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Sunday, December 15, 2019 | 8:00, 9:30, and 11:00 a.m.
Judith L. Watt
Associate Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
What good is it to me if Mary gave birth to the Son of God fourteen hundred years ago and I do not also give birth to the Son of God in my time and culture?
My first Sunday at Fourth Church was in June of 2011. I had no worship duties that first Sunday. My only task was to observe all of the worship services. So I showed up, with clergy collar and black suit, looking the part and attended all three morning services, the jazz service in the afternoon, and every single Coffee Hour in between. And after it was all over, I thought to myself, “Now why did I ever think this was a good idea?”
Coming to Fourth Church had been more than an idea. It wasn’t something I just dreamed up and thought I’d try. I’d had an ongoing nudge for a couple of years, a nudge I’d discerned was from God, a calling, that it was time to leave a church I’d grown to love and focus again in the area of pastoral care. Doors opened, God kept nudging, and it seemed that coming here was something God was calling me to do, to take a step of faith, not knowing 100 percent if I had discerned well but knowing that over time I’d find out and that God would be with me whether it worked out or not.
I confessed the next day to another pastor here that I’d had that “Why did I ever think this was a good idea” thought. She had been through a number of pastoral transitions herself, so she knew the feeling, and she quickly said to me, “Don’t, just don’t, don’t allow yourself to ask that question for at least three months.” In other words, wait. Wait until later. Wait until then. Because then, down the road, in the future, you’ll see. Then you’ll be able to know.
That word—then—is the word that has jumped out at me from the Isaiah passage. Isaiah lays out this grand promise, a beautiful vision, and uses the word then to convey that the fulfillment of that vision is for a future time.
It is what transition is all about, isn’t it? We make changes in our lives, changes we think might be good for us, even changes we think God is pushing us toward, but we have to wait to see how it all pans out. I’m pretty sure that sometime in the next few months of my impending transition, I’ll ask myself, “Now why did I ever think this was a good idea?”
There are changes that are foisted on us, too. The hard losses that come in life, that cause suffering or doubt. You are thrown into transition, and all you find yourself hoping for is then, that resolution that seems so far off, that time when you’ll stop missing your loved one, that time when your kid gets it straightened out, that time when you’ll find that next job or when an illness will be healed. You keep hoping for then to replace now.
And there is the transition we all feel in today’s environment. Changes in communication and technology, changes in what once were agreed-upon levels of civility between people and between parties, changes in what we know about the health of our earth. So much change. And so much worry. And the change has thrown us into one big long transition. Waiting, waiting, and waiting for all to be right someday, and not exactly sure that that will ever happen.
Because I’ve had to disassemble my office, I’ve been going through files, and I came across a sermon written by John Buchanan in 1992 (“The Second Conversion,” 18 October 1992), long before I was on staff. The sermon starts with the naming of a seven-year-old, Dantrell Davis. Some of you will remember that name. That week in 1992, Dantrell had been shot and killed as his mother walked him to the Jenner Elementary School in the Cabrini-Green housing complex. John preached, “It’s not that it never happened before. In fact, there is a sense in which it happens so much that people in Chicago cope with it by not paying attention, by pushing it and all it represents, out of our thinking.” Up to that point in 1992, 120 children under eighteen years of age had been shot and killed in Chicago. Dantrell had been killed by a man with a semiautomatic weapon. Twenty-seven years ago.
That time when the world will be made right has not arrived. The waiting messes with our hope.
In today’s scriptures, the people for whom Isaiah was written were dealing with their own transitions wrought by dramatic change in their lives. Their home had been captured by the Babylonians. Their temple had been destroyed. They had been forcibly moved to Babylon to live in a land that was completely strange to them. They had lived between hope and despair. When after the exile they finally returned to Jerusalem, there was hope that was raised again in joyful anticipation of what going home would be, and even those hopes were dashed, because life hadn’t evolved to perfection. The promise of a world finally made right hadn’t been fulfilled.
Isaiah’s words paint the picture of a world where the wilderness and dry land will be glad, where the desert will bloom with more crocuses than you can imagine. Then, Isaiah proclaims, the eyes of the blind will be opened. There will be healings upon healings, the hot desert sands will become pools of refreshing water, and a highway will be present—a highway of smooth sailing, no ravenous beasts present, no traffic jams, no flat tires, no expressway shootings, just smooth sailing, a highway to that world made completely right, a holy highway for our God to travel and lead us to the then we all hope for during our bumpy, sometimes traumatic life transitions, but not only that, the then that is the promise of our faith. The promise that we really are traveling toward the redeeming of the world, that it really will happen someday. A world where little Dantrell Davises don’t get shot anymore. A world in which random shooters don’t exist, because they’ve grown up with love rather than hate, with hearts full of compassion rather than hearts damaged by hurt and injustice.
These promises in Isaiah are what we call messianic promises, what we talk about when we talk about the hopes expressed in the coming messiah. They are promises that work against our exhaustion and despair and our sense of being subject to fate. They fuel our hope. But that the hopes haven’t yet been realized tests our Advent-style patience, tests the waiting we must do. It is the glory and the frustration of Advent.
Preacher Barbara Lundblad says that Isaiah dares to speak a word out of place, a word that refused to wait until things improved (Barbara Lundblad, “This Text Shouldn’t Be Here,” Commentary on Isaiah 35:1–10, workingpreacher.org/preaching). It’s a word of hope in the midst of a truly crummy time. She recalls Walter Brueggemann’s words that Israel’s doxologies, their praises, are characteristically against the data. We see and hear the data every night on the news. Add to that the data of our own lives—waiting for test results from the doctor, mourning the death of a loved one, wondering if we’ll make it through the next round of layoffs. We know the data all too well, and we long for a word out of place, a word against the data.
Years later, during the time John the Baptist was in prison, messianic hopes were in the air too, and Jesus was said to be the fulfillment of these hopes. John in prison hears what Jesus has been doing. He sends his own disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” I think John was in his own place of despair and doubt, because if those messianic promises were true and if Jesus were really the Messiah, John wondered why he was still in prison. Why was he still locked up behind bars if it was true about Jesus? “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus sends back an answer—“Go and tell John what you see and hear”—and then Jesus lists the variety of miracles that have been taking place.
In other words, notice all there is that goes against the data. Isaiah says, “Strengthen your weak hands and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart [a better translation is ‘Say to those with hurried hearts or anxious hearts’] be strong and do not fear! Here is your God.”
You know what I think? I think you’ve got this. I have been privileged to see so many miracles take place here through our weak hands and feeble knees. You all keep going against the data. Tutoring students nurtured through the grades. Stomachs filled with food that isn’t available elsewhere. Thirty-five thousand meals a year served here. Willing listening week after week by Stephen Ministers and Replogle Center counselors and so many of you, one person to another, as people experience their own change and crisis. Relationships formed across borders of all sorts. Ministries set up to help people find jobs in disadvantaged neighborhoods. People courageous enough to examine their own racism. Prayers lifted up by Deacons every Sunday in Stone Chapel with strangers who come seeking a prayer. Things that go on behind the scenes that no one ever knows about. I once witnessed two businessmen, members here, take four-plus hours out of their work day to speak a patient, loving, but hard word to another of our much older members who needed to make a change he just hadn’t found the courage to make.
Isaiah promises, “A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way and it shall be for God’s people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.” You are going against the data, traveling down the highway and making that highway smoother traveling every day, smoother for God’s people, and more and more of a holy highway for our God to come in full glory someday, some time, then. But in the meantime, be strong and do not fear! Here is your God—already seen in the miracles that take place now.
Over the past few months, since I announced my retirement, on any of the Sundays when I haven’t had worship duties, I’ve stood over here by the south transept door and watched as the service starts. Every Sunday I’ve been moved, because the repeated liturgy each week says so much to me about the people of God and this journey we are on. I’ve stood there to watch because I wanted to take it all in—to commit it all to memory. Every Sunday the same—a sung doxology, singing praises to God, and we all stand, a call to worship, a prayer, and then this great procession starts from the back, led by the person carrying the Bible, with choir following, singing boldly, and worship leaders after that. Week after week after week. Despite the fact that there are fears all around us, we march in holy procession along the holy highway, safe in the presence of God. In boldness we approach God, having found the courage to come into God’s holy presence. And then we lift up our weak hands and make firm our feeble knees and are bold to extend that highway out from here to the world out there, somehow believing against the data that some day everlasting joy will be upon the heads of all of God’s people. It has been such a beautiful procession to watch and to be part of. You’ve all got this. I wish you all everlasting joy as you continue to believe and to act, knowing that our God will come. Amen.