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A story is told of a pastor who was called to a new church. A couple of weeks before Christmas, there was much consternation as the star of the church’s nativity scene (which was much like the Nativity scene we display each year at the front of the sanctuary) could not be found. They searched throughout the entire Christmas storage room. They couldn’t find Jesus anywhere. Finally, someone had the idea to call the last pastor. It turns out that she kept the baby Jesus figurine in the middle drawer of her desk. The Nativity scene was complete.
One of the annual Christmas traditions at Blythwood is for Peter Hurlburt to hand me the Jesus figurine the Sunday before our Christmas Eve candlelight service. We don’t put Jesus in the scene until Christmas Eve. In those days before the Christmas Eve service, the Jesus figurine lies in the middle drawer of my desk. I think what I might do, though, is to take up the practice of the pastor in the story of the missing baby Jesus and leave Jesus there throughout the year as a reminder to myself that Jesus is there in the midst of . . . the wilderness of my middle desk drawer. I hope I’m not the only one. The middle drawer tends to contain what I would best call detritus of life. Half dead batteries. A Tide Pen. Pieces of Blythwood history that people have given me with which I just cannot bear to part. A microphone head. The nozzle for the pump that I use to inflate basketballs/volleyballs. Why don’t I keep those together? You get the idea.
I think I might just leave that Jesus figurine in my desk the whole year through; maybe attach a post-it to it that says, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God.” In the middle of my detritus. In the middle of my wilderness. The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad.
Two truths about followers of Christ are evident in our readings today. One is that we have been given a song. The song might be called “God Is For You” or “God Is With You” to personalize it. We might use the words from Isaiah for our song title – “Here Is Your God.” That’s our song. If you’re saying, “Well I’m really not that much of a singer,” don’t worry about it. Shout it. The word translated “singing” in Isaiah 35 can be (and has been in some versions of the Bible) translated as “shout.” Our song, like our joy, is not something we need to call up from within ourselves. It is given to us. All we need (to) do is accept and not reject this gift that comes to us like the gift of a child, speaking of joy. This gift of a child named “God with us.” We don’t need to call it up from within ourselves and this is a good thing. Exile is hard. The wilderness is hard. “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land,” said the people of God as they hung up their harps on tree branches by the rivers of a city, a city whose people had carried them away in captivity. How can we sing?
How can we sing (or shout) this Sunday? In Latin-influenced church traditions, this is called Gaudete Sunday. The Sunday of joy. The Sunday of rejoicing. The candle is pink today because it was thought that the usual penitent purple (and the sorrow and regret we feel for doing wrong) just didn’t fit on Joy Sunday. How can we speak of joy given the state of the world/state of our lives/state of the lives of those who are most dear to us? Might it seem out of place, even with a pink candle? Might it seem gaudy even – extravagantly bright or showy, given the state of things? Gaudete Sunday – and it’s interesting that gaudy comes from that same Latin word, gaudere, from which we get Gaudete. It means rejoice.
So let us sing with the Psalmist – “I will praise the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God all my life long.” Can’t stop, won’t stop. “Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God” We see how all these Advent candles are working together and making their truth known together.
So this is the first thing. We’ve been given a song. We’ve personalized this “God for/God with you” or “Here is your God,” but we don’t stop there. Here is the second thing that I’d like us to hold up as truth for ourselves this Joy Sunday.
We’re travelling along a highway together. You know, one of my favourite images for the church is that of a pilgrim people, a people on a journey together toward the holy city on the holy mountain. We are called to go together, and we are called to invite others to join us as we go. Someone has put it like this: “We are travelling the Lord’s Highway today. We may not yet be all that we can be; we may not yet have reached our destination as the people of God, but we are on the way. We are a pilgrim people, singing our songs of ascent as we go up into the glorious presence of God, even as we are already embraced by our God every step of the way.”
Now here is the thing about the wilderness of which Isaiah writes – it’s not the kind of wilderness that we might think of here in Canada, where we tend to think of wilderness in terms of forests and rivers and lakes of which we might have first-hand knowledge or have seen in wilderness documentaries (Lorne Green’s “New Wilderness” was big for me). It’s not the kind of lush plain that we might think of from safaris and wilderness documentaries. The wilderness around the Dead Sea in southern Israel is rough. There’s not enough water for crops or trees. Winter rains bring growth every year, but it’s pretty scraggly growth. Here are a couple of pictures I took when Nicole and I were in Israel some years ago. The vegetation is enough to sustain sheep or goats, who manage to get by on this kind of sparseness, but that’s it. This is the promise made in Isaiah 35, where the wilderness and the desert are rejoicing along with us. “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, and the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus, it shall blossom abundantly and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon (and its cedar trees) shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon (the coastal plain where crops grow in abundance. They shall see the glory of the Lord (the weight of God’s presence), the majesty of our God.”
As we go along, we strengthen weak hands and make firm feeble knees. Not our own, of course; we’re not up to that on our own (and I’m starting to learn something about feeble knees, let me say). One another’s hands and knees. Why do we come together week by week if not at least in part, to encourage one another? To remind one another. To say to one another whose hearts are fearful, “Be strong, do not fear!” Why? Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you. If this talk of vengeance sounds harsh to us, remember that it is God’s work and it involves setting right all injustice, relief of suffering and the liberation of all from fear and impoverishment. This is what God does. When we worship together - when we are reminded of God’s truth together and remind one another of God’s truth together and encourage one another in God’s truth together – we are made more like Him, and we are enabled to go out and do as God would have us do, reflecting God’s ways.
May we be attentive to what God is doing. How will we know that God is with us? “How will I know?” as the musical question goes. The life of faith is one that is, at times, paired with doubt. Doubt is not so much the thing to be avoided as fear is. It’s been said that the opposite of faith is not doubt but fear. This is why we repeatedly hear “Fear not” or “Be strong, do not fear.” Paul Tillich said, 'Faith is the courage that conquers doubt not by removing it, but taking it as an element into itself.” You may be saying to me, “David, it’s great to hear that God is with us and not to fear, but how are we going to be assured that God is with us?”
To which I say look to the promise. The promise is in all of our readings today. The promise will be made known fully one day, but we know it in part now. “The Lord sets the prisoners free; the Lord opens the eyes of the blind. The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down.” (Ps. 146: 7b-8a) “The Lord watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow.” (Ps. 146-9a) The promise is heard in Isaiah 35 – “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.”
Follower of Christ, fear not. This faith is not just something we speculate about or look to in order to hold a theory about life and death and everything in between. This faith looks like something. From what have you been freed? How are you being enabled to see in a whole new way? How have you been lifted up when bowed down under a crushing weight? How are you coming to hear in a whole new way? How have you been enabled to leap and given a new song to sing?
Even when doubts arise. Even when things have not gone the way we wanted to or expected them to. Even John the Baptist. We may think that if only we had been there, sitting at Jesus’ feet, doubts would dissolve. Not so much. In Matthew 11, we have John the Baptist wondering. He’s in prison. He heard about what Jesus was doing. “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
As an answer, Jesus tells John through John’s people to look at what’s going on. May we never let questions or concerns about what’s going to happen or how it will happen blind us to what God is doing among us. “Go and tell John what you hear and see,” says Jesus. “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.” And then a beatitude – “And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.”
Promises that will know completion one day promises that we know in part now, no matter what is going on. God is with us no matter what our circumstances. Joy even in the middle of sorrow. Christmas is not unmitigated joy for all. Blue Christmas is real. Joy is God with us in the middle of loss, where we see good news being proclaimed and held onto. We saw that last week in our church during the service for our sister Ruth. Christmas decorations and a memorial service together, and why not? How much more meaningful do the promises of God with us become at such times? Promises that we see in the life of our church family in the stranger being watched over; in people being given eyes to see and ears to hear.
I think I’ll leave baby Jesus in my desk this year as a reminder of the joy to be found in “God with us.” Someone has described “God with us” like this - “See, he’s here! He’s been here all along. Right alongside, through the joys and the heartaches, through the struggles and the accomplishments.” Right there, maybe out of sight for a time, but close by. Within reach. Even in the desert. Even in a place of exile. Of uncertainty. Right there, all the time. Emmanuel.
God with us. Our hope. Our peace. Our joy. Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift.