EXPECTING A CHILD 2: GATHERING
SCRIPTURE: ISAIAH 35:1-10; MATTHEW 11:2-11
In the name of the God who creates us, redeems us, and gives us life. Amen!
Our Advent theme this year is “Expecting a Child.” We are looking at activities around the birth of babies as ways of preparing ourselves for the celebration of the birth of Christ. The scriptures lessons last week included Isaiah’s prediction of a great new leader to rise out of the house of David. John the Baptizer called us to prepare for this new leader, the Messiah, by repenting, by turning from our sins of the past and opening ourselves anew to God’s direction and hope.
Today I invite you to think with me about “Gatherings” that take place when a child is expected. In most families, when a couple announce they are expecting, the extended family will gather, often times repeatedly, to celebrate the good news. There are also baby showers, classes, support groups, colleagues at work, neighbors who stop by, church folk who rally around, and many others, who contact the people in some way and celebrate the good news of an expected child. They want to show their support and love for the gift of new life.
Then, when the baby is born and brought home from the hospital the pace of gatherings increase. Everyone wants to see the new one. I love it when the extended family gathers and they begin to discern who the newborn looks like, “Get a load of that smile! She looks just like Grandma Flossie!” “Oh, yes, but without any hair and no teeth, she sure looks like Grandpa Arthur too!” I just pray our children and grandchildren don’t experience some permanent emotional damage by internalizing these comments made early in their lives.
Our first scripture reading this morning, from Isaiah’s prophecy was probably written during the Exile, when the people had been dispersed into foreign lands. It is a vision of what life will be like when God is present, and the exiles will be gathered to return home. The time of the exile felt to the people like God was not a part of their lives. God was absent, far away.
Of course, it was the people who had turned from their relationship with God in their unjust and selfish living. However these words of hope from Isaiah point to the great reversal that will take place when God is present. Everything will be different, changed. The people and the desert will both be transformed.
The structure of the prophecy has its own beauty. It moves from creation, to humanity, to God, to humanity, to creation again. The desert and the wilderness, typical of the ancient Near-Eastern landscape, are being transformed: the desert blossoms, becoming as fertile as those watered areas of Lebanon, Carmel, and Sharon, the arid sands become a luscious garden.
In the next layer of the passage, human beings are also being transformed: hands, knees, and hearts are made strong: eyes, ears, limbs, and tongue are healed. Note that the seven elements are mentioned, in other words the transformation is complete!
In the center of it all is God. “Here is your God,” announces the prophet, God coming with power to overcome the wickedness, disease, and disorder that stand in the way of God’s breathtaking new age. At the center is God who comes to save. God gathers with us, in our midst, and amazing things are possible.
The prophecy closes with a wonderful image of a great Holy freeway in the wilderness, on which the dangers travelers would expect to encounter are no longer present: no robbers, or accidents, and no one, not even fools or preachers, will get lost. It is a picture of an impending, glorious, joyous, future when all impediments, limitations, and disadvantages in our physical bodies, relationships, and even in nature itself, will be removed.
It is a picture, a dream, of all people and nature being gathered into one harmonious, healthy, and whole. It is a picture we redescribe for each other every year at this time to remind ourselves of our great hope in God. It is a picture of life in its ideal wholeness that has sustained people through illness, loss of loved ones, wars, service as missionaries in ungodly places; and you and me in our lives. Isaiah’s message is God showing up, watch what happens!
And what does happen? People are given eyes to see and ears to hear. In our New Testament lesson however, John the Baptizer, was not seeing so clearly. Restless in the depths of Herod’s prison, no doubt convinced of his impending execution, he begins to doubt or at least wonder, “Did I get it right?’
John never held back. His incendiary sermons and actions had been relentless, proclaiming the coming wrath of God and pointing to the one with far greater power, who was to come after him. John is always portrayed in icons with his index finger raised, pointing away from himself, toward Christ. John is “the pointer.”
But as John sat in the depths of his dark prison, what he knew of Jesus confused him. He had thought the Messiah would bring fire and judgement, but surprisingly Jesus brought forgiveness and redemption. Jesus was not chopping down fruitless trees and throwing chaff into the fire. In fact, Jesus spent a great deal of time pulling the chaff of humanity out of the fire, gathering them back into the community.
So John sent his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another, a different type of leader?”
That’s the Advent question, isn’t it? “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” Do you find yourself asking that question in different ways --- is this the present I have been waiting for? Is this the party? Is this the family gathering? Is this the job? Is this the house we wanted so badly several years ago? Am I the person I have been hoping to become? In many different ways we ask over and over, am I going in the right direction, doing the right things, gathering with the right people? Is this the right understanding of God?
Jesus’ response is plain and clear. “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 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.” (Matt. 11:4-5) These are all signs foretold in the prophecy of Isaiah, signs of the kingdom of God, of the great reversal, of the wondrous wholeness of God’s presence. Jesus is bringing together a great gathering, including those that others said were sinful, unclean, unacceptable and were regulated to the sidelines of life.
Last week I talked about preparing. Advent is an intentional season of preparing. We think about Advent as a journey. We think of Advent as a progressive path, our Holy freeway to the sleepy village of Bethlehem. Preparing. Making plans. Charting a way. Scouting and scoping out the landscape. Assessing and overcoming obstacles to avoid or overcome. But that sounds too much like life as usual. It sounds too much like we are trying once again trying to control life and make everything come up just the kind of roses we want.
Advent is not so much our journey, nor are we in charge. Advent is not a journey we make, a journey we prepare for, a road we navigate. Advent is a journey God makes. Advent is not a trip we prepare to go on. Advent is the time we prepare for God to trip to us. Advent is the time we ready ourselves to receive God. The God, who is making a journey towards us to gather us here in this congregation, all congregations, all peoples, even those we would question should be included, to gather us in one family, God’s family, to gather us to himself.
I would like to tell you about a gathering that happened at Christmas time 1971. The congregation and friends of St. James United Methodist Church in El Paso, Texas had gathered in the sanctuary for the children’s Christmas pageant. Our daughter, Jennifer, was three months old (her daughters were with us this summer—Ashleigh and Skyler) and was selected to be “Baby Jesus”, because there were no other infants in the church at that time. The pageant committee would rather have a real baby rather than a doll.
The young girl who was selected to be Mary, may have been nine or 10. She has handed “baby Jesus” as she entered the sanctuary to walk up the aisle to the chancel area and place “baby Jesus” in the manger. Which she did. Now, I’m not sure who was more nervous that night --- the mother of “baby Jesus”, or the mother of Mary!
As I sat in the front pew taking in all the wonderment of little kids dressed in bathrobes, or cardboard wings, I thought I saw a little hand come up from the manger. I can’t remember if “baby Jesus” (aka. Jennifer) was reaching to grasp anything; rather it seemed she was giving a blessing to all who were present, to all the world.
God comes to us, all of us, in Christ, to bless us with his love. We are gathered to receive from God the blessings of his love. Will you receive God’s love this Advent? Today? Right now?
MAY THESE THOUGHTS GIVE YOU STRENGTH