Wow. Help. Thanks. The writer Anne Lamott says there are essentially just three prayers: Wow. Help. Thanks. Each of the three is illustrated in our Scripture readings today, on this Gaudete or Rejoice Sunday.
“The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom.” Wow.
Isaiah paints a picture of the desert transformed, a world where the impossible has become possible, a time when God’s people will leave behind grief and walk rejoicing into a bright future. Did you go out to see the superbloom of poppies last spring? If you did, I imagine your reaction was rather like mine, joyful disbelief that a small wildflower could carpet the hillsides, that dry terrain could glow with life as far as the eye could see. Surely if ever there were a moment for the Wow prayer, it was last March.
The prophet wants his readers, people exiled, imprisoned, oppressed, to see in their mind’s eye the astonishing possibilities that God can bring about. He wants them to respond with Wow, to reawaken their sense of wonder, to understand that a different world is possible and that joy will return to God’s beloved children.
Isaiah speaks of the blind, the deaf, the lame, and the mute being healed. In his day such attributes barred people from full participation in the community. In an agricultural society, exclusion could mean starvation. So healing that allowed full inclusion was a lifesaving act. Today we have a different view of physical challenges: deafness, for example, is understood by many as an identity within a subculture rather than a disability.
So, as we hear Isaiah’s words today, we might focus on the theme of community inclusion: think of those in our day who miss out, the destitute, the very old, those suffering from mental illness or unmanageable addiction, those who speak a language other than the norm. Thanks be to God that this week St Paul’s will once again be fully accessible to all, as soon as our elevator receives its permit.
In the Gospel, John the Baptist is in prison, condemned for calling King Herod to account for his immoral conduct. John knows his days are numbered: he wonders if his legacy will be a grand misunderstanding or the long-awaited arrival of the Messiah. He sends his disciples to ask Jesus, are you really the one? John can be forgiven for doubting the identity of Jesus.
In his day, Jews believed that when the Messiah came, wicked earthly rulers like Herod and Imperial Rome would be destroyed, that faithful Jews like John would be freed from prison and Israel would enter a golden age. But here is John, still languishing in prison, anticipating execution, still at the mercy of an illegitimate tyrant. How can this be? And so, even though you might think that John, as Jesus’ cousin, should know better than anyone, he sends his disciples to ask the question. Help. John implicitly expresses the second of Lamott’s prayers. Help me, in this dark and terrifying place. Help me understand if my life has had meaning. Help me in my doubts and fears.
I wonder if there are questions you hesitate to ask. Maybe questions that you think you shouldn’t need to ask. John does us all a favor by asking what we dare not ask: is this really the Messiah? What are your questions? Does God really love me? Is the Bible true? Will I go to hell if I don’t receive forgiveness? In our newcomers’ class last year, people asked questions including, “are there any non-negotiables for being an Episcopalian?” and “Should we take original sin seriously and what does that mean anyway?”
The church should be a place where we can ask our questions, express our doubts without fear of being judged or mocked. Let’s see if we are such a community. I invite you now to turn to someone near you and share with them a question about God, faith, or church that lingers in your mind but you haven’t felt comfortable asking in a public forum. But before you do, promise each other that you will keep the other’s confidence: shake hands on it. You don’t have to answer the question, but simply honor its asking. Maybe it will echo your own questions. 2 minutes, one for each question and its response. Help. Let’s help each other be brave with our questions,
You might remember that when the angel told Mary that she would give birth to the son of God, her first response was a question: “How can this be?” She wasn’t afraid to push back a little. She asked for help. My favorite images of Mary are those that show her as strong, determined, and competent: strong people aren’t afraid to ask for help. We see this side of her in the Magnificat, as she gives voice to the third prayer: giving thanks to God for the mighty acts that turn the world upside down, proclaiming a new age in which the lowly, the hungry, and the poor will inherit the kingdom of God. Mary, like John, is a prophet of this new age that Jesus inaugurates. Like Isaiah she recognizes that God will not leave the world to stew in its own juice but will stir up creation to be renewed and transformed.
Jesus answers John’s question by paraphrasing Isaiah’s prophecy and inviting John to compare it to what is actually happening. The Messiah will open the eyes of the blind – check; the Messiah will cause the lame to leap and dance- check; the Messiah will restore the ritually unclean to their communities – check; the Messiah will raise to new life those who walked in the paths of death – check; and the Messiah will bring good news to the poor – check. The ultimate meaning of John’s life is fulfilled, even if not in the way that he expected.
Notice that the proof of the prophecy lies more in what Jesus does than in what he says. Similarly, our values are reflected in our deeds more than in our words. We get hung up on what public figures say, but what they do is a more reliable indicator of character and priorities. And when we take stock of our own lives, it will be not what we have said but what we have done that will form our legacy. How did I change the world? How did I make someone’s life better? How did my presence make a difference? I don’t expect anyone to remember a single word of all my sermons after I am gone, but I hope that some of my actions will have lasting effect.
Like John, we may at times feel imprisoned and cut off from good news. Our challenges are many. Perhaps the circumstances of our lives prevent us from seeing the love of God. Perhaps the noise of the world blocks our ears to the sound of praise. Perhaps we are burdened and unable to leap and sing for joy. Perhaps we walk in the valley of the shadow of death and have not yet found the way to new life. Perhaps the questions jostling in our heads hold us back.
But here’s the good news: Isaiah’s desert bloom, the witness of John, and the courage of Mary give us plenty of reasons for that third prayer of thanks: thanks that the longed-for Messiah came once and will come again, thanks that God keeps God’s promises, thanks that each of us can enter into the kingdom of God and enjoy abundance of life. Wow, Help, Thanks.
Third Sunday of Advent
December 15 2019
The Very Rev Penelope Bridges