By Rev. Dr. Jason Byassee
Sunday, December 11, 2022
Reading: Isaiah 35:1-10
One of my favourite things about serving this church is I keep discovering new treasures. Standing on St. Clair Avenue recently, waiting for the streetcar, I noticed two gargoyles making faces at me. They’re meant to keep demons away. At the very top of our façade there is an empty niche. A space for a statue with none there. Normally in medieval Christianity that would be a place for Mary, Our Lady, Notre Dame. Here we might put Timothy Eaton I suppose, though his name on the place might be enough. Why is our niche empty? Well, with the Reformation we Protestants frowned on honouring the saints, since there’s only one way to God, Jesus Christ. Leaving it empty is not a bad choice: God is no object, takes up no space, you can’t make a statue of God. But, in church history once we Protestants took Mary down, we were inclined to put in whoever happened to be the country’s ruler. This is not progress.
I sort of like the idea of having Mary up there looking out for us, lording over the gargoyles.
The Third Sunday of Advent is traditionally a day when we honour Mary. If Catholic churches major in Mary, we Protestants . . . don’t even have her on the syllabus. Except at Christmas when we can’t ignore her. Not if we’re going to have a pageant. But peasant girls all over the world relate to Mary naturally. The more skeptical among us might scorn, but the poor and teenagers love her. I saw a t-shirt once that says, “Mary is my homegirl.” We wants it. Of all the ways God might’ve invaded the world . . . didn’t choose an army. Didn’t choose a powerful man like Zechariah or Herod or Pilate or Caesar. God chose an unmarried Jewish teenaged girl from the sticks, with an unlikely story about an unplanned pregnancy. I just love that our God has a Jewish mom. That’s how weird Christianity is.
Our passage from Isaiah is pregnant with hope. Judah has been conquered by the Babylonians in 586 BC, carried off into exile, its temple burnt, its people given foreign names and religions, its future cut off and buried. The worst has happened. Judah’s God has failed. All that’s left is for its people to die out and its faith to evaporate.
And in this place of disaster, Isaiah speaks hope.
When the worst strikes, it’s like the void in Genesis before creation. God speaks into nothing and makes all the things. In Judah’s case, the worst is exile. Remember God promised this land to this people. God lives at the temple: God’s address is One Temple Way in Jerusalem. And that’s all rubble and dust now.
I sometimes worry for churches that know they have a future. They have all the plans and money and people they need; they can continue . . . without believing in God at all. The churches I have hope for, are the ones that think they have no future. Because their only hope is the resurrection of the dead.
Now Isaiah could just have said “don’t worry, you’ll come home from exile.” But prophets don’t do prose. You know how much of the middle east is desert, right? Some 80 percent according to the google machine. Nothing much can live. Isaiah promises the desert . . . will bloom. It’ll be blanketed with flowers not sand. My Tuesday bible study pointed out this happens in deserts sometimes after floods, a super bloom. But Isaiah’s hope is more daring still. The desert will run with rivers permanently. God’s promise isn’t just a restoration of what was. It’s the desert . . . turned into the Garden of Eden. Israel’s scripture is the first environmentalist book. The prophet cannot talk of the restoration of the people without the restoration of the land. I love our ecological age, trying to stop the harm we’ve done to our planet. In other words, we’re trying to catch up with what the prophet Isaiah wrote in 500 BC. For Isaiah, God moves whole ecosystems, so they bloom into health, the flush of pink on her cheeks, paradise.
Prophets are imagination people. They ask us to dream big. And then they say no, no, no, that’s not big enough. Make it impossible.
Have you ever been asked when you became a Christian? What do you say? You might answer when you accepted Jesus into your heart—that’s a Baptist-y sort of answer. Or when you were baptized. That’s a mainline Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox sort of answer. Isaiah’s answer is this: I will be a Christian . . . when all creation is healed. Our answers are too small. Salvation includes our hearts, yes. But it also includes every desert not yet in bloom, every ecosystem not yet paradise.
Isaiah then promises a highway for our God, a holy way. A gentle stroll through the blooming desert. No one can get lost. No predator lion or haunting jackal. Just redeemed people on parade. What’s being promised . . . is a new Exodus. Another passing over from death to life. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks used to summarize Judaism this way: the only God there is intervenes in history personally to free slaves. Isaiah says get ready. That’s coming again.
This is what’s amazing about God. Not just that God did amazing things a long time ago far, far away. No, amazing is all God does. Creation. Exodus. Restoration. Resurrection. These are not one-off miracles. They are templates. All God does is bring life from death.
I’ve got a friend and former student who’s an Armenian Orthodox priest. He grew up in Montreal, and while we studied together in Vancouver, he pastored an Armenian church. He speaks Armenian. He dreams in Armenian. He eats Armenian food, he studied at Armenian schools, he ran one at his church. He advocates for that people who suffered the 20th century’s first genocide. Armenia is his life. Literally. He has no wife or children, as a priest he’s married to Armenia. I asked him once how often he’d visited.
Oh, this is sort of awkward. I’ve never been.
So, the place that forms your soul you’ve never set foot in? Right. He wanted to go when he could spend months, not just days, it makes sense. We Christians are formed by a place we’ve not yet been. The ancients were the same. The prophet promises a desert in bloom, a former waste now a comfy highway and water aplenty, a land of death become a runway for a ransomed people. Hope is not only unimaginable. It’s here. We just haven’t visited yet, let alone moved in.
And the people sing. Scripture promises “the ransomed of the Lord shall come to Zion with singing.” This is not a defeated mob dragging itself back across the desert with desperate thirst. No this is a procession proudly marching in grand robes, singing as it strolls a royal way, the desert in bloom, rivers in place of burning sand.
I remember reading somewhere, wish I could find it, a claim for how you can tell if a child will grow up and keep going to church. It’s not whether they were brought to church by one parent. Not even if two parents took them. It’s if their dad sings the songs. Then they’ll stay forever. Dads, I know we may not like to sing. I don’t care. Sing anyway. Your kids will notice. They always notice. Someone famous is reputed to have said “give me your songs, I don’t care who writes your laws.” It’s one of those quotes attributed to everyone from Plato to Mao, no one knows who said it, but it’s wise. Culture is more important than legislation. Taylor Swift is way more powerful than Justin Trudeau or Joe Biden. So let me encourage you friends, sing the songs in here. They’ll raise you to new life. I’m not exaggerating.
Another preacher tells the story of going to the bedside of a dying grandparent, the whole family gathered except one grandchild. No one knows what to do at those moments, so they eventually sang a hymn. And as they sang “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” the dying man joined in. He hadn’t spoken in days, but he sang all the verses. Then he died. The dead man’s son called the missing grandson and said son, I need you to get to church. I need you to learn the songs. So, when I’m the one in that bed, you can sing me all the way to life.
When a people in the ancient world was defeated, its temple burnt, its worship uprooted, that meant its gods had failed. It ceased to exist as a people. Israel is cut off, no more life. That’s when God intervenes. Promises a new creation. A new Exodus. A desert turned rain forest. A procession with singing across a royal highway. There is a hope that’s not in our heads, its in our lungs, our guts, in our marching feet. In the black church they say God doesn’t always come when you want but is always on time.
My mentor Will Willimon is here for today’s covenanting, he speaks of fellow college students in the 1960s going down to South Carolina to be part of freedom marches for black voters. And as all these young activists got off the bus, they were taken to little sweltering black churches to sing spirituals. After a few hours of this singing someone would have the temerity to ask, “I thought we were going to a rally or something?” And some mother in Israel would say, “hush, do you know what it means to face dogs, honey? Now sing!” Hymns stared down Jim Crow and ushered in a new dawn. When Isaiah promises a choir, processing through the desert, he’s saying Babylon didn’t kill our songs. It made them get born all over again.
Right in the middle of this dream we have this. Isaiah’s words: “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall be opened; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.” What did Jesus spend most of his time doing? If you look at his business card, it says: “first century Jewish exorcist and faith healer.” See how he heals every wound? Now a note of caution here. Some disabled people point out they don’t all want their disability “healed.” It makes them them. I asked a friend with cerebral palsy once whether he’ll have his disability in heaven. He paused, and thought, and said, “Yeah, but it’ll be the most beautiful thing about me.” Arguably it already is. Miracles come in lots of guises.
Back to that empty niche, to Mary, the one who gives birth to all this raucous freedom. When Mary is told she’ll give birth to God, that a revolution is brewing in her untouched womb, what does she say? Her older richer more powerful relative Zechariah failed. He told the same angel Gabriel, ‘Ooh, uh, see, that’s a problem. I work here in the temple. And one thing that never happens is an angel doesn’t show up with new news about God saving the world. This isn’t happening. I have a master’s degree in divinity to prove it!’ And the angel says, ‘you’re not allowed to talk anymore.’ It’s the perfect punishment. If God’s people can’t listen for God, we shouldn’t speak. So, the same angel comes to a much less promising person. She’s young. She’s unmarried. She’s uneducated. She’s wrong in every way. But perfect for God. The angel says, ‘you’re going to have a kid.’ Mary says, ‘I am a kid.’ The angel says ‘shut up. You’re going to have a kid. And this kid will be God’s kid. And this kid will heal everything. What do you say?’ . . . All creation waits for the word of a preteen girl. And she says . . . Okay. Or less prosaically, ‘here am I, the handmaid of the Lord, be it done unto me according to your word.’ And Mary’s whole self starts to swell with God.
We moderns sometimes debate the virgin birth, which seems odd. If God can make the universe out of nothing, this miracle isn’t that hard, okay? When we debate whether a miracle can happen, conservatives say sure, liberals say nah. Here’s the more interesting question: do miracles still happen now? Here’s what the virgin birth is saying. In Israel nobody important gets born without a miracle. Their mothers are too old. Or were never able to conceive. Until God moves. But they’re all wives already, candidates for motherhood. For the birth of Jesus, God goes one step farther. Winks. Shows off a little. My kids would call this a flex. This mother won’t even be a candidate for conception. She is not a wife. One ancient theologian, St. Simeon, says this. God had made a person before with no parents. Adam had none. God had made a person before from a man alone: Eve. God makes people all the time with two parents: all of us. What had God not yet done? Made a person from a woman alone. See? God always works in the most beautiful way. If that’s too far out, try this. When we have faith, even a tiny bit, stuff grows. New life forms. Something stirs. Mary believed so much she got pregnant. This is not a one off. It’s a template. A pattern. So, it leaves me to wonder: what does God want to bring to birth through you? What impossible new hope, akin to bringing Israel back from exile, life from Mary’s untouched womb? What’s coming?
See why churches put her in that niche up front and centre? Maybe let’s climb up there and put her back, shall we? This teenager who gives birth to a whole new creation. Just like God is getting ready to do through you. Amen.