will be restored and all those who have harmed will pay the price for their wicked deeds. God will bring restoration and salvation to all who are captured and enslaved. The road home is restoration. The road home is salvation. 
And this holy road of salvation, will be straight and smooth, no one, not even a fool would be able to lose their way as they walk along it. And upon this road no enemy will tread and no wild animal will come hunting.  It would be a road of safety and security, which will lead them all the way home; lead them back to where they belong. They wanted to go home and God was promising them not only the way home but the easy way home, with a road that would lead them straight there, with no detours, danger or pitfalls along the way.
This is about the road home, finding the way back to where you belong, to the place that is home. God is promising these un willing expats, who have lived their whole lives lost in a faraway land, a free way and safe way home. But, it is more than that. In all the movies finding the place, the people, and the relationship that are “home” is always a struggle. The main characters have to go through a series of hardships, they have to work through several problems, or find their way to the other side of some kind of struggle to find “home.” The movies elevate the struggle, the hardships along the way, because where you end up is what matters. Finally finding your way home makes anything endured on the way there worth the hurt, the pain, and the struggle experienced along the way. But, this passage is not about the journey taken, the struggle to overcome, the hardships endured, the pain experienced, and the problems solved that finally bring you back to where you belong. This passage is about an easy, turmoil free, direct way there, without the struggle or hardship found in all the movies.
This passage is about going home. But it is not about the huge hot dessert one must cross to get there. It is not about the perilous wilderness one must go through. It not about the mountain one must scale, or the dangers, which come at you from all sides. It is not about getting lost along the way, learning an important lesson and then finally finding your way home. This is about going home, finding home, being in the place you were meant to be. Not because you struggled to get there, but simply because you belong there and God promises to get you there, hassle free.
And how did you get there? Surely, the road one must traverse goes over the highest mountain, through the darkest valley, and the driest dessert, with steep cliff on one side with sharp pointy rocks at the bottom and another on the other that periodically throws immense boulder down at you. You must go through the forbidden forest, which houses the most notorious bandits and all the lions and tigers and bears. What kind of journey would it be without the dangerous road along which we all must travel to find our way home again? But, that is not the kind of story portrayed in this passage, there is no danger there is no puzzle, there is no unending peril. You just go home. You travel there along a wide smooth road, which passes through a dessert, which is a garden full of food; through a wilderness, which is filled with refreshing pools of water; down a road surrounded by fragrant blossoms, along a highway that does not twist or turn, through a land completely void of danger. There are no bandits to defeat, no wild animals to avoid. There is no danger of going hungry or thirsty or being killed by anything that would wish you harm. In fact, the path is so clear, the road so smooth and so straight that even a fool could not manage to seek out a way to get lost along it. This is a highway, wide, and straight; smooth and safe, which takes you all the way home; straight there with no detours, no danger, and no dashing deeds of heroism needed to earn your way there.
Not only is it a place of safety and security, but it is a place of healing and restoration. The blind, see; the deaf, hear; the lame walk, feeble hands of all the grandmothers are made strong, the wobbly knees of all the grandfathers are made steady. All those whose bodies are broken are restored to wholeness and health. This is a place of justice and vengeance, where wrongs are set right. Anyone who have caused others pain, who have done harm, who have crushed the weak and taken advantage of others, will pay. And those to whom injustice has been dealt, will receive what they have lost, what was taken will be restored; they will receive all that have been denied to them.
There is a story where the road home sounds like singing and smells like flowers, where there is rejoicing all along the way. This passage is full of freedom, full of safety, full of longing fulfilled, and full of joy. Joy because home has been found; joy because the lame leap and the mute sing; joy because restoration, reconciliation, redemption have been found, joy because brokenness has been mended and wholeness has been restored.
This is a healing road, one that heals bodies, minds and relationship. It brings restoration to our whole beings and puts us right with our creator. All on this road are righteous, are made clean, only those who are redeemed, who are living in right relationship with God can be found there. This is the road that restores all things, that ultimately sets everything right.
Israel was looking for a way home, way back to the land they loved, a way back to Israel, to Jerusalem. They wanted to go home and so God promises them a road home. God promises them a road like no other road; a holy highway, which encompasses a journey of Joy and leads them right to where they have always longed to be. But the road God promises is bigger than they could imagine, the way there is more amazing than they could dream and the place to which it will take them is nearly incomprehensible. The home to which this road leads, is bigger than Israel, bigger than Jerusalem, bigger than the temple, bigger than the land, this road leads to the holy of holies. It leads to place where we all live in right relationship with God. This is the Holy Highway, the road that leads to the heart of God.
The road to the heart of God is the Word of God, who brings restoration, redemption and restoration to all who walk upon it. All those found upon it are redeemed. The road is the way home. And as we look back and see this promise through the lens of the life, death, resurrection and promised return of Christ, when we understand who Christ is and what life lived as Christ calls us to live means, we cannot help but see that this road is not a thing, it not a path, it no mere highway, it IS Jesus Christ. He is the way. The holy road of God IS Jesus Christ.  And the land to which the road takes us, the home to which we are going, is relationship with the one and only God of the universe.
Advent is about finding home, it is about finding relationships are what really matter, but not the relationships which are found around a fire, under a Christmas tree, by sharing a cup of comforting cider, no matter how important these relationships might be but the relationship decovered and rediscovered in Advent is the relationship we find in Jesus Christ; the relationship when restored, we find when we are right with God. When this one relationship is made right, when we find ourselves walking along the highway which is belief in Jesus Christ and a life lived in the love of God, then we find we are able to work out restoration, reconciliation, in the other relationships in our lives.
Home is found in God, in Jesus Christ and when we find home in the creator of the universe, we are finally able to begin to find home in all the other areas of our life. When we walk along the road that is Jesus Christ, that is where reconciliation, restoration, redemption is found. When we travel along the highway that leads to the heart of God, we find wholeness and healing. It is in relationship with God where wrongs are set right. In living our lives heading toward home we are able to be the people of God rejoicing together, we find that the journey we take is one filled with Joy that can only be found when we finally find where home is, who home is.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Prepare the Way for the Lord: A branch Shall Grow - Isaiah 11:1-10

Desperate times. The people of God to whom Isaiah spoke, looked around them and it seemed nothing good in the world was left. Even if it had not all been lost, it soon would be. The nation of Israel had been conquered and destroyed. Huge swaths of their population had been chained up and taken away into exile, to live out their lives as foreigners in a foreign land. Not exactly held captive but definitely not allowed to return to their homes or their homeland. The nation had been left in pieces. Their cities were destroyed, their fields laid to waste, even if they could return home, were there even homes for them to which to return?
 The people of the neighboring country of Judah, was left. They were witnesses to the destruction of their sister county. I am sure they were relieved to be left out of the current carnage. But Assyria was an insatiable beast who had consumed Israel for a mid-day snack and would return soon, appetite whet and ready to devour them as well. It did not an act of divination to let them know that soon their fate would be the same as Israel’s, it was only a matter of time. They were a people holding their breath waiting for destruction, hoping for salvation.
It was into this world of fear and despair which God gave Isaiah a vision for the people. A vision of a stump, a great and mighty tree, cut down. A people brought to their knee, whose end is in sight. God shows them who they are. They are but a stump. A tree cut off, destroyed, dead. The end is inevitable.
But then something amazing begins to happen. A small green shoot begins to grow, a soft pliable bit of growth. It is frail, it is fragile, but it is a alive. The tree is not dead, it lives, it will grow again, it will one day flourish again. All is not lost. It may seems as if this is the end but it is not. Their nation may die, but they will live again. This is not the end of the story for the people of God. Death, destruction, war, chaos may surround but from the darkness a light will break forth, faint at first but it will grow strong and one day, death will give way to life and peace will reign.
The spirit of the Lord will be within the people. They will know God, this understanding will guide their steps and they will proceed with wisdom, down the paths which the Lord will lead them. They will judge each other with wise council, the widow will be fed, orphans cared for, none will go without and all will be looked after with kindness and caring. Justice will be given; recompense to all who need it and punishment for all seek the harm of others. The nation will be strong and mighty like a tall oak tree, not easily felled. And upon them will be the mark of ones who know the knowledge and the fear of the Lord God. They will worship the Lord with gladness and will follow God’s commands with joy.
The knowledge of God will be like a vast ocean covering all the earth and all creation are sea creatures living and breathing the goodness of God, living by God’s statues and surrounded by God’s justice. The righteous would treat the poor with equity and the wicked would no longer prevail. The law of God would once again be the law of the land. Peace would reign and justice would be known throughout the land.
But the peace they will know will not end with them, it will extend to encompass all creation. The predators of the natural world will rest beside their prey. The one will not move to strike and the other will not shrink back in fear. Not one will pursue, and not one will run away. All creation will live at peace, not even the youngest of human children will be afraid of death at the hand of even the deadliest of animals.
The once dead tree will grow and all will see that the Lord God bring life out of death and will settle the land which once only knew war and chaos with an everlasting peace, which will blanket the ground like leaves in the fall, or snow after a blizzard. But it will be the signal of growth and life, in a place which one only knew death and destruction. The peace of the Lord will thick and enduring, covering all the world. It would be like never ending rich food from which all would eat until full and satisfied.
When I was in college, my friends and I would go out in the evenings on the weekends and explore the city. We would take the train and get off somewhere in the city, usually at park street and head in a direction and just walk, enjoy the freedom of college life and the fun of the city after dark. Sometimes we would wander over to the Esplanade, where one anonymous weekend evening we found a tree. Like many trees in this city it was old, most likely having been here when before the first Europeans founded this city. From the first time we discovered it, I declared it to be my favorite tree in the city. I would return to it over and over again throughout my college years, it really was my favorite tree. When I returned to the city in 2009, on one of the first Sundays we were here, I took my family across the river on a Sunday afternoon in search of the tree, so I could share it majesty with my family. And over the last decade there have been many pictures taken of the girls playing in that tree, walk along its giant branches, resting among it limbs. There are also several pictures of Mike and I in the tree both individually and together. It is still my favorite tree in all of Boston.  
It is an old tree. At some point it had fallen and cut off, because most of that old tree is growing out of an even older stump. But that is not the only time it has been knocked down. Most of the tree grows sideways in several arching leaps, which makes me believe it has fallen over several times. Each time finding new life and continuing to grow. It has survived and survived again. Storm after storm, rain, and winds, long cold winters, hot dry summers, through it all, it has just kept on growing. In circumstances where other trees might have died, this tree, continues to grow and to flourish. Right now when all we can see is how is today, its near destruction is hard to see, but there were times when a passerby would have thought it was dying, there was no hope for the poor old thing. But it did not die; it managed to continue to find life in the midst of death.
Most people when they listen to Isaiah’s prophesy here, think of something like this:
 or this: 
but when I hear it I think of my favorite tree on the Esplanade. 
Isn’t it amazing! At one point it was probably more like the first picture, but now it is a vibrant strong tree, which has weathered the storms and has come back from the brink of death more than once.
This tree is the people of God to whom Isaiah was speaking. It is the people of God anywhere and everywhere there is death and destruction. It is the people of God when it seems all hope is lost; when war and chaos reign and there seems to be no way forward. It is the people of God strong after the storm, continuing to grow, finding strength in God in the face of death. This is a tree which knows and understands that we worship a God who brings life out of the ashes of destruction.
When I look at the world around me today; when I look at the events which are happening not only all around the world, but in our nation, here in the US, I can understand the perspective of the nation of Judah to whom Isaiah spoke when God gave him this vision. The world around us seems to be on fire. We stand in the middle of it all and can see it all as burnt hollowed out stump of a tree. All around us are the seeds of death, the portents of destruction, the remnants of chaos and floods of despair. It is not even that we see nation rising against nation, but we live in a land where a people is rising up against itself. Too many times we cannot even speak civilly to one another.
We remember the words of Jesus from the Gospel text just a few weeks ago, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be great earthquakes, famines and pestilences in various places, and fearful events and great signs from heaven,” We live in a time when we know and understand these kinds of signs. Our world is at war with itself. It seems as if we are standing in the middle of the destruction, in the middle of the chaos. And it would be easy to lose all hope, to look around and say, nothing good can come now.
There are times when the darkness in our lives seems to great. Our lives are in chaos. There are more bills than money. Our health is continually failing, one illness piles on top of another. Our car broke down. We hate our job, or find that we no longer have one. There are so many death events in our lives. We stand in the smoldering ashes of own lives. There is no hope, there is no peace and we are at a loss to find any life or growth around us. It is into these places, into these situations in our lives God speaks this morning. A shoot will grow up in the place where there is only death.
Life can be found. We may not see it now, but here in this world where only death can be found, God will bring life. We may not know it now, it may not yet be seen, but soon, a shoot of growth will spring up. There is hope, there is peace. God is here in the midst of the storm, in the middle of the chaos, and God will bring new life. Death will not have its victory; we worship a God of resurrection and new life!  
But the message of the stump speaks to more than just our individual lives, it speaks to US. I don’t know about you but I look around and I feel like we are the people of God to whom Isaiah give his message this morning; so many have gone from us; so many have died, so many have moved away, so more and from our number are not able to join us on Sunday mornings. We feel like the stump of a once great tree, which grew and flourished but now, not so much. We are all that’s left of something that once was great. Once we were a tree, flourishing, full of life and growth. But now we are a stump.
God promises life. God says a shoot will grow out of the stump; small and fragile at first; frail in it new life, but with the hope and the promise of one day being a new tree, a strong tree. God’s tree, God’s people spreading out our branches and fill the world around us with the grace and truth and love of God.
But now, just as he did then, Jesus says this is not the end. In Isaiah this was true and it is just as true now. THIS is not the end. God promises growth in the midst of destruction, peace in a world at war, and life in the midst of death. 
As we prepare ourselves for the Lord, this Advent Season, let find Hope in the Peace which God alone provides.