“A Way Out of No Way”

Download a PDF of this sermon here.


Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

December 15, 2013 The Third Sunday of Advent

Scripture:  Isaiah 35:1-10


He had been looking forward to this Christmas.  They had bought a house over the summer and started settling in.  They painted the walls and put up curtains and arranged their furniture and got the kids started in their new schools.  They were living the dream—their home, their kids, their dog—even a white picket fence.

They had invited their out-of-town family members to come for the holidays.  They were looking forward to hosting, and they were especially looking forward to giving their kids a magical Christmas morning.  He could just picture it—they would come running down the stairs and charge into the living room, and their eyes would go wide with delight at the sight of the tree, and the ornaments, and the pile of brightly-wrapped presents underneath.

He was so excited about celebrating the holidays with his family.  But then his boss came to his desk on Friday looking sad and serious, and the letter she handed him was a layoff notice.  And now how he doesn’t know how he’s going to pay their mortgage, let alone buy the presents for that magical morning they had dreamed of.  When he goes to bed, the night feels neither silent nor holy, because he has a ringing in his ears and a rising panic in his chest and a refrain of What am I going to do? circling round and round in his head.


*          *          *


They were looking forward to Christmas, but even more so, they were looking forward to the following weekend, when they were going to get married.  They had been planning it for a while now.  They had chosen the music for the processional and recessional.  They had planned the vows they would exchange.  They had bought the rings they would place on one another’s fingers.  The suits were at the tailor, and the dress was hanging in her closet, ready for the big day.

They were keeping things simple.  They would leave up the church’s Christmas decorations—poinsettias and evergreens and candelabras.  It wasn’t going to be an elaborate, fairy-tale wedding, but they were so looking forward to uniting their families into one.  They met with their pastor on a Saturday morning three weeks before the wedding date to go over the final details.  Everything was all set.  And then, that afternoon, their church burned down.


*          *          *


She was having a hard time thinking about Christmas.  She knew she should start preparing, but something kept getting in the way.  Every time she would think about the coming holiday, she would start crying, because in order to get to Christmas, she would have to live through December 14th, and that would mean it had been a whole year since her daughter had died on that fateful Friday morning.

A whole year, and sometimes she still uses the present tense to refer to her, and sometimes she can hardly get out of bed, and sometimes it still hits her all over again like a ton of bricks, and the air goes out of her lungs, and the focus comes out of her eyes, and the ground falls out from underneath her.  And it feels surreal to be preparing for Christmas again as a family of three, not four.


*          *          *


Today, the third Sunday of Advent, our tradition gives us Gaudete Sunday, Rejoice Sunday, a day when we are invited to lift our hearts and celebrate the joy of this season.  We hear the promise of the prophet Isaiah as he paints a picture of a land of exquisite beauty, a sort of Eden-like paradise.  Flowers bloom everywhere.  Music rings out through the air.  Land that had been desolate becomes fruitful. People who had been injured are restored to wellness and health.  People who had been carried into exile stream home on a way of safety and ease.  Flowers bloom everywhere, and the land itself bursts into song.  The mountains gleam with the glory of God.  Plants and animals flourish.  People are healed.  Those who have been lost are found, and they stream home in great multitudes, unthreatened by beast or demon or even the slightest fear.  Unfading halos of joy encircle their heads, and every last sorrow, every last sigh, scurries off into the distance.

Can you picture this promise?  I don’t know about you, but to me it can sometimes seem almost unbelievable, almost larger than life, almost too good to be true.  This Technicolor vision seems so far from our ordinary, everyday experience—so far from the state of this weary world—that it is hard to imagine, hard to conceive of, hard to believe in.  When we are faced with news of yet another school shooting… when our loved ones are suffering with cancer and Alzheimer’s and depression… when we worry about our parents and our children and our pets and our jobs and our planet itself… Isaiah’s vision of joy can feel far away, even unreachable.

But that’s exactly why we need this third Sunday of Advent, Gaudete Sunday, Rejoice Sunday.  Because Isaiah’s vision didn’t come out of nowhere, but arrived right in the very midst of struggle and hardship, illness and injury, violence and weariness and seemingly insurmountable problems.

If Isaiah had been speaking to a people for whom all was already well, he would not have needed to energize the limp hands, or strengthen the rubbery knees, or tell the fearful souls, “Courage!  Take heart!”  If Isaiah had been speaking to a world where everything was already beautiful and fertile and bounteous, he would not have needed to mention the desert and the badlands, the hot sands and thirsty ground and barren grasslands.  If Isaiah had been speaking to a community that felt completely safe, he would not have needed to speak of a highway devoid of dangers and threats.

No, Isaiah was speaking for just such a people as us—for hearts that have been wounded, for bodies that have been broken, for lives that have been upended.  The promise of Isaiah, the promise of Gaudete Sunday, Rejoice Sunday, is for us, too.

The promise of this Sunday is that even in the darkest time of year, the light will return.  That even when all possibility seems to have burned away, an ember of hope will glow in the ashes.  That even when it seems that sorrow will drown us, a buoy of love will lift us up so we can breathe again.  That even when the worst thing we can possibly imagine has happened, and it’s worse yet than we could ever have conceived, we are not alone, for others have walked this way before us.  That even when we are hemmed in on all sides and can see no way through, God makes a way out of no way.  That even when all seems lost, we are not alone, for God will never leave us or forsake us.

The promise of this Sunday is that even amidst the ringing in his ears, and the rising anxiety in his chest, and the refrain of What am I going to do? circling round and round in his head, that unemployed dad got connected with TEEG, and his children’s eyes will go wide with delight on Christmas morning after all.

The promise of this Sunday is that even amidst the ashes of centuries of memories in their burned-out sanctuary, that soon-to-be-married couple got connected with another church that was available on the weekend in question, and they will still have a simple, beautiful wedding in a whitewashed meetinghouse adorned with poinsettias and evergreens and candelabras, surrounded by their loved ones as they unite their families into one.

The promise of this Sunday is that even amidst the tears and the unreality and the unspeakable grief, that mother got connected with the other families who lost members at Sandy Hook that day, and they got connected with communities along the coast that had been devastated by Hurricane Sandy, and together they built 26 new, beautiful, hope-filled playgrounds in those communities where children can play, and families can remember, and out of sorrow and pain, joy can be born anew.

The promise of this third Sunday in Advent, Gaudete Sunday, Rejoice Sunday, is that struggle and hardship do not get the last word.  Destruction and loss will not last forever.  Grief and emptiness, no matter how entrenched, are not our final destiny.  The desert will sing joyously; the badlands will celebrate and flower.  Those whose bodies have been broken will leap like the deer, and those who have been voiceless will break into song.  Hot sands will become a cool oasis, and thirsty ground a splashing fountain.  Sorrow and sighing will scurry away.  Moment by moment, day by day, heart by heart, all suffering will be transformed—is already being transformed—into songs of joy.

Courage, friends, and take heart.  For the God of Advent hope, peace, joy, and love is even now forging a path, straight and true, where all we see are tangled briars; clearing a Holy Road, smooth and even, where all we see are ditches and boulders; making a way where we see no way.  And that God, the One we know in Jesus, is no stranger to dark ditches and rocky roads, but will walk our way with us and lead us home.