The cattails blurred as Hal zipped by on the new bypass. “Good thing they finally got this road done…cuts my driving time in half!” he said out loud in the car to himself. He was thinking through his list….and it was a long one. Three different grocery stores. Four big box stores on South Iowa. Several downtown. These were his least favorite at this time of year…the stop and go on the way there, the parking, the fact that you had to have your head on a swivel the whole time to avoid people walking out in front of you at any given place or time. But it was worth it to cross everything off of his list. It had become like a tragic Greek Quest to accomplish this list. He was Homer on the Odyssey. Or a Knight of the Roundtable searching for the Holy Grail. Crossing all the items off the list was like a Herculean task.
Because, he knew deep down that if he accomplished this list, he would receive in return the perfect Better Homes and Garden’s Christmas. His family was going to be in for Christmas this year, some of them for the better part of the week, and he wanted them all to receive the best Christmas in the history of Christmases. He imagined the perfect Better Homes and Gardens vision, with the house clean and in order, the food on the table just right, the fire roaring in the fireplace – dang, it, he forgot to get one of those fireplace starter logs. Better add it to the list!
His sister and her girls had already arrived, and so he could feel the pressure mounting. As the rest of the family got dinner going, he left out in a blur in order to cross items off his list. Now, with too much list and too little time, he was starting to feel frustrated that the traffic wasn’t moving quickly enough. He shared a few choice words with drivers that he knew would – thankfully – never hear him. He pulled into a lot, and began the “December Crawl.” Inching through the parking lot, looking for a spot. He finally saw someone walking toward their car, and began “The Stalk,” following them in hopes to get their spot. He had to follow closely enough in order to get their spot, but not so close as to make it obvious he was following them to get their spot. It was a delicate dance. Of course, when they opened up the trunk and put in their bags and turned around and left, Hal cursed and sped away. False alarm.
He noticed his blood pressure was rising, and took a deep breath. “It’ll all be worth it,” he told himself. It was the mantra that kept him going. “It’ll all be worth it…once everyone gets there and it’s perfect.” But as he hurried into store after store, he began to wonder…will it?
Can anyone else relate? The never-ending journey, from one side of town to the next and back again. All in search of the holiday bliss that seems ever so elusive. We may all have our different versions of bliss this time of year, but it seems that most of us, like Clark Griswold in Christmas Vacation, are hoping for some version of the perfect holiday season, even if we have to drive ourselves and everyone crazy in order to accomplish that vision.
We yearn for holiday perfection!
Because, at the least, it is a distraction from the anxiety that fills the headlines and the social media feeds.
At the best, it is the hope of a deeply spiritual, prayerful, worshipful Christmas with friends and family – a worthy goal for sure. We hope, we yearn for peace. For comfort. For community.
It is not actually unlike Isaiah’s search in today’s passage. Isaiah’s yearning was in a pretty different context, to be sure. But peace…comfort…community. These are pretty universal and fundamental yearnings, are they not?
And for Isaiah, these yearnings make even more sense, when we understand his context. He lived in the second half of the 8th century before Christ was born, and if we think our times are tumultuous and divisive, we haven’t seen anything. Isaiah lived in the Southern Kingdom of Judah, in the capital city of Jerusalem. It was a relatively safe and privileged place to be. But not for long. Assyria was on the march. Their king was an Empire-builder and thus defeated king after king and nation after nation on his way to the top. The Northern Kingdom had already been wiped off the face of the earth, as well as a good deal of the rural areas buffering Jerusalem from its enemies. Their countdown was not to Christmas bliss, but instead to destruction.
And in Isaiah’s lifetime, he had likely seen a significant change in his own city. Jerusalem was the destination city for streams of streams of pilgrims who would come into the city to visit the Holy Mountain – the Temple – each year. Isaiah would have had vivid memories of the pilgrims, remembering their faces when the first arrived in the Holy City…remembering the look of peace when the finally made it…the look of comfort to trust in the God that had brought them this far…the look of community as they held hands together and rejoiced with people that they barely even knew.
Now, as Assyria decimated more and more of the countries surrounding Judah, especially the Northern Kingdom of Israel, more and more of God’s faithful were being destroyed or forced into survival mode. Now, Isaiah would have seen that stream reduced to a trickle. And then the trickle reduced to a drip. Eventually it would have been a rare sight to find a pilgrim who had the ability and means to pause from the everyday terror of surviving war and journey to the Temple.
And so, Isaiah’s vision of justice and peace must have seemed absolutely ludicrous. Nations streaming once again to the holy mountain? Peoples beating swords into ploughshares? Spears into pruning hooks? “Read the paper, moron! Watch the news! That isn’t going to happen in our world. Not soon. Not ever!”
Yet, that was exactly the vision that Isaiah proclaimed, again and again.
“Come, let us go up to the mountain.”
“Come…that we may walk in his paths.”
“Come…let us walk in the light of the world.”
The Message version of verse three is powerful: “God will show us the way he works so we can live the way we’re made.”
The pilgrims will return. The journey will be renewed. God will teach us in the walking, how to live the way we’re made.
And that doesn’t mean that the journey will be an easy one. In fact, Isaiah insists that it won’t be. He spends a great deal of the book talking about God’s coming judgment on Israel because of their failure to follow God’s commandments of justice. Jerusalem itself will fall, he predicts.
And yet, even knowing this, his vision of hope, of return to the pilgrimage, of walking in God’s ways, guides his words. He uses the language of holy journey because he knows that God’s presence is found in the going. Even when the going is hard. Especially when the going is hard. God would teach them and strengthen them through the lean times. God’s Presence wasn’t dependent on the survival of the Temple, but on those who learned to walk in the Lord’s ways.
Who learn that peace is about considering the other.
Who learn that comfort comes when we trust God in the difficult times.
Who learn that community is about acknowledging that shared trust.
So, today, the good news for Isaiah is good news for us, as well. For we, too, struggle with the anxieties around us. We, too, wonder if the enemies that surround us will overcome. But, like Isaiah’s vision of the pilgrims streaming to the Temple, following God’s path, God will grant us the same grace.
And so, like Isaiah’s call to the people in the midst of their anxieties, Isaiah calls us to walk as well. Walk in the ways of the Lord. One of my favorite phrases from Augustine demonstrates this idea: solvature ambulando. “It is solved by walking.” The journey is the experience. Barbara Brown Taylor refers to this phrase, and writes that walking is an ancient way to know God. Taylor, and Augustine, and pilgrims both before and since Isaiah have learned that the journey is the experience. It comes in the going. We learn about how to walk with God by walking with God. She suggests that walking should be a spiritual discipline of ours. She says that in addition to prayer and reading Scripture, we need to take off our shoes and walk on the earth. Literally experience the ground beneath our bare feet. In the experience is a grounding – literally and symbolically – to God as the ground of being. Such walking reminds us that when we constantly rush by the world on the shiny new bypass, we miss what is solved by walking. But when we pause to listen, to wait, to walk, we, too learn to follow in the paths of God.
This ancient idea of walking and receiving the light of the Lord guides our worship series this Advent season. We begin our Advent Journey with this idea of the Prophet’s Journey. It is Isaiah and his vision of hope, of pilgrimage, of holy journey who guides us. We must slow down. And listen. And wait. And watch. To walk with a vision for how God might be teaching us on the way. Her words are appropriate today because these are the things of Advent.
Thus, this Advent season, in worship, we have the chance to reenact this experience together. This morning, our children led the way in what we hope will be a meaningful reenactment of pilgrimage. It is based on the ancient idea of coming to a holy place, bringing something of ourselves. In worship, you are invited to join us in a new way – on a new path – to bring something of yourselves to our holy space of worship, symbolized in the manger. A teacher could bring a textbook. A doctor, a stethoscope. A musician could bring a drumstick, like the Little Drummer Boy – in the song that celebrates this ancient idea of bringing who we are to the Christ child. So, this season, you are invited to spend time thinking about what would be a meaningful symbol of self that you would like to bring, and place at the manger.
And then, when you return to your seats, you are invited to take a seashell. This tradition comes from the pilgrimage of El Camino de Santiago, a seaside holy place thought to contain the body of James the brother of Jesus. But the seashell was more than just a souvenir. It is a symbol of the journey that brought them to the holy place, and a reminder of the experience of the walking. A seashell has grooves that meet in the center, just like our various paths lead us together to a holy place. And so, the seashell became a symbol of pilgrimage, and thus you are invited to take a seashell to remind you of your journey, your pilgrimage to the manger. And a reminder that in the journey, we would do well to walk…thoughtfully and prayerfully.
Hal looked at the clock on the bank downtown. He had failed. His list still had three or four things to go. And yet, that number was a fraction of the number of texts that he had received asking him where he was. He hadn’t bothered to even read any the last hour…he knew more or less what they said: “are you close to getting home?” “are you having trouble shopping?” “are you still alive or are you in a ditch somewhere? Should we send a search party?” He knew by this point everyone had gotten hungry enough to go ahead and eat, and his dinner would be cold leftovers. He considered turning around and heading home, but…the list! The Holy List!
The Better Homes and Garden vision drove him on. That Christmas fire wasn’t going to light itself! But by now, he was starting to have visions of starting said fire with the very list that he had now come to despise.
He rushed by a little girl, who was the same age and had the same pigtails as his younger nieces, who were now sitting in his living room. They had begged him before he left to play Chutes and Ladders with them, and he had to tell them “no” as he rushed out the door with list in hand.
But now, as he thought of them, a new vision crept into his mind. According to this new vision, he left the list in the passenger’s seat as he drove straight home to play Chutes and Ladders. And Candy Land. And everything they could fit into the hour they had left before bedtime.
And then, he would take that list back in his hand, as he invited their older sister to join him in the shopping. He had told her “no” before, knowing she would just slow him down. But now, to go out shopping with her uncle after bedtime, would be the highlight of her week.
And finally, he would return to the house, and instead of vacuuming or tweaking the light set or researching more recipes, he would sit down with his sister and his wife and they would talk. Catch up. Laugh together. Cry together – about the divorce, the topic that he had been carefully avoiding.
And it would not be Better Homes and Gardens. It would not be perfect. Things would be left undone.
But it would be good. It would be holy. It would be grace.