Advent 3, A, 2019
You’ve all heard of urban legends: those fantastic or funny or pithy or horrifying stories that make the rounds of coffee clutches and water coolers and facebook friends as true stories. They may or may not have ever had a basis in fact, but it doesn’t even matter any more because they have taken on a life of their own. It turns out churchy folks have their own set of legends, ecclesiastical legends, if you will. I read about this one making the rounds of a Methodist seminary a while back – one about a video tape that everyone had heard about, but no one had ever seen.
The Methodists apparently have a number of ministers who come to ministry in a round about sort of way, as a second career, or a vocation in addition to their career. Sound familiar? Instead of the sort of team discernment and formation approach we employ, they agree to go part time to Lay Pastor’s School for several years rather than seminary.
Story goes, a video tape surfaced of the first sermon of the first preaching class of one such lay minister. The man was relatively new to the Methodist Church. He had been raised in a Pentecostal tradition and brought much of that ethos and sensibility with him to Pastor’s School.
“He said, ‘I got here today to preach and this preaching teaching fellow asked me ‘Where is your manuscript?’ and I says, I says, ‘I ain’t got no manuscript.’ So he says, ‘Well, where is your outline?’ And I says, I says, ‘I ain’t got no outline.’ And he says, ‘Well have you got your sermon memorized?’ And I said, “How could I memorize it if God ain’t told me it yet?’
He looked at me kind of dumb-founded so I says, ‘Look here, I just flip open the Bible and put down my finger and then God gives me utterance on whatever verse my finger lands on.’ Now this here preaching teaching fellow stared at me a minute, then he says, ‘Well, what do you do if you run out of things to say?’ And I says ‘Well now, I just reach back and grab me a handful of Isaiah and go on!’” (Rev. Delmer Chilton, The Lectionary Lab, 2016)
You could do worse things in life than grabbing yourself a handful of Isaiah and going on:
The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly,
and rejoice with joy and singing.
While much of Isaiah up to this point exhorts a wayward people to return to Yaweh, and communicates Yaweh’s anger at his rebellious brood, this is the voice of a prophet comforting his people. A voice encouraging a broken, beaten people within a wilderness of fear and exile…
Strengthen the weak hands,
and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
“Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God.
A handful of Isaiah goes a long way. That’s what Jesus does. Grabs himself a handful of Isaiah-that’s what he does when those messengers of John the Baptist come with his sad, desperate plea, are you the one?:
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer
And let’s be clear – John can use a handful of Isaiah about now. Not the first voice of Isaiah. Not the angry God, you people screwed it all up, make it right Isaiah. The hopeful Isaiah. Because John is running a little low on hope at this point.
American author Barbara Kingsolver wrote, “The very least you can do in your life is figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope. Not admire it from a distance but live right in it, under its roof.” John knew what he hoped for, lived in it, within it, reaching for it, preaching for it, living for it, striving for it. And it landed him in prison. As it turns out, calling the king an incestuous adulterer does not improve your lifestyle, even if it is true, possibly especially if it is true. Now John sits in a Herodian prison in his camel skins, munching a snack of locust, pondering his markedly reduced life expectancy and wondering, as we are wont to do when time runs short, if he got it wrong. He’s been proclaiming his cousin as the Messiah since they both snuggled cozily in their mother’s wombs. He preached so confidently, pointed the way – but he has yet to see any ax wielded against unfruitful trees, witness any winnowing, discern any fire at all much less the unquenchable variety. Maybe, maybe I got it wrong. We don’t know how he responded to the handful of Isaiah Jesus sent back to him. I find myself hoping it helped, brought some peace, if not some joy. John seems such a serious fellow.
He’s the patron saint of spiritual joy, did you know that? All that womb leaping, I suppose. The patron saint of spiritual joy. And this, this Sunday, in which we squat with a sad and broken baptizer in his squalid cell, this is Rejoice Sunday – pink candle, pink vestments for many churches. Rejoice – while the Herodians and the Romans rule from sumptuous selfishness? Rejoice – while the manger lies empty? Rejoice – while we languish in various prisons, some of our own making? Rejoice – while the nights get longer, the days get colder? Rejoice – while the glitter and consumerism of the secular Christmas overtake all notions of peace on earth? Rejoice – while the earth struggles under the burden we place on her? Rejoice, yes! Grab yourself a handful of Isaiah and rejoice.
Maybe, as one author suggests, John “realized that God’s work is bigger than the difficult circumstances of his own life, calling him to a selfless joy for the liberation of others. Maybe John’s joy was otherworldly in the most literal sense, because he understood that our stories extend beyond death, and find completion only in the presence of God himself.” (Debie Thomas, Journey with Jesus). Maybe he did. Clearly James urges patience in our epistle.
But know this truth preacher Frederick Buechner penned, ”…to wait for Christ to come in his fullness is not just a passive thing, a pious, prayerful, churchly thing. On the contrary, to wait for Christ to come in his fullness is above all else to act in Christ’s stead as fully as we know how. To wait for Christ is as best we can to be Christ to those who need us to be Christ to them most and to bring them the most we have of Christ’s healing and hope because unless we bring it, it may never be brought at all.” (“Be Patient,” Frederick Buechner Blog). Amen.