A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
December 18, 2016
University Baptist Church
I had one sermon planned for today. It was all about how Isaiah makes his case about the treatment of the people of Judah. He has laid out the evidence, interrogated the witnesses and is now taking his case to the jury. I was going to join Isaiah in the prosecution and trust that the jury reaches a just verdict. The promise of the scripture is that God will redeem the people—aka render a fair judgment.
But then life happened. Or should I say, death happened. As many of you know, my intelligent, creative, funny and gifted nephew Lewis took his own life on Thursday evening. While there were signs of depression and a lifetime struggle with impulse control, he seemed to be in a good place. He had just turned 16, paid his deposit that morning for a class field trip to Zero Gravity. He had been texting with his mom just minutes before his life ended, using a nonchalant LOL. And then he was gone. You are not supposed to outlive your children. There is something terribly wrong and none of us can fully understand what was going through his troubled mind. We know what is going through our minds: immense sadness, loneliness, guilt, rage, and just the messiness of grief.
So I stand here today hurting. The pain is raw and it resists platitudes like the plague. It’s unrelenting and there is no clear pathway. We are adrift in a sea of tears. My brother said to me through his sobs in the hospital, “How are we gonna get through this?” I said, “we’ll muddle, and we’ll muddle together.”
We sing at this time of the year of a road that will come in the wilderness. A highway for our God (Isaiah 35:8). We tend to spiritualize it. It’s the prequel to the main event on Christmas. The tenor sings at the opening of the Messiah “Every Valley shall be exalted and the rough places plain.” The choir just sang beautifully of that great highway in the wilderness. We need that highway more than ever, heck I’d settle for a path.
Isaiah 35 paints a picture of a warm blooming desert. You don’t often think of a desert that is glad, whose rivers run full, where flowers bloom. It sounds great—like the first hints of springtime crocuses after a season of tundra.
When we moved here from San Francisco, we loved spring. It wasn’t that we didn’t have flowers in San Francisco. We did, and we became used to them. A Minnesota springtime when you have been cooped up inside and have been treated to 4 months of ice is a different beast altogether. We endure the winter desert, assured that spring will come again. Light will preplace darkness. Life will return. This blooming wilderness if prophecy is an oasis, a spa for the soul. You go there and find joy. I was like that on the Superior Hiking Trail this past summer. I started in late spring and traveled north. The good thing about that was that I followed the blooming trees and wildflowers. It was too soon for the blueberries and raspberries, but right on time for the white star-shaped spring violets.
I’ve been in the wilderness these past few days. It’s cold and it seems like spring will never come. I know some of you have been in the wilderness, too. The wilderness seems to go on forever. Not only is it miles wide, but it is full of wild beasts and thirst and death and pain and suicide and mental illness and traumatic brain injury and grief and loneliness. Where’s the on-ramp for that great highway? How will God flatten out the mountains of grief and unanswered questions? When will God fill the valleys of sorrow, the very valley of the shadow of death? We have known too much of the desert.
We are looking for the onramp to this great highway. Can we at least get a sign? I think Isaiah was speaking to people like us. He was saying that God knows what it’s like in the desert. And in God’s time, there will be that highway. Isaiah was probably talking about the return from exile. The Gospel writers took it to point to the coming of Jesus. Both took a long time. A really long time.
So what do you do when the case has been made and the jury is taking days, even years, even generations to reach a verdict? That’s the maddening thing. We’re all waiting for some relief, some answers, and it feels like forever. In the meantime, we hold vigil. We can’t sleep as we tell the story over and over again. We have food placed before us even though we have no appetite. And we receive the kindness of friends and strangers. We wrap ourselves in prayer shawls. I want to thank the UBC community for coming to our aid once again. This has been a hell of a year and I would like for 2016 to be a bad memory of a challenging period of our lives.
We can’t make it through the desert by ourselves. We need others to find the water source, to scrounge around for food and shelter. We need people to run errands, to be our external brains when our internal ones become unreliable, to remind us of hope and joy and music, to hold the vision of peace when we can’t do it anymore. That’s why I’m here today. Several of your suggested I ask someone else to preach this morning, but I needed to stand here among you to give voice to my longings and to confront my grief and trust that God (in all of you) will show us a pathway through this desert of despair.
We’ll make it through, I know. But there will always be a Lewis-sized hole in our hearts, in our lives. That empty place at the table, reserved for Elijah, telling us that we will get to the Promised Land. But why does it have to take so dang long or be so dang hard?
We know that eventually we will be able to fill our lives with experiences and memories on the other side of this tragedy. Many of us have. But the Lewis-sized hole will still be there, looming, recalling the Christmas season of 2016, the year that we lost him. And I think this year will also be the year that we learn something. Something about ourselves, about mental illness, about hope, about the way community pulls us through. It wasn’t enough to save Lewis, but it is sufficient to help us put on our construction caps, don our work boots, pull out our chainsaws and shovels and start about the work of building that highway.
Eventually the Lewis-sized hole won’t take up such a prominent place. Not because it is less important, but because other things will be alongside it. And the void is no longer all-consuming. We won’t get there today, but maybe all we need to do is to be part of God’s construction crew.
There will come a time, says the prophet when the desert will bloom again (Isaiah 35:1). In that day, the lame will leap like a deer, the mute will sing for joy, the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped (Isaiah 35:5-6).
Broken creation becomes new creation. It’s the overarching Biblical theme of the great reversal. God befriending the friendless, or as Mary’s Magnificat says (Luke 1:46-55), looking upon the lowliness of this handmaiden, declaring that the poor will be lifted up and the rich will be sent away empty. Barren rocky deserts become swamps and marshes, pools will form and deer will drink, animals will frolic (Isaiah 35:6-7). The first shall be last and the last shall be first. God will create a flat highway in the barren mountainous desert, complete with clean rest stops and free coffee.
So, Isaiah says to the desert people, those lost in their grief, “strengthen the weak hands, make firm the feeble knees, say to those of broken heart, be strong and do not fear. Here is your God”(Isaiah 35:3-4). Right here. In the desert. As close as those who mourn alongside you. As close as those who stand by you in silence, not filling it with empty words, but with presence. They are here to bring you good news. The good news is that we are not alone. We will make it through, muddling together.