Sunday, December 15, 2013

Advent 3A

Leap frog a few generations from last week’s reading and you’ll land in this morning’s passage from Isaiah. During the past two weeks we were knee-deep in palace intrigue when King Ahaz of Judah buckled, making common cause with the enemy only to find the holy city in ruins.

A few kings later, and God’s people find themselves conquered and enslaved by the Babylonians. Unfortunately, this is, for them, familiar territory. Slavery and captivity has been their recurring national nightmare.

And, like last time, the people called to the prophet Isaiah for a word from the Lord. When will they be rescued from slavery? When will they return to the land that God had given them? When will they reclaim their national identity, and return to their former strength and glory? When will God finally fulfill all of the promises that God had made?

This Isaiah, whom many scholars call “second Isaiah,” doesn’t have any inside information for his people. This “second Isaiah” writing and preaching generations after “first Isaiah” doesn’t know the “when” or the “how” this is all going to happen. He can’t tell them at what time they’re supposed to pack their bags.  He only spins poetic promises. When “first Isaiah” proclaimed grand visions for the history of the world, this “second Isaiah” spoke a word that is more personal than that of his ancestor in name.

This Isaiah talks about how the land and the people will be transformed. Deserts will have swimming pools. Arthritic hands will open pickle jars, those with bad knees will run marathons, blind folks will paint murals, and deaf people will update their iTunes collections.

In other words, the physical consequences of slavery will disappear, and they and everything around them will be made new again.

Then, after all that has taken place, Isaiah says, a highway shall be there and it shall be called the Holy Way...”

A highway? Really? Did he have to say highway? They knew about highways. They were the ones who went from place to place for 40 years looking for a spot to start over. They were dragged down the highways to Babylon to live as slaves. They built highways for their oppressors’ pagan festivals. A highway was something that they didn’t want. No matter how holy it was. All they wanted was to finally sit down and rest in a place they could call “home.”

But a highway was promised. And a highway they received. It was the only way out of slavery and into freedom. The highway kept them moving, despite their aching muscles and blistered feet. The highway kept them in motion, always on the look out for danger, always looking around the next corner for food, always looking past the horizon for a place to put up their feet. The highway was their teacher, giving them the wisdom of the road.

At least the highway was familiar to them. For better or for worse, the highway - the Holy Way - made them who they were. Whether they wanted to be or not, they were a people on the move.

This is a familiar story.

It’s been said that mobility is a sign of 21st life. That we leap from job to job, house to house, city to city. That we rarely sit still. That we are a people on the move.

I know that’s true for me. I’ve lived in two countries on two continents, three provinces, numerous cities, countless apartments, quite a few houses, and have logged hundreds of thousands of kilometres in too many cars, down far too many highways, and have boarded a myriad of airplanes. My travels have helped shape me into who I am, for better or for worse. It’s the road - the Holy Way - that God has put me on.

But that doesn’t make me any different from many people of my generation. We move around a lot. In fact, I’m surprised when I meet someone who’s lived in the same town their whole life. 

Very few people do that anymore. Especially here in Alberta. Most come here from somewhere else for work. After all, this is where the jobs are. Outside of this congregation, I’ve met very few adults in this area who say they were born and raised here.

Some say that we lose a sense of place by our wanderings. They say that we are deprived of an appreciation of a collective identity and shared history by moving from place to place to place. 

They say that we lack a rootedness, and lose out on the joys and challenges, that come from being committed to a community for a lifetime. They say that we’ve lost an understanding of “home.”

And so, they say, we grieve this loss of “home.” And we’re always trying to find it again.

I think they’re right. But that doesn’t mean that we wander around lost in the world. After all, as Tolkien noted in the Fellowship of the Ring, “Not all who wander are lost.”

But we do feel the loss. And we’re forever trying to recover it. Even though we celebrate the freedom that comes from cutting ties with the past, we sense that something is missing. Something that we yearn for, but may never find. 

From country western songs waxing nostalgic about the times in our lives when we felt free and secure, or retro-radio stations that play tunes that remind us of when we may have known a place called “home,” to high school reunions to re-visit those days before we set out on life’s highway to make our place in the world, we’re afraid that we’ll never find “home” again.

And if we don’t physically move from place to place to place, the vast changes in the world infringe on our carefully cultivated sense of “home.” Even when we lock the doors so that the world’s changes are kept outside.

Even the church is not immune. Once the last bulwark defending us against the massive changes in the world, the last fortress, protecting a rich and ancient tradition, is being asked to meet the spiritual needs that the vast changes in society is creating.

It used to be that, even when the world raged around us, even when everything outside seemed to be turning upside down, even when our lives and our world seemed to be in a constant state of upheaval, at least there was the Church, at least the Church was there to provide a sense of stability, where we could bath in the familiar, where we could come to regain a sense of quiet from an unchanging tradition mirroring the unchanging God, protecting us from the outside changes that made our feet wobble underneath us.

It was only a matter of time that the changes in the world demanded changes in the church. We were being asked to speak to new realities. To calm new fears. To bind new wounds. To proclaim good news in the midst of a bad news that had just revealed itself.

And so we in the church lost our sense of “home.” It was taken from us. The world and the church are not what they used to be. The ground has shifted underneath us. 

Through no fault of our own, we find ourselves looking around, and seeing very little that is familiar. And all of a sudden, the future doesn’t look as secure as it once did. All of a sudden, everything we knew to be good and true is disappearing.

And so, like the people of God so many thousands of years ago, we’re back on the highway. We are on the move, once again, not knowing when we will rest.

When the captives in Babylon took their exit off the highway and found their way to what they thought was “home,” they were deeply disappointed. They didn’t find what they were looking for. 

They didn’t find freedom and security waiting for them there. Only new sorrows and fresh oppressions. The highway didn’t lead them to where they longed to go.

So back on the road they went. Still searching for “home,” still hoping to find a cure for their restlessness, still looking for that final exit, but probably knowing in the backs of their minds, that they’d never find what they were looking for, they’d never stop wandering, they’d never settle into one place forever. The highway - the Holy Way - would be their “home.” God wanted them on the move.

So, as they would find out, they would change their understanding of “home.” To them, “home” was not a place. But a people. Their “home” was their relationship to each other and their relationship to God. It would be in those relationships and practices that they would recover who they were, and find a “home.”

They would re-tell the stories that shaped them, 

they would re-learn the prayers that brought them to God,
they would remember how to worship,

they would be restored into that deep fellowship of knowing who they were. That knowledge, the knowledge of their history and the knowledge of their God would be their “home.”

All that was taken from them would be returned. Their time in exile would be over. They would be strong. They would be God’s free people again.  They would, once more, be a light to the nations, bearing witness to God’s merciful love and renewing power, so that all the nations would assemble at the mountain of the Lord singing praises to the One who rules over heaven and earth.

They learned that home is not WHERE you are, but WHO you are, and to WHOM you BELONG.

And we may never again feel the security and freedom of “home” in the way a place does, but we do have a “home” together, when we gather as God’s people, receiving God’s love and giving it away to others.

When we tell the ancient stories, and share newer testimonies. When we pray the old prayers, and we sing fresh praises. When we remember our history, and we look ahead to what God will do in the future. That is our “home.”

We are a fresh light to new nations. Shining God’s newly re-lit lamp into the darkness of our time. Glowing with the radiance of God’s love where we are today.

Our “home” is not in a place but in a people. Our “home” is not in a building, but in a community. Our “home” is not only in our history, but in the future - the Holy Way - that God has prepared for us.

And never forgetting, that we are always in motion because God is always in motion. We say that God is unchanging, but that doesn’t mean that we know the fulness of God, or that what we know of God encompasses the vast expanse of the Almighty.

This “unchanging God” is always in the business of changing things. This God is always creating new from something old. Something fresh from something stale. Something buoyant out of something dormant. Something living out of something dead.

Our time of exile may be over. Or it might be just beginning. That’s for God to decide.

But we are a people on the move, sent out into the world on the Holy Way, and returning to the Lord with singing; and being sent on our way once again with everlasting joy on our heads, where sorrow and sighing flee away. And where death is swallowed up into life. Where no one will be lost.

That is our home.

May this be so among us.

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