Christ Jesus has come to open up for us a way to life, to walk on God’s holy way, where even fools can’t get lost; our challenge is to leave our own trails in the wilderness and risk trusting the healing we will receive to make us ready for that way.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen, Third Sunday of Advent, year A; texts: Isaiah 35:1-10; Matthew 11:2-11
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
It can be a terrifying thing to be lost, with little hope of finding one’s way. To take turn after turn, looking for signs, to drive further and further down a road with nothing looking like it’s supposed to, to have no landmarks of any kind. I’ve been lost in wildernesses and in major cities, and there’s always a point of fear when all options seem to have been exercised and no light, no direction has come.
It might be a worse thing, though, to be lost and not know it. To be confidently going one’s way, certain of direction and purpose, but in fact to be completely and utterly in the wrong place, going in the wrong direction: this is more terrifying. The only thing worse would be the unaware lost person denying being lost to the one who is trying to enlighten them. To confidently go one’s way, certain of direction and purpose, completely and utterly in the wrong place, going in the wrong direction, and boldly rejecting any suggestions that this is in fact the situation.
Hope only lies in awareness, it seems. Being aware, or being willing to be made aware, that one is lost, at sea, in the wilderness, is the path to hope only because if one is aware, then if, if, there is a solution at hand, one might be in fact open to hearing it. Open to following it. So long as we remain oblivious, however – either by ignorance or by defiance – there is little chance we’ll be listening for an answer we don’t think we need.
For both Jesus and John, this is the situation: God has a highway that is safe and leads to life, while we’re scratching our way through the underbrush, lost, confused, but insisting our path is the right path.
Both John and Jesus are connected to words from Isaiah which speak of this holy way of God’s, though in very different ways.
The verses from Isaiah 40 that the Evangelists attach to John’s ministry talk about a massive road-building project, earth-movers in the desert. We heard them last week: valleys filled in, mountains laid low, crooked things straightened out, that’s the plan. And John’s the voice of that movement, with his fire and axes and threats. He takes very seriously his role as the one preparing the way for the coming of Messiah, and he’s driving a road through the complacency and apathy of the people with a huge bulldozer. “Wake up,” he shouts, “you’re going the wrong way”. Or worse, you’re not going anywhere that God is.
But the verses from Isaiah we hear today, which Jesus, in his reply to John, claims as a sign he is fulfilling, speak of an already existing safe way through the wilderness. It’s a lovely image of a safe road in a dangerous place, a road which avoids swamps and deserts, a road on which no wild animals will come. This road is God’s Holy Way, a way leading to God, to life, and Isaiah says not even fools can get lost on it. The sign that you’re on the holy way, Isaiah says, is the healing of people, the restoring of the creation, and the vision of God’s people walking in joy and gladness in the light of the Lord.
Jesus, like John, wants people on this road, it’s the road to life, but he comes not with bulldozers, fire and axes, rather with a welcome, an invitation to turn around instead of a shout, with forgiveness, and healing. He comes to prepare hearts and lives through grace and welcome. The people are no less lost than they were with John, though Jesus has a different way about him.
But while Jesus and John have different approaches, the message is the same: you can’t keep on in the way you’re going. It is a way of death. Yet, like the people of their day, we seem to be unable or unwilling to recognize this truth.
We slog through the wilderness of our lives, chopping pathways with the machetes of our own power and control, fighting undergrowth and the wild animals of the brokenness and evil of this world. And if we actually are lost and either don’t know it or won’t admit it, there is no good outcome to our labor and effort. In fact, it’s a sure recipe for destruction.
If the people of God are living lost from God, making their own roads in the wilderness of the world, it’s hardly ever a good result.
When the Church is lost, making its own paths, not walking on God’s Holy Way, people get hurt. The way of the institution becomes the guiding light, and it’s a way that tramples people underfoot if they don’t fit, a way that forgets about God and makes the Church, in whatever form, the new idol, a way that uses power and force and domination instead of offering grace and healing and forgiveness. A lost Church that doesn’t realize it is lost is a frightening and horrible thing; we know this, we’ve seen it.
It’s not much better for any of us as individuals, when we go our own paths, seeking our own good, our own control, our own decisions, our own way. When we think we’re the ones who know best, we also hurt others, and hurt ourselves. We become the new idol, and we forget about God as much as the institution can.
And the irony is that as we struggle through life, either as the Church or individuals, we still are perfectly willing and able to grumble at God for not helping us with the clearing, with the trail, with the journey. When things get hard, God’s on the hook.
And all along, the Triune God is saying, “I actually have a road just over here that’s safe and good and will lead to life. I’m not sure why you persist in doing this your own way instead of mine.” Yet we keep on slogging ahead as if we’re wiser, have better vision, and a clearer purpose than God.
In part that may be because we know from Jesus and John that this is not necessarily a less difficult road: it’s a road of risk and possible loss, of certain vulnerability.
You see, the road might be the way to life, and it certainly is a way walked in the hands of God.
But there are things about it that don’t seem safe to us. The road of the Triune God is a road where we constantly risk ourselves for the sake of others, because that’s what the roadmaker, Jesus, did and does. We are willing to lose, to be vulnerable, to let go of our control.
And on this road we’re willing to admit that John and Jesus have a point, that our way of living our lives is often not of God, is broken, is sometimes destructive, and that we’re going to need to be turned around. We’re going to need to be healed of whatever it is that is broken, that is sinful, that is hurtful. That’s a painful on-ramp to the highway of God, and even on the highway, such self-truth will continue to be important for us to face.
Whether institutions or individuals, such weakness, such confession, such relinquishing of control, is a fearful prospect. But it is the road to life, and even fools can’t get lost. That’s the truth we need to know.
The way of power and dominance and control, where we’re always in charge, where we know the right way all the time, it’s an illusion. We think it leads to life, but we know in our hearts most times that we have no idea where we’re going.
The Holy Way of God, on the other hand, is filled with forgiveness and grace, and with strength from the Holy Spirit to lift our sagging spirits, to open the eyes of our hearts to see the face of God, and shape us into people who look like the roadmaker, like Jesus.
If we follow our own paths in the wilderness, there are infinite ways we can get lost. If we follow our Lord, not even fools – and isn’t that Good News for us today – not even fools can get lost.
But it’s not just God’s road which causes us to hesitate. It’s also not easy for us to admit our way isn’t the best way. Which is probably why Jesus talks about the possibility of people taking offense at him.
To be told you need fixing, you’re going the wrong way is not something we’re happy to hear. It’s very easy for us to look at others who seem to be going the wrong way and have all sorts of advice for them. To look at someone else who seems to need healing – whether spiritual, moral, emotional, mental, physical – and say “they should get some help,” we can do that.
And to look at other institutions, even fellow Christian ones, and see where they’ve gone wrong, where they’re lost, where they’re not walking with God, we’re good at that kind of vision.
Our diagnostic skills are exceptional when it comes to others. It’s quite another thing to admit we need help.
That’s because this is also a deeply vulnerable place to be, to say we’re not what we are meant to be. It requires a deep honesty about our hearts, honesty to ourselves, not just to God. Honesty about motives, intents, about actions and inactions, about thoughts and plans. It requires our facing that we have things that need to be turned around, healed.
And that’s not our favorite thing to do. But surely, if we allow ourselves to be honest in our own minds, we know this is true. We know we are broken, collectively and individually, and act in ways that are not good, that are hurtful. We know that we would fret if others knew all our inner thoughts and desires. We know that not only do we not have all the answers to life, we have almost none.
We know that there are places of deep fear inside us, fear that we are lost and don’t know our way, fear that things happen all the time that we can’t control and that terrifies us, fear that we make a mess of things far more often than we’d like to admit.
And that’s what we need to remember. Because if you’re well and truly lost, if you’re really in the bushes, this is very good news, this holy way of God.
See. if you have a physical illness, you’d rarely want to deny it. You’d know you needed to see a doctor. You’re out of options to figure your own solutions out, to keep going as if all is well. You have only one choice: seek help and hope that someone can help.
So were we able to be honest about our lostness, our inability to make our way in joy, we’d recognize our similar lack of options. Whatever healing of heart, soul, mind, body we need, we’d see that there is One who offers it.
One who loves us even in our worst moments and sees our best, One who has a way to life if only we’d be willing to let him heal us and put us on that way.
One who modelled this whole way, of setting aside power, control, and dominance, and came among us to love us back to the Triune God, to show us the true way to be human, the true path to life.
It comes down to this. Jesus’ reply to John is more for us than anything. He says: “No offense – no offense – but you’re a bit of a mess, and heading in the wrong direction. I can do something about that (look what I’ve done already), and I can get you going right, and you will find life and joy and hope in that new way.”
So we would be blessed, I think, if we didn’t take offense at this.
Blessed if we admitted our lostness as soon as possible, together and individually, that we might open ourselves to the healing, restoring grace of our Savior and Lord, who not only has made the road, but is on it himself, ready to guide, to direct, to strengthen, to cheer.
No offense, Jesus says, but you’ve got a problem. And I can help.
Blessed are those who hear these words of our Lord and find life.
In the name of Jesus. Amen