Calling All Fools!
We have come to the third Sunday in Advent. We make our way deeper and deeper into this holy time. The birth of the Messiah draws nearer – or rather, we draw nearer to his birth. He will be there, he is there; we are on the move. We are the ones on a journey. We are like the three kings, already lumbering on a long road towards Judah, following that star. Christ will be born in 9 days’ time, and whether or not our spirits are there is about the journey we make in those days.
Isaiah writes to us, to people on the journey to salvation. His contemporaries were making a journey from captivity in Babylon to freedom back home in Judah. An earlier generation had been on a forced march, a trail of tears, through the desert to Babylon. Now their great-grandchildren, thanks to the liberator Cyrus of Persia, were on the desert journey back home. It’s not just a journey back to where your ancestors came from, says Isaiah, it’s also a journey forward to salvation – God’s eventual, total liberation of you. Salvation isn’t about where you live but who you are, and what is your eternal destiny. This road home is hard; Isaiah acknowledges that. It is very dry – as those attempting to cross the southern border into the United States today know, it is so hot and dry as to kill you. The sand is burning. There are dangerous animals in Isaiah’s desert – jackals, lions, and ravenous beasts. They attack the older person at the back of the group. They separate out anyone who becomes a small distance from the group and hunt them down. They dine on the children. As we reflect upon the first anniversary yesterday of the massacre of children and their protectors in Newtown, we remember that the journey we walk has many dangers, toils and snares. Some of us walk the length of each physical day at significant risk; others of us enjoy places of peace and even privilege. On our shared walk to salvation there are indeed dangers, toils, and snares, of so many kinds. For some, gun violence. For some, the distractions of affluence or ambition. For some, the challenge to faith of great loss. For some, the challenge of hardships so great that they eclipse the purpose of the journey. For some, failing health. For some, indifference. For most of us, dangers, toils, and snares.
But Isaiah prophesies a new path towards salvation – that bone-dry desert will become full of gorgeous blossoms: colorful, radiant, bursting with moisture and life. Waters and streams will suddenly appear; clear, pure water will appear in pools in front of any traveler who feels thirsty. The vicious animals who attacked travelers in the past will be completely absent. All will travel with the sustenance, beauty, and safety that they need. This is no ordinary desert march. This is the great walk to salvation!
And there is more! God will, along the way, make wonderful things happen for those in need, whose lives have been compromised by impediments to their full flourishing. The journey to salvation will be a journey of healing, too! We live with infirmities that define us in positive ways and grow our capacities in other areas. We also live with infirmities that we would rid ourselves of in a heartbeat – those things that make us live in pain, or smaller, or angrier. We live with infirmities that hurt ourselves or those around us. We live with the results of accident, age, addiction, that have no redeeming value.
All of this, says Isaiah, will be healed on the journey home, the journey to salvation, the journey to residence in the very chambers of God’s heart. The lame will leap like a deer. Those who can’t speak will burst into song. The blind will see, the deaf will hear, those with congestive heart failure will run marathons, those with cancer and HIV will knock every bad cell from their bodies. The addicted will be clean and sober, the mean will learn to love, the injured will be their old selves, those with memory loss will be sharp as a tack. The desert walk to salvation will be one of total healing for all people. Why not join that procession?
And here’s my favorite part: for those who love God, there is no deviation from the Holy Way. God will prevent it. No one can follow the wrong trail or get derailed – not even fools! Well, now we’re talking about me. I am healthy, I live in safety, but I’m a darn fool. I get a lot of things wrong. Daily. I make stupid decisions, thinking I’m smarter than I am. I – we – are certain that we are people of good conscience and excellent judgment. We were raised so to be. We have had excellent moral guides, either by positive or negative example, and we discern the spirits correctly. We have a moral compass! But here’s the good news – not even we fools – moral exemplars unto ourselves – can be so self-deceived as to wander from God’s Holy Way. Hallelujah! A wisdom much greater than our own continues to set our feet on the way of peace. Not of ambition or acquisition, but peace, mercy, salvation. Calling all fools! There’s a wisdom out there that is infinitely greater than the compass you and I are so sure we have.
Understanding the ways in which we are fools is liberating, not denigrating, or the stuff of a false “Christian humility.” We’re all fools on multiple levels, as we delude ourselves about ourselves. From prison John the Baptist asks Jesus, “Who are you?” Jesus, as usual, answers without directly answering. John wants to know if he’s the Messiah – he’s wondering because Jesus is acting very un-Messiah-like (we all know that the Messiah will burst on to earth’s surface with trumpets, reorder everything, send the bad people to hell and start the true believers rising in air balloons to heaven – right?). This is not the lifestyle of Jesus of Nazareth. He does not fit John’s expectations, and so from prison he must ask, “Are you the Messiah?”
Jesus answers only with a current report on what is happening, which John wouldn’t know in prison. It is all the hallmarks of a divine, even Messianic season: “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” These are the signs! (Think of the Magnificat of Mary – she prophesied, too!) The suffering and destitute of the earth are healed and restored. This is the Messiah at work! Jesus has answered John’s question.
Let’s permit John to ask us the same question: “Who are you?” My own honest answer would be, “Well, I’m a fool, but I’m a well-intentioned one. My beliefs are in the right place, but the execution leaves a lot to be desired. I have a long way to go before I am truly a friend of the poor, of the incarcerated, of the supposedly useless.” You may well answer differently!
And then, let’s consider the answer of Christ to John. John asks, “Are you the Messiah we’ve been waiting for?” And Jesus responds to him and to us, “Decide for yourself; here is the evidence.” Who are we ? What is our identity ? Like Christ, the answer will be the testimony of our lives. So many things and people and institutions seek to define us. If we define ourselves as Christ defines him self, the answer is: I am defined by – I am – what my faith makes happen.
And so I cling to the good news that God’s Holy Way toward salvation is the one that even fools can’t mess up. Calling all fools! Hear the Good News: the power of God and Christ to correct is infinitely greater than our own ability to wander off the trail. We are on a holy journey whose magnetic force to keep us faithful is infinitely more powerful than our own propensity to foolery. Our foolishness is our present, our now, but not our destiny
What good news to carry forward with us in Advent and always! As we draw nearer and nearer in these days to the birth of the Messiah, let us seek all the more to put foolishness and distraction aside, focusing on the Holy road before us, the one to the Bethlehem stable, and the birth of a dirt-poor baby, whom only a fool would recognize as – the Messiah!
Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 1, ed. D.L. Bartlett and B.B. Taylor, (Louisville: WJK Press, 2010), pp. 50-73