In the Name...
A cathedral was having some work done on its roof and had installed a cage elevator outside to haul men and materials to the top. Of course, during the repairs, services had to continue as usual. And, one day, as a funeral cortege pulled up outside, the arriving mourners were greeted by the sound of a voice from above shouting, "Hey, Peter, open those gates."
Driving around the area, one cannot but notice the road works and other construction projects. It seems some have been going on all year. But, whatever the project is, one thing that always happens, before any work crew arrives, is that engineers make a survey of the site. They determine how the land rises and falls, the drainage, the distance from the road to existing buildings, rights of way, etc. The survey provides vital information on the landscape before building can commence.
Preceding the section of our Old Testament lesson today, the prophet Isaiah has announced the results of a survey that God made on the spiritual landscape of the people of Judah. The report reads that many faults have been found. Corruption, injustice, and spiritual bankruptcy are so prevalent that the building site deserves to be abandoned. The Holy One who brought them out of Egypt and made them His people is appalled.
We're probably familiar with some of the words of the lesson from hearing them sung in performances of Handel's "Messiah" a popular favourite of this season. But, we need to remember the context in which they were first spoken and it wasn't a concert hall. These words were spoken to a people who had lost everything they knew and loved. They had been conquered by the Babylonians and forced into exile a thousand miles from home. They had broken the covenant and were suffering for their actions. It would not have surprised them if the prophet had come to pronounce God's death sentence upon them for their crimes.
And yet, the prophet's words offer a balance of grace, judgment, and love. Yes, the people had relied upon their own strength and not God's and were suffering for their mistake. But, despite that, Isaiah brings word that a reprieve has been granted. Execution has been stayed.
He reminds the people of God's care and tells them to prepare to return to him. And he tells them that the place to begin to find him again is, of all places, a desert. Now, the desert and the garden are common symbols in Near Eastern literature of all religions. The garden represents a place of security and refreshment, a place to find God, or the gods as the case may be. The desert was the opposite, a place of isolation and fear, the abode of evil spirits - literally God-forsaken.
But, that is where our God said his people needed to go if they were to find him. And that is often his message to us today. If we have lost sight of God and relied too much upon ourselves, as did the people of Judah, then we need to have what is called a "desert experience" to find Him again.
There are many kinds of desert experiences and each one is custom-made to address our personal spiritual weaknesses and character flaws. In the desert, we are forced to face these and discover the healing grace God has in store for us. For example, someone who is a perfectionist may be led to the desert of chaotic situations where he or she must discover humility. A control freak is brought into the desert of uselessness to learn what it means to be a child of God. The rigid maintainer of the status quo is challenged by the desert of change. For each of us, there is a personal desert waiting and they are never comfortable places to be.
After the Battle of Lake Erie in 1814, Oliver Hazard Perry sent the famous message, "We have met the enemy and they are ours." Some 150 years later, that was revised by a popular cartoonist to read, "We have met the enemy and they is us." How often how true. We, like the people of Judah can be our own worst enemies.
In January, 1958, an elderly man suffering from severe gastric pain walked into the office of the dean of the Emory Medical School in Atlanta, GA. Dr. Hugh Wood listened politely as the man, who was a major donor to the university, said he'd been told by a specialist that he had an incurable condition. He, then, went on to complain at length about how unfair life had been to him. When he finished his tirade, Dr. Wood said, "Now, tell me, Mr Cobb, what's really bothering you?"
And, so, for the next hour and a half, baseball legend Ty Cobb, twenty-two seasons with the Detroit Tigers, holder of records which still stand, first inductee to the Baseball Hall of Fame, a multi-millionaire, and generally regarded as the meanest and most hated man in baseball history, poured out his personal inner pain at a life which had been so rich in material things and yet so bankrupt in meaning. Dr. Wood then asked him to kneel with him as he offered a prayer that God would help him find peace.
Over the next couple of years, until Cobb's death from cancer, the two of them met frequently and had long talks. But, not about baseball or medicine. Dr. Wood would read from the Bible and they would pray together, and it was through these meetings that Ty Cobb found a healing he had never known existed.
So much in life is temporary. Like the grass that withers during a drought or a flower that completes its life cycle, the material world may appear beautiful but it quickly fades. In a few weeks, we will all experience a gentle reminder of this. How quickly will the shiny new toys and gifts of Christmas morning fail to hold our attention by week's end?
Isaiah told the people in their exile that the road back to God was going to be built out of the shattered pieces of their lives. The rubble of their hopes and dreams was the very material God would use to build for them something of permanence.
Ty Cobb's story reaffirms Isaiah's message. Before his death, Cobb found the comfort of which Isaiah spoke but, it was not easy. He had to begin building in the desert. And not everything worked out to a happy ending. He never reconciled with his estranged family. Few people knew of his changed heart. Most who heard of his death didn't mourn. Only a dozen people showed up at his funeral. But, during those final years, he worked to build within himself something that would endure, something that would last.
One of my Dad's favourite comic strips was "Hagar the Horrible", the Viking guy. I remember one in which Hagar is addressed by a monk. The monk, Bible tucked under his arm and with a pious expression on his face, says to Hagar, "It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness." In the next frame, the monk is walking away over the horizon and we see Hagar reflecting, "But, I enjoy cursing the darkness."
How many of us have enjoyed cursing the darkness? How many times have we dwelt on and criticized what has fallen apart in the world or our lives rather than gathering up the stones and using them to build something new with God's help?
The Advent message is that there are road works for us to get on with. But, we must begin construction in the desert. The project must begin without the baggage of the past, however good that was to curse, or remember. And it must begin with only one end in mind - drawing closer to the God of consolation and mercy. Comfort is to be found but, it can only come if we prepare the way to the Lord.
And, if we do that, at the end of the day nobody's going to have to shout - we'll find the gates of life already standing wide open, for us.
In the Name...