One Shock after Another
By The Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger
You are familiar with Thoreau’s aphorism that “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” You may even believe it. ‘Tis true that for far too many, day fades into night then into day again with no real joy, no excitement, no exhilaration. Existence is BLAH…if even that good. Boring.
Unfortunately, things are not that simple. In fact, just the opposite is true. Yes, there ARE boring, blah times in our lives – those may even make up the major portion of our lives – but what define us are those times that are anything BUT boring. The SHOCKS! And they happen to all of us. They might come on a global scale – September 11th or December 7th; do you remember where you were and what you were doing when you heard? How about when President Kennedy was shot? Do you remember? Probably.
Other shocks are not so cosmic, but they are large nonetheless. How about the families of Christopher Santora and José Guadalupé, two firefighters from New York’s Engine Company 54 who lost their lives at the World Trade Center? This week they learned that Christopher’s body was buried in an October 1st funeral service for José – a bizarre and complicated case of mistaken identity. Shock! Who in New Bedford, Massachusetts this week would say that life is a bore? Teenage children plotting to blow up their high school in an insane attempt to recreate the tragedy at Columbine. Shocks DO come to all of us. And they change us. Sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. In many cases, the direction of the change is very much in our own hands.
For what comfort it offers, let me remind you that this story of Jesus that we begin again on this first Sunday of Advent is a wonderful context for dealing with shocks. You see, the whole gospel is one shock after another. Think about it. God in human flesh. Shock. Born to an unwed teenage mother. Shock. From Nazareth (which even the apostles felt was a no-account town: “Can anything good come from Nazareth?”(1)). Shock. King of kings and Lord of lords. A gilded cradle for the newborn? No, a manger full of fodder. Shock. One shock after another.
And the shocks would continue. As Jesus ministered around the countryside, he taught things like “Blessed are” or “Happy are” or “Congratulations to…those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” Huh? “Congratulations to…the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” C’mon. “Congratulations…when you are persecuted for righteousness’ sake…”(2) You must be kidding! There was the teaching that said, “The greatest among you will be your servant.”(3) Sure! Then there was that strange saying that “the last shall be first…”(4) Not what we would expect.
Finally, the incredible shock to those who loved him of Jesus’ torture and murder. He had healed the sick, given sight to the blind, restored the limbs of the lame, and even brought the dead back to life. The hopes and dreams of his followers had convinced them that this was God’s Messiah – the Anointed One, the one who would lead them into a glorious future. But now those hopes and dreams were dust and ashes. It was over…or was it? We know better. There was one more shock to go. Resurrection.
You see? I told you: the story of Jesus is one shock after another…after another and after another. A comforting thought when I realize that the times I need Jesus most are when I am in the midst of my own shocks. They obviously will NOT be more than he can handle.
As I said earlier, the shocks of life do not necessarily push us in one direction or another. The choice is ours. They can make us either bitter or better.
So saying, there is more to this text than the comfort of knowing that our Lord is not put off by any shocks. There is John’s call to repentance…a challenge to change those things in our lives that need changing…and the promise of God’s forgiveness symbolized by the cleansing waters of baptism.
Then there are those soaring words of Isaiah, “Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him. Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth.” The picture is drawn from the massive engineering efforts of ancient Babylon. Straight new roads, not those old roads that are content to follow the terrain. It is the difference in going from Warren to Buffalo up Route 60 to I-90 instead of going all the way up Route 62. For the ancients, this was a theological statement – nothing must be allowed to impede or delay the coming of God.
What a message for us at Advent! “Let every heart/Prepare him room” we sing. Perhaps we would do well to say let every heart get out the bulldozers and backhoes, the rock crushers and road graders:
* There are mountains that need to come down – mountains of racism, sexism, ageism, and any other “-ism” that blocks our way to healthy relationships with one another and with our Lord.
* There are valleys to be filled – valleys of depression, despair, loneliness, grief, pain, any of which can keep us from the rich relationship the Savior offers and that keep us from enjoying the fellowship of the faith.
* There are crooked places to be made straight – yes, there is perversity, even among those we might never imagine; fine exteriors mask rotten interiors of abuse, neglect, immorality, even violence.
* There are rough places to be made smooth – rough places that have come because of oppression and injustice.
There is work to do! Bring on the heavy equipment!
There is a wonderful conclusion to all the effort. As the lesson has it, “all mankind will see God’s salvation.” Picture it. This mass of humanity that suffers through those periods of quiet desperation interspersed with the inevitable shocks is stretched out along the hillsides overlooking this wonderful wide highway. As far as the eye can see they are spread out. Men and women, boys and girls. Rich and poor, young and old, slave and free. Every nation, tongue, and tribe. Red, and yellow, black and white. All are anxiously gathered to watch for the arrival of the King of all kings who is the embodiment of God’s salvation, God’s healing, God’s wholeness, God’s shalom.
Can you see it? Yes, I know vision is hampered. The mountains are so high and the valleys so low, the crooked places are still horribly bent and the rough places resist every attempt to smooth them. And yes, there is one shock after another. Look beyond all that. Look to God’s salvation… Jeshua…Iesus… Jesus. See Jesus in the pages of scripture…see Jesus in the lives of your fellow worshipers…see Jesus in the faces of those whose needs we seek to meet…see Jesus present as we gather at his table. Clearer and clearer the picture comes. Can you see it yet? Look. Look. And keep on looking. It WILL come into focus. That is a promise from on high. “All mankind (even you and me) will see God’s salvation.” Jesus. And that is the best shock of all.
1. John 1:46
2. Matthew 5:4, 5, 10
3. Matthew 23:11
4. Matthew 20:16, etc.
Copyright 2001 David E. Leininger. Used by permission.