Perhaps you know someone like Sue.
Sue had Multiple Sclerosis (MS). As the disease progressed in her relatively young life, she nevertheless wanted to stay at home as long as possible. Her house, unfortunately, was not outfitted appropriately for someone in her debilitating condition.
And yet, she battled. For example, it took her twenty minutes to crawl upstairs to her bedroom. Sue called the stairs “Mount Sinai”. Because it was by struggling on those stairs, moving limb for limb through each laboured breath through gritted teeth; it was through determination for each step gained, that she learned so much (1).
The prophet Isaiah does this to us again — gives us an ideal vision of a world where no one suffers any longer, a utopia where everyone is joyful. What is perhaps even more astounding is that this vision of hope and promise is proclaimed in the midst of everything that was not:
These verses speak to Babylonian exiles (2). They are the captives of war, and as such have been wounded maimed, even intentionally blinded as was King Zedekiah (2 Kings 25:7). It is to this failed community now subjugated and marginalized in an oppressive regime far away from Jerusalem that Isaiah paints this picture of a highway leading back home through the desert (Isaiah 35:1-10).
The cynic in us alights, as it must have in many of the exiles in the sixth century B.C.E. For, when do we see the eyes of the blind opened, the ears of the deaf unstopped, the disabled leaping like a deer, the tongues of the speechless sing for joy? (vs.5-6). Words that Jesus later repeats almost verbatim (Matthew 11:5; Luke 4:18) surprise because he seems to validate the promise of a vision, hundreds of years after Isaiah, that has yet to be fulfilled.
The vision, the promise, operates like a bouncing ball through history. Indeed, our world to this day — two thousand years later — is still rife with human brokenness, both visible and hidden from sight. Many have given up on God precisely because they can’t see how a God of love can be represented in a world of suffering, disease, violence and disability.
What if this promise is given, is meant, for us today? Can we believe it? Yet, perhaps human beings will always struggle with the God who came, and is coming again and again, in Jesus. We have to be careful with Isaiah’s vision, for it can pander to our perfectionism, which denies the reality of a life lived in the graces of God: That what is of God is exclusively the purview of the rich and famous, successful, beautiful and handsome — only for the perfect ones.
Perfectionism pretends that we have to achieve that vision of wholeness and restoration by our own herculean efforts and responsibilities. A denial of the suffering in life leads us to attempt a path around all that is difficult, challenging and transformative.
“A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way, and the unclean shall not pass it by, but it shall be for them.” (Isaiah 35:8)
When John the Baptist shouts that the coming Jesus will make a way through the aridity and desolation of the desert (Matthew 3:3), it bears reason to pause and reflect on the place of John’s prophetic work. Not in the public square in downtown Jerusalem nor on the steps of the Temple.
He stands on the banks of the Jordan River — which separated two worlds. On the one side, the desert which represents the long journey, the pilgrimage, that the people of God made from slavery in Egypt. On the other side of the Jordan lies the Promised Land, the place of arrival, destination, highlighted by the holy city of Jerusalem.
John the Baptist stands preaching words of challenge and hope in the in-between place — the River Jordan. Baptismal in its imagery, this in-between space is the place where something happens. A change occurs in our lives. The space in-between is often a place of disruption as the mental furniture of long-held beliefs, assumptions and values are re-arranged. In this in-between place of discomfort and turbulence we experience, nevertheless, a transformation to be people ‘on the way’ to our destination with God.
We must be willing to go there. And not deny this path through the wilderness. A holy highway does not circumvent the desert places of our lives. What ails us, what disturbs us, what challenges us — these are often valuable clues, yes even invitations, to a deeper engagement with our lives and with God. The disruption is actually God calling us into a transformative experience of life.
Do we accept this? Advent is a time to be honest. Advent is a time of reckoning. Will we stay the same, stuck in our inhibitions and motivated by fear? Or, are we willing to take the risk and go through this in-between place that does not deny our suffering and discomfort, but which actually holds redemptive power?
It is no accident that God chose to be revealed in a broken body. A bloody and pierced body hanging on a Cross. God showed us the way, in Jesus’ death and resurrection. God opened to us the way of salvation.
We know God saves. The names of Isaiah, and Joshua — important in the Hebrew Scriptures — echo the same meaning of Jesus’ name: God saves. No dispute there. But what is the way, the how, of God’s saving? How does God save?
The path through the desert. Before there is a re-ordering of our lives, there must first be a dis-order or sorts. There is no direct-flight from ‘order to re-order’ as much as we might wish there were. In God’s realm, according to the way of Jesus, we must go from ‘order to dis-order before arriving at re-order’ (3).
Julian of Norwich wrote: “First the fall, and then the recovery from the fall. And both are the mercy of God” (4).
We can’t have Easter without Good Friday. Both are held in tandem. Even today in popular Christianity, people avoid worshiping on Good Friday; most experience the ‘hosananas’ of Palm Sunday only to return the following Easter Sunday to sing ‘halleluia’. No wonder we get seduced by culture’s ‘glory’ theology that pretends we can somehow deny suffering in order to validate our faith.
But without somehow acknowledging the Passion and suffering of Holy Week culminating in death on the Cross of Good Friday, we miss the point of Easter. We miss the point of Christianity:
The body of Christ is broken in love for us. God loves us not despite our brokenness as human beings but precisely because we are broken.
Lutherans talk a lot about grace, and unconditional love of God for us ‘while we were yet sinners’ (Romans 5:6-8). This is good talk. But — being a diehard, lifelong Lutheran myself and so I can say this — it is not easy living, behaving and inter-relating according to that unconditional-love-‘way’ with others. It may be a simple concept for the mind to turn over and accept, but it certainly is not easy for our egos to put into practice.
Climbing the steps of “Mount Sinai” as Sue was want to do was a feat of incredible endurance. Whether it took her twenty minutes or two hours is not the point, really. It’s the journey: Learning to love, forgive and accept our lives not because everything is ‘just right’ but precisely because God is there in the ‘not alright’ — is a discipline that may indeed take a lifetime to learn.
Enduring whatever suffering comes your way. Grieving whatever loss or mourning a loved one. Carrying on in the midst of the in-between places of our lives. Being present to all the feelings and thoughts and sensations of life — good and bad. Accepting our own imperfection and disability — and still enjoying moments of grace with one another on the way.
So as we learn on the way, may our journeys be inspired by moments when we do experience the presence of a God who understands and walks with us, when the vision appears no longer a mirage on the horizon of reality. But is truth incarnate. An inexplicable gift of joyous wonder.
When, “everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away” (Isaiah 35:10).
(1) Charles Foster, “The Sacred Journey” (Thomas Nelson, Nashville, 2010), p. xxiii
(2) Bruce C. Birch in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. “Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary; Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 1” (WJK Press, Kentucky, 2010), p.51-55
(3) Richard Rohr, “Daily Meditation”, Tuesday, December 6, 2016 (Center for Action and Contemplation), http://www.cac.org
(4) Julian of Norwich, “Revelations of Divine Love”, 61, ed. Grace Warrack, R.Rohr paraphrase (London: Methuen & Company, 1901), p.153