December 2022


The Lord's Highway

An Advent Song of Ascents

Third Sunday of Advent, Year A

Joy Sunday says it all. The third Sunday of Advent is marked by the pink- or rose-colored candle in the wreath in many traditions. It is the one where we are reminded of the news that shall be a great joy to all people—the news that Emmanuel is born, God with us. And we stand in the promise even today, even here, in this place, in your place – God is with you. There can be no greater joy than that.

Last minute? You’ve heard advertisements for “last-minutes gifts” at the end of November. That didn’t seem last minute, does it? Miles to go, really, weeks and weeks to get things accomplished. Sure, there are Christmas Eve services to plan, but we’ve got lots of time. Sure, there are gifts to get and decorations to put up, but there is time aplenty. Don’t worry. Except now, we’re two weeks out. The clock is ticking. Decisions are still to be made. There are questions to be answered and Jesus to be found.

Yeah, well, that’s a story too. The Nativity set at a church I served was missing a vital ingredient. A central cast member of the drama of Christmas was missing. The central cast member. We looked everywhere, even contacted the previous pastor who kept it in his desk throughout the year for some reason. In my desk. But it wasn’t there. And I was struck with the panic that in the transition I tossed it out. Him out. But, no, I wouldn’t have done that, would I? Throw away a baby Jesus in the manger because it was in the wrong place? A desk drawer is an unexpected place. I mean, of all the places to keep a baby Jesus figurine, a desk drawer seems the least likely. The center drawer, the junk drawer, where you throw the stuff you don’t know what do with but don’t want to throw away. The hidden stuff, the forgotten stuff, some broken, some given by someone, but you’ve forgotten who, knick-knacks, odd bits, the island of misfit toys, that’s what’s in the middle drawer of the desk. It’s not a place for baby Jesus. A desert of stuff, some useful, some not, but unorganized and lost, just there, in the drawer.

But then is there any place where Jesus doesn’t belong? The more I thought about it, the more I thought it was a great idea to keep the baby close to me all year long, in amidst the rubble of my life, until he can be brought out at Christmas time to say, “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.

Chapter 35 of Isaiah is considered a transitional chapter. Most scholars talk about three different Isaiahs—though they aren’t named—all contained within the sixty-six chapters of the book that bears that name. And this chapter is a transition between First Isaiah and Second Isaiah. First Isaiah is largely about warning, trying to get God’s people to see that their present course is going to lead to disaster, that the political relationships they have created will be their undoing, that their economic policies are unsustainable, that the road they are on will lead to destruction and exile. And Second Isaiah, written during that time of exile, is largely about hope and a promised return.

“Largely,” because there is hope in First Isaiah, and there is warning in Second Isaiah. But in the middle section of the book, we are looking longingly for home; that much is clear. From about chapter forty on, there is this sense that all is not right, that we aren’t where we are supposed to be, and we aren’t who we are supposed to be. But overriding that sense of unease, there is a word that says it won’t always be this way. This message, however, doesn’t come in some vague, impersonal way. It comes with exuberant joy. It comes with lushness and excess. It comes with promise and security. It comes with applause.

The desert blooms and blossoms to usher us back home. The waters, normally such a temporary thing in that climate, will break forth, splashing up, pouring out, rising high, like the dancing waters at Disney World, like an open fire hydrant at on a hot summer day, like a cold bucket of Gatorade dumped on the winning coach. We’re all winners on the road home. We are all celebrated on the journey to where we belong.

But do you see the promise? Not only is there a route home, but it is safe and secure, protected from all sorts of enemies; and it is well provisioned. There is water to quench our thirsts, and there is some sort of divine GPS. We simply can’t get lost. And better than that, our aches and pains, our brokenness and infirmity will disappear on this journey. Our disabilities don’t limit us, don’t handicap us. We can dance and sing; we can see, and we can hear because this journey is one of beauty and of joy.

Best of all, however, is that we are not alone. This is not a solitary journey where we cross the miles and work our way into the preparations to face family who seem to both lift us up and knock us down at the same time. Not a “find your own way” and then the party starts once you get there. No, indeed.

First of all, God has come. That’s the reason for all the celebrations anyway. God has come to bring us home. God has come to escort us home. God has come to walk with us every step of the way. No wonder there is joy in our heads. No wonder sorry and sighing shall flee away. No wonder there is all the dancing and singing and splashing around in the courtyard fountains. John Wesley’s dying words were reported to be “best of all, God is with us.”

Best of all. But the second is like it. Isaiah tells us what we will do when we are on our way home, to this home of all homes, the home of our heart and soul, the home that will make us whole again for the first time. And what we do is share it. Say to those, “he tells us; ‘strengthen,’ he proclaims; ‘make firm,’” he encourages us. He isn’t talking to God here; he is talking to us. And he isn’t telling us to strengthen our own weak hands or to make firm our own feeble knees, though God knows they are feeble and in need of strengthening. God knows our hearts are fearful even at the best of times, it seems. We are hardly the best ambassadors of God’s grace and hope, hardly the best witnesses to comfort and joy. And we are what God has to work with. We are the sign that the journey home has begun. We are witnesses to God with us - to Emmanuel. We are the light in the darkness, announcing to any and all that the season of joy and light, of peace and goodwill, is here. Say to those of a fearful heart, “Be strong, fear not.”

He’s right there. God’s right there, as we walk on the road through the desert that might not yet be blooming. The seeds are there, hidden away, behind the paper clips and the rubber bands, covered up by the stacks of Post-it notes that you couldn’t use in a lifetime, the business cards, the note that someone scrawled on the back of the bulletin telling you what a poor excuse for a human being you are and then didn’t sign it just to mess with your head, underneath the drawing a bored child did of you up there in front, with your head too big and your hands swollen to an incredible size, and a word bubble coming out of your mouth saying “Jesus loves you!” Yeah, he’s there. Emmanuel. God-with-us. Even in the desert. On the Lord’s highway.

That is why we’re on this road, this Christmas road, this desert road of ritual and celebration, this sand dance as we shuffle along this highway of hope and peace and joy. Gaudate, the third week of Advent, gaudate – Latin for joy. More than joy, it is “Rejoice!” A command, an imperative. You must, we should, you will rejoice as we walk this road, as we make this journey. It is the rhythm of the road.

Psalm 146 becomes our declaration. Praise the Lord, O my soul! I will praise the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God all my life long. That’s how the psalm begins. But we pick up the tune in verse 5, happy are those . . . Forget your troubles, come on get happy. We’re singing on this road; we’re marching to Zion; we’re heading to the Promised Land, to the kin-dom of God. Of course, we rejoice. Of course, we sing. Of course. The Lord’s highway is a road for singing. We’re on the way.

In This Series...

First Sunday of Advent, Year A - Lectionary Planning Notes Second Sunday of Advent, Year A - Lectionary Planning Notes Third Sunday of Advent, Year A - Lectionary Planning Notes Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year A - Lectionary Planning Notes


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In This Series...

First Sunday of Advent, Year A - Lectionary Planning Notes Second Sunday of Advent, Year A - Lectionary Planning Notes Third Sunday of Advent, Year A - Lectionary Planning Notes Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year A - Lectionary Planning Notes