A highway shall be there,
and it shall be called the Holy Way;
the unclean shall not travel on it,
but it shall be for God's people;
(and) no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray. (Isaiah 35:8-10)
Advent 3/A 15 December 2019
Isaiah 35:1-10; James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11
The earlier verses of this beautiful and poetic chapter from the Hebrew prophet, Isaiah, are much more familiar than the few lines I quoted just now. The opening of blind eyes, the unstopping of deaf ears, and the leaping and dancing of the lame, are part of our common language now. Even those people who never read the Bible or whose shadow rarely darkens the church door may well recognize these images, perhaps from the more familiar lyrics of Handel's great oratorio, the Messiah. In fact, for many people, it is well nigh impossible to hear Isaiah's prophecies without the sounds of "Messiah" accompanying them. And that is a great blessing because, with music, these inspired words become even more lofty and unforgettable. In times of stress and despair, in times of anxiety and fear, it can be helpful to remember good words, to have them lodged in our subconscious, ready to be called up when we need release from distress.
But what about this "highway" Isaiah speaks of? This “Holy Way” which is meant to lead God's people home? What a tender and caring image these lines carried, especially for the difficult and dangerous times in which they were written, all those centuries ago – and what comfort and assurance they gave: "no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray"!
Remember back a few years, back in “the good old days” before 9/11, and TSA, and metal detectors … remember how we all used to be so confident and easy-going when traveling? The airports were full of people going somewhere, often looking resolute and in a hurry, or sometimes even looking like sheep who had gone astray. But one didn't notice much fear back then. Now, along with heightened frustration and aggravation, there is often great trepidation about traveling, and an agonizing waiting until we hear that any plane, with loved ones aboard, has landed safely.
But this morning, I want to apply this metaphor to more than just physical travel, to more than being physically transported from one place to another. I ask you: Do we – can we - on this particular Advent Sunday, feel confident in being God's people, in being travelers on a spiritual journey who, no matter what the dangers or pitfalls or detours, will trust in the promise that we will not go astray?
Legitimate questions arise from these verses: "Just who are the fools mentioned here? And just who is it that keeps the faithful from going astray?"
Now, the arrogant never admit to being fools. The powerful never admit to being weak. Nations, and athletic teams, and sadly, some politicians, strive always to be “Number One” – seek to be “the One” - the greatest, the most powerful, the smartest, the fastest, and the strongest. Are we to assume that these are the fools Isiah speaks of? Maybe, yes; maybe, no. And we must always be wary of assumptions.
So, let’s look again at today's Gospel and see what we might find there . . .
John the Baptizer, so confident when Jesus had come to the River Jordan to be baptized by him, now is having second thoughts, it seems. He finds himself captive in a horrid fortress in the Judaean desert, imprisoned by a frightened Herod. Sitting in prison, everything has been taken from him -- his preaching, his mission, his opportunity to call others to repentance. Apparently, even in captivity, John heard news about his cousin Jesus and his own ministry among the same people John had once ministered to. But John certainly did not learn of any change in the system the Romans and the high priests had established and caught him in its web. The “Holy Way”, the way he himself had been asked to prepare, was obviously still being traveled by "the unclean;" while fools like himself, those who dared to proclaim the truth, were still being imprisoned or killed.
And, John must have asked himself, what about his cousin? Once John had thought that Jesus was "the One who is to come," an acknowledged expression for the long-awaited Savior, the Messiah. But John is now asking: "If Jesus was The One, why is nothing happening concerning the kingdom we both had dreamed about, the kingdom that God had promised would be ushered in with the coming of the Messiah?" In view of Isaiah's prophecy, we might ask the question another way: "Of all the paths available, how do we know which is the Holy Way where the redeemed shall walk, and the ransomed of the Lord shall return?" In stark contrast to Isaiah’s prophecy, the evidence before John seems to point to a contrary conclusion: that God's people have gone astray; that only the unclean and unrighteous are walking on this highway, while the faithful are left to other, less promising routes. In light of the circumstances, who can blame John for his doubting and questioning?
Jesus must have heard the questions John sent through his disciples with great sadness. His mind was clearly on Isaiah's prophetic words when he sent back an answer: "Tell John what you see,” he told John’s followers. Tell him, “The eyes of the blind are being opened, the ears of the deaf unstopped, the lame are walking. Tell John to make up his own mind according to the evidence that I set before him."
We don't know what John thought or said when he heard the echoes of Isaiah in Jesus' reply, but the image of the kingdom he and Jesus had hoped for must have returned to him even in that dungeon: a kingdom not of power and vengeance and military overthrow of the enemy; but a kingdom of repentance, where goodness and mercy and love prevail, and wrongs are made right. Alone in his jail cell, facing death, what longing must have filled John. We are not told John’s response, but one hopes that he found Jesus’ answer encouraging, and that the Savior’s words allowed him to meet his death with hope and courage, and with his deep and abiding faith restored.
In the end, it all comes down to a clash between kingdoms . . . a competition for where we will place our trust, and belief, and hope . . . the first one, the kingdom inherited and embraced and supported by Herod, the high priests, and the Romans is a kingdom built and maintained by earthly power, based on strength and fear and violence. The other is a kingdom established and supported according to God's holy plan for peace and good will, where no violence or oppression or fear is be accepted or practiced. Such a kingdom – the kingdom of heaven, the Kingdom of God – this second kingdom was being lived and proclaimed by Jesus. There seems little question in this Matthew passage that Jesus expected this peaceable kingdom to be established by him and through him during his lifetime. But, in accord with God’s plan, it did not happen that way. St. James, in his letter, reminds us that this same expectation continued into the early church as they too waited for Jesus' imminent return; "the coming of the Lord is near," James tells his readers. Two thousand years ago, that assurance comforted them.
But all these centuries later, what comforts us now? Where do we pin our hopes? Which kingdom do we support? In which kingdom do we place our trust and belief?
If our hope is based on military power and economic strength, and on our conviction that only we as a nation, or as a people, or as a gathered community, are always in the right, we need to examine very carefully the answer Jesus sent back to John – and ask ourselves if we are the fools. And if our answer is based on Jesus' vision of a kingdom of peace where good is accomplished without violence, then we must confront the daily death count in our city streets, and admit that we are the fools.
And yet, despite our sins, the divine promise still stands that, as God’s children, we will not – in the end - go astray.
When Jesus' mission ended on the hard wood of the cross, everyone – even his most ardent disciples - must have thought he had been a fool. The cross is a scandal to the Jews, St. Paul tells us, and foolishness to the Greeks – meaning, to the whole known world. And all these centuries later, both the scandal and the foolishness of the cross persist. The Cross of Christ is still pitted against the persistence of worldly power, against violence, against oppression, and against our trusting only in ourselves.
The way of the world. And the “Holy Way” of God. Which way do we choose this Advent?
Only the hope expressed by Isaiah - that the Holy Way of God protects God's people – and yes, even fools - can help us get by.
As in Isaiah’s day . . . and as it was in John’s and Jesus’ day . . . two paths still lie before us: the way of the world, and the “Holy Way” of God. The choice we make this Advent has to be made by us – made by each of us, based on our own vision of the kingdom to come and the evidence Christ places before us.
Like John, we ask: “Are you the One who is to come?” And just as Jesus said to John, we must examine the evidence and answer the question for ourselves.
Then, we must look at the way of Jesus; and look at the way of the world. And ask ourselves: Which way do we prefer? Which way will we choose to walk?
And then, we pray: May God’s most holy Spirit guide us to make the right choice.