The church is not closed this Christmas

Isaiah 40:1-11

    1Comfort, O comfort my people,
  says your God.
2Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
  and cry to her
 that she has served her term,
  that her penalty is paid,
 that she has received from the Lord’s hand
  double for all her sins.

3A voice cries out:
 “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
  make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
4Every valley shall be lifted up,
  and every mountain and hill be made low;
 the uneven ground shall become level,
  and the rough places a plain.
5Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
  and all people shall see it together,
  for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

6A voice says, “Cry out!”
  And I said, “What shall I cry?”
 All people are grass,
  their constancy is like the flower of the field.
7The grass withers, the flower fades,
  when the breath of the Lord blows upon it;
  surely the people are grass.
8The grass withers, the flower fades;
  but the word of our God will stand forever.
9Get you up to a high mountain,
  O Zion, herald of good tidings;
 lift up your voice with strength,
  O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,
  lift it up, do not fear;
 say to the cities of Judah,
  “Here is your God!”
10See, the Lord God comes with might,
  and his arm rules for him;
 his reward is with him,
  and his recompense before him.
11He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
  he will gather the lambs in his arms,
 and carry them in his bosom,
  and gently lead the mother sheep.

Making a rough place level is not easy. To lay a railway bed across this country a couple centuries ago was a formidable task. To our modern sensibilities, even incomprehensible.

I remember driving through Rogers Pass in British Columbia just west of Revelstoke. Here, “The Last Spike” marks the place where the coastal railroad line finally in 1885 met up with the Canadian Pacific Railway whose armies of workers dug and blasted their way through the Rocky Mountains. Historians consider this joining of the line as the moment when national unity was realized. Establishing an economic and cultural link gave access to more and more people moving across this vast Canadian land.

The vision Isaiah puts before the people walking in the darkness of Babylonian exile 2500 years ago is similarly incredible. How could “every valley be lifted up and every mountain made low”? How could “the uneven ground become level and the rough places plain”? How could a small remanent return to Jerusalem across a vast and inhospitable land, not to mention leave a society in which they had grown accustomed over a generation?

It’s as if God was presenting a scenario that is without question impossible for human beings to accomplish on their own. They may have had resources – people power, willpower – to build impressive buildings and accomplish great things in their time. 

But as with so many if not all human achievements there is always that elusive element – call it luck, serendipity, grace – just out of reach of human agency, control and effort however impressive. Just ask anyone who is willing to give an honest answer to account for their success.

A.B. Rogers had to trek over the avalanche-prone Selkirk mountains not once but twice to confirm what he suspected: that there was a way just beyond the next ridge. After having to turn back the first time, he went back the following year from a different direction to verify that there was a tributary of the Columbia River in the valley beyond. Indeed, there was. That river valley had always been there. A given.

But we often find it hard to believe the grace is so close to us. The mental stumbling block for the exiled Israelites was this belief that they could only have a meaningful connection with the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in Jerusalem, in the holy temple. The physical separation by a vast and dangerous desert – created, you can imagine, a great challenge and crisis of faith: “How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”[1] they cried. How could they access their God, when they lived in exile so far away from their place of worship? 

These days when so many places of worship are empty, when gatherings are severely limited and space is not being used because of the pandemic, it’s common hearsay: “the church is closed for Christmas”. If we can’t gather together in one, specific place and sing the favourite carols at the top of our lungs, shoulder to shoulder; if we can’t light candles together in the darkened sanctuary; if we can’t give each other hugs and wish each other ‘Merry Christmas’ face-to-face … well, then, what’s the point? 

Indeed, it feels like our traditions are ‘like grass’, they have withered and faded in 2020. Despair remains a hair’s breadth away. COVID-19 has devastated all our good efforts in accessing what is important to us in connecting with God. If we can’t be physically in the building with other people to worship God, then it is lost. Our access to God cut off.

And then we hear voices saying that the church is not closed this Christmas. The buildings are closed. But not the church. Access to God continues in various ways. Of course, access to the church is not perfect, especially for those who do not connect with others on the internet these days.

But access to God and God’s people has never been perfect, even pre-COVID. Those who work shifts on Sunday mornings, people with physical disabilities not being able to access buildings with stairs and narrow halls and doorways. Others who don’t access places of worship because of perceived and real judgement laid against them by those who are there. Access to God has never been easy or perfect. We are like grass. Our efforts always fall short. 

But more than that, those voices today continue to say – do we hear them? – that access to God during COVID has never been so broad and far-reaching because of the internet. The people tuning into broadcasts, online services, live streams and zoom gatherings, the coming together of the faithful from different congregations for a weekly event – these far outnumber those who have ever sat in our chairs in the building. People are participating in the life of the church like never before!

What this COVID time is doing is challenging our perceptions and expectations of where we meet with God. The message of Advent is the call to work at re-defining the parameters for ourselves. Advent is this time of active waiting for God, doing different things to help pave the way through the mountain passes of our lives. It is a time for resilient, determined never-give-up-ness. 

How can we nurture this courage and resilience from within?

The latter part of the poetry in this passage from Isaiah contains a promise that we know to be true. Historically. But also, personally. We know that King Cyrus of Persia conquered Babylon and freed the people in the sixth century B.C.E. This liberation was not engineered by the people. And still, the exiles who had spent years far away from their place of worship were now free to return to Jerusalem. King Cyrus made that possible.

Personally, Isaiah’s poetry reflects imagery of the caring shepherd. We know that Jesus was the shepherd whose voice the sheep that follow him know. We know that Jesus is the shepherd who carries the lambs – the sheep who are most vulnerable, most in need, most in despair, most afraid and anxious – in his arms. And he will feed us, give us what we need.

Not only that, God has a special promise to those who feel responsible for others’ well-being. The shepherd will also “gently lead the mother sheep”. Isaiah’s message is not only to those who are dependent on others in dark times. Isaiah’s promise also includes a word to those who feel the emotional if not practical burden of responsibility for others when times are tough. That mothering instinct to find solutions, say the right things, solve problems and be there for others – here, too, God’s promises give permission to take a load off. God will enfold and carry the ones who normally lead.

In the end, the question is not so much about how we access God, and where we need to go. The Gospel message – the good news – is that God accesses us, wherever we are. God will come, God will find a way, into our hearts and into the hearts of those we care for this Christmas. We have to believe that.

We don’t have to have all the solutions, the strategies that work, the answers to what challenges us in COVID times. We don’t need to always feel that burden of responsibility for the fact that many church buildings are closed this Christmas. Because, we know and believe, the church remains open to hear God’s voice and trust in God’s promises – to come to us wherever we are.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Psalm 137:4

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