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The Holiness Road

December 12, 2016

“The Holiness Road” Isaiah 35:1-10 and Matthew 11:2-11 © 12.11.16 Advent 3A by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

In that wonderful, endearing, and enduring 1947 Christmas film Miracle on 34th Street, a kindly old gentleman named Kris Kringle is hired to play Santa Claus in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. He does such a good job and seems to be such a natural that he’s kept on as the store Santa. As he begins work, Kris is approached by the manager of the toy department. The man has a list of overstocked items which Santa is expected to push when children are undecided about what they want for Christmas. After the manager leaves, Kris destroys the list, complaining about the commercialization of Christmas. We discover as the plot progresses that this man truly is Santa, who has become concerned that people no longer believe in him.

His test case is Doris, the store personnel manager, and her little girl, Susan. Doris and Susan are broken people. We never know for sure, but we presume from Doris’s comments that she was once married, then abandoned by her husband. Whatever fantasies and dreams for her life she once had have now been shattered; she will now hear nothing but what is realistic and practical. Doris has taught Susan to think and feel that way, too, so the little girl doesn’t believe in Santa Claus. In short, Doris and Susan have lost faith.

Asked what she wants for Christmas, Susan claims to desire nothing. Pushed by Kris, though, she does admit that she longs to move from the apartment where she and her mother live to a nice house in the suburbs. We suspect, and so does Kris Kringle, that what Susan really wants is not just a house, but a home. She tells Kris she’ll believe he’s really Santa is he can get the house for her. If he can’t, he’s “only a nice old man with whiskers.”

Faith is at stake in the texts for the morning as well. In the Old Testament reading, a prophet speaks poetically and powerfully to people on their way home from long years of exile in Babylon, the now-defeated foreign power that had conquered them five decades or more before. They too are broken, both physically and emotionally. Unlike their neighbors who decided to stay, who had made a home in the new place, they couldn’t be satisfied in any city other than Jerusalem or any land than Judah. They’ve chosen to take advantage of the edict of the new ruler, Cyrus, that lets them leave. But ahead of them lies the long and difficult journey home to Jerusalem. The questions which are uppermost in the minds of the repatriated Jews have to do with the God who was apparently vanquished so long ago by the Babylonian deities. Will he now be able to sustain them as they trudge through the wilderness? Is he in fact who he claims to be? Can he do what he says or is he, in effect, “only a nice old man with whiskers”—a facsimile of the real thing, a fake?

The late African novelist Chinua Achebe once argued that those who claim poetry is only something personal are “saying something outrageously wrong.” Instead, poetry can be as “activist as it wants.” I think the Hebrew poet/prophet intends for his work to be activist, to spur people to do something. For lo these many years, the Jews had lived in a foreign land, where some found it difficult to “sing the Lord’s song,” as a one of their laments put it. They were, after all, surrounded by people who made claims about the power of their deities. In effect, their Babylonian overlords said “my god is better than your God.” All the evidence seemed to prove those claims to have a substantial basis in fact. The nation of Judah had been defeated. Jerusalem lay in ruins. The Temple was only a memory. It appeared that Yahweh, the God of Judah, had deserted his people; the Babylonian gods and the Babylonian king had won.

But this prophet whom we call Second Isaiah writes a poem that is subversive of any such claims to ultimate power. Walter Brueggemann has this to say: “The naming of the name [of God] in a new song is a polemic. For every time the name is sung, some other pretender is dismissed. The affirmation of Yahweh always contains a polemic against someone else.”

One of the most powerful images the poet uses to put down the claims of the Babylonian gods and reassure the people is that of a road in the wilderness, which he terms “the Holy Way” or “the Holiness Road.” In Babylon, there had also been a sacred avenue, linking all the pagan temples. The city dwellers would go from shrine to shrine, carrying the images of their deities. Of course, the fact that they had to be carted about by people revealed them as no gods at all. They were nothing but the work of human hands, fashioned of wood, stone, and metal.

Yahweh, by contrast, is the one who builds the road, who lifts up his people who have tired hands and trembling knees. He has no need to be carried from place to place. He is perfectly capable of getting around under his own substantial power. Indeed, the sovereign God shows himself to be true and real by going with those who journey, filling them with gladness, even making streams flow in the desert. This is a God in whom people may truly believe, for he is all he claims to be.

Centuries later, when inquiries came from John the Baptist about the identity of Jesus, our Lord chose to describe his ministry in terms of the vision of Second Isaiah. The lame walk. The blind see. As he sat there in his prison cell, the Baptist had begun to wonder about his cousin. Was he the “one who was to come”? If so, where were the fire, the winnowing fork, the harsh judgment John had expected? This wasn’t exactly what he had in mind!

Jesus knows that what he tells John’s disciples may not satisfy their mentor. Yes, the deeds our Lord did could evoke faith. But they could also be regarded skeptically. There was no unequivocal proof that Jesus was in fact the Messiah. John, and all would-be believers, had to judge for themselves. As our Lord said: “Blessed are those who do not fall away, who take no offense on account of me.” The Greek word he uses is our term “scandalize.” It meant in the original to reject, desert, have doubts about, lose faith in.

Our Lord is not easy to follow, if it’s indeed the Jesus of the gospels we’re imitating and not some modern facsimile made in our own image. Being his disciple sometimes leads to more questions than answers, indeed, questions that prompt more questions. The fulfillment he promises is not the peace of mind and happiness and prosperity promised by popular preachers, but rather the satisfaction of serving the same sorts of folks he did, making a difference however small, seeing a bright smile on a face once clouded with despair. Greatness comes through self-giving ministry.

But let’s be honest. There are plenty of times when that’s just not enough. We wonder when we get something for ourselves. When do we get our needs met, our questions answered, our wounds bandaged up, our worries replaced by contentment? We may decide, at least for a time, to put our trust in someone or something else. Maybe Jesus is not the one who was to come, and the other gods, the ones worshipped by our culture, have valid claims. Could it be true that they do have power to satisfy, to make life enjoyable? Can they offer something we can hold in our hands or with which we can adorn our bodies that will bring us the festive spirit we long for in this season?

It’s quite easy to be overwhelmed and caught up in the celebration of secular Christmas. For decades now, the season has begun long before Thanksgiving, so early that some wits back when coined the name “Hallowthankmas.” A columnist for Time once observed: “It’s as though we’ve supersized our holidays, so that they start sooner, last longer and cost more, until the calendar pages pull and tear, and we don’t know which one we are meant to be celebrating” (Nancy Gibbs, “Merry Hallowmas,” http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1682266,00.html). Christmas carols start blaring from store speakers; parades are scheduled in every town; Santa arrives at malls and store and ascends his throne. Christmas specials are all over the TV, from movies classic and new to Jennifer Nettles’ annual CMA music show to tree lighting ceremonies and on and on. And the shoppers’ sometimes violent feeding frenzy builds in intensity and momentum from Black Friday right up to the frantic last-minute buying on Christmas Eve.

For the Church, though, the atmosphere is different. It’s still Advent, a time of preparation, repentance, and reflection, even if we do sing some carols and adorn the sanctuary with the trappings of Christmas. We haven’t exchanged our purple for gold and white just yet. Whatever we do in our homes or businesses, in the Church we’re not quite in step with the rest of the culture right now.

And that’s the tension with which we must deal as Christians, and especially as Christians who seek to live by the rhythms of the liturgical year. On December 26, Christmas is over out in the stores and in many homes. After-Christmas sales begin. People are taking back that ugly tie or sweater, lamenting the already broken drone, trying to set up the new piece of electronics, spending gift cards, maybe even throwing out the Christmas tree. But in the church, the festival of Christmas, which will last for twelve days, is just beginning. We may appreciate such a different pace and emphasis at times. At others, we don’t like to be so out of touch, so subversive of the claims of the cultural gods. We feel weird singing Christmas carols in January.

Back in the day, any mall, and before that Main Street, could be considered the sacred way linking the temples of society’s deities. In our time, of course, we can find their shrines on the Information Superhighway, that “large-scale communications network providing a variety of often interactive services, [such] as text databases, email, and audio and video materials, accessed through computers, television sets, etc.” (http://www.dictionary.com/browse/information–superhighway). Of course, that road is better known as the Internet. It provides us with community and news, both of which could be real or fake. We enjoy being “linked in” and “friended” and finding things and people and ideas we “like.” We hurry from one site to the other, buying things made of plastic, cloth, paper, wood, and metal, which we hope will bring the joy and fulfillment we seek. Whether in a brick and mortar store or their online equivalent, on Black Friday or Cyber Monday, charge cards are offered up like prayers and burnt offerings to gain access to the gods and to have them in our homes. But it’s worth the cost to get what it is we want, namely, security and pleasure now, not at the end of some long journey that may lead through wilderness before we find the promised gladness.

But in our best moments, we know what journalist James Wall once said is true. In an article many years ago, he reminded us that “no gift [at Christmas] ever delivers what we long for,” which is “connection to the eternal.” Wall noted that the memory of disappointment in childhood is still with those of us who are adults. So “we continue to long for fulfillment when we hear the promises of the season. When it is all over, if we have been locked into the mindset of secular Christmas, we are left with post-Christmas depression. The feeling is usually blamed on too much food or too great a reliance on credit cards, but it has much more to do with unfulfilled expectations than it does with unwise indulgence” (quotation from personal archives; source not available online).

More recently, in the book Hundred Dollar Holiday, first published in hardcover in 1998, author Bill McKibben recalls conversations with friends and neighbors in small rural churches. He found in talking with those folk that “Christmas had become something to endure at least as much as it had become something to enjoy—something to dread at least as much as something to look forward to. Instead of an island of peace amid a busy life, it was an island of bustle. The people we were talking to wanted so much more out of Christmas: more music, more companionship, more contemplation, more time outdoors, more love” (12,13).

I wonder if that’s what we want as well. In our seeking, we turn our goods into gods and plaintively ask: “Are you the one who was to come or should we look for another?” But there is no answer, only silence.

Throughout my life, until relatively recently, I’ve collected and acquired things way beyond any reasonable need, trying I guess to fill some hole in my soul. Hundreds of plastic model kits. More books and music than I have room for. Clothes, watches, and shoes. Musical instruments and accessories. But I know in my heart of hearts—and so do you—that at the end of the mall concourse or the Information Superhighway is ultimate disappointment, though the things from Santa’s bag promise satisfaction. If we invest the works of human hands with meaning they can neither sustain nor were meant to provide, we will go away hungry for something else, though we know not what. On the other hand, the ones who travel the Holiness Road, also known as the day to day journey through life, may encounter some potholes and heavy traffic on the way, but at the end of the road is freedom, joy, and release from grief and sorrow. The God who goes with us on that road can and does deliver what he promises. The gifts he gives help broken people find faith again.

And that’s a miracle on any street.

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