Mt. McKinley in Alaska, originally known as Denali, "the Great One." .... "Lead me to the rock that is higher than I; for you are my refuge..." (Ps. 61:2-3)

       "Who do you say that I am?" Jesus asked.  Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."  And Jesus answered, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! ... You are Peter (petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church..."  Jesus then began to speak of the rough road ahead. And Peter took him aside and rebuked him... "Get behind me, Satan!" Jesus replied. "You are a stumbling block..."
                                                (Matthew 16:13-23)

May these words of this Peter be like a rock,
not a stumbling block!


Message preached December 16, 2001
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA

based upon  Isaiah 35

Order of Worship

"Weíre marching to Zion, beautiful, beautiful Zion.
Weíre marching upward to Zion, the beautiful city of God."
(Robert Lowryís refrain to Isaac Wattsí "Come, we that love the Lord," #14)

            Okay, so itís not exactly a song for this season. Few of us will take it with us when we go caroling, spreading Christmas cheer far and near. But maybe we should. Itís a song for the road, and Lord knows how much traveling we do at this time of year. "Iíll be home for Christmas, you can count on me."

            We all have many tales to tell about the journey. When I was in college, my folks moved out to Illinois, and one Christmas I packed up my drafty Ď65 Ford Econoline van and headed west for this new home. Passing through the highlands of western Pennsylvania, I began to notice that the heater wasnít working very well. In fact, it wasnít working at all. The snow outside was beautiful, Iíll grant you. But inside it was very, very cold...

            Across Ohio and through most of Indiana, I literally was freezing my buns off. I remember stopping at a gas station and spending several minutes thawing in front of one of those bathroom hot air hand dryers. I then went through my suitcase and put on as much as I could for the final hour or two of my journey. Along the way I discovered that socks can double as mittens. Never mind that I had to pull some of them out of the dirty clothes bag (I was a college student, after all, bringing home more than Christmas presents). I gotta tell you, it never felt so good to come "home," even if "home" wasnít where I grew up.

            Of course, not everyone is fortunate enough to make it home for Christmas. They may be freezing their buns off in some distant land. Then, again, I can think of one of our own who wonít be making it home this year, but who will be quite warm down in Florida... Circumstances may get in the way of the journey home for many folks, no matter how hard they try. "Iíll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams."

            In this morningís scripture, Isaiah envisions a journey home. The words of this prophet originally spoke to those who found themselves in a distant country. It was not by choice, however, that these folks moved from the land they loved. Still, as Isaiah and the other prophets saw it, the children of Israel were not exactly victims of fate in their forced relocation to Babylon long ago. This time of "exile" away from home was Godís judgment upon those who took "home" for granted, even though history records this forced relocation as the action of a foreign dictator. As Isaiah pointed out, God was and is the real power behind every throne, and God will not be taken for granted.

            Even so, being away from "home" was tough. Such periods in life are often make-it-or-break-it times. The cry of the Israelites in exile is best summed up in Psalm 137. "By the rivers of Babylon - there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our harps. For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, ĎSing us one of the songs of Zion!í How could we sing the Lord's song in a foreign land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither! Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy." (137:1-6) ... "if only in my dreams..."

            Isaiah shared a dream with those forced from home, a dream that was a promise from God. Between Babylon and Jerusalem, across a barren and harsh wilderness, a road will be paved, the prophet said. Along the way, the desert shall blossom and this path will be made safe. And Godís people will travel home upon this "Holy Way." Those who canít see it as a possibility - their eyes will be opened. Those who have heard so much bad news that they are deaf to good news when it comes - their ears will be opened. Those who donít think their legs can make it home - they will end up leaping there. And those who feel they have nothing to say of any good to anyone - these folks wonít be able to quiet down the song erupting from their heart.

            This was and is a marvelous vision, a great promise for those who long to go home. It even has something good to say to those who are so dense that they canít grasp an opportunity when it hits them over the head. On this highway in the wilderness, on this "Holy Way," Isaiah says, "no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray." Good grief, thereís hope for the Charlie Browns among Godís people who are a bit slow to catch on, folks like me ... and you?

            This vision culminates in that wonderful promise of God, who will pay whatever price is necessary to bring his people home. A "redeemer" is a family member who steps forward to purchase the freedom of a person who had been sold into slavery. A "redeemer" is someone who buys back land that had to be sold away in order to pay the bills, so that it is not cut off from the family. The "redeemed" are those for whom the price, the "ransom," has been paid.

            "The redeemed," Isaiah envisioned, "shall walk" from Babylon back home to Zion. "The ransomed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away." (Isaiah 35:9b-10) "Weíre marching to Zion, beautiful, beautiful Zion. Weíre marching upward to Zion, the beautiful city of God."

            I know, I know, itís not exactly a Christmas song. But maybe it should be. Itís a song for the road home. And how many of us need to come home for Christmas? Oh, Iím not talking about packing up the car and freezing our buns off on the way there. Though thatís sometimes how we see "going home." It may not be a pleasant prospect. "Hell will have to freeze over before Iíll turn in that direction," may be the response of some. (By the way, be careful what you say - if the desert can blossom, then perhaps hell can freeze over.)

            Others, however, may feel that things have grown too cold when it comes to going "home," that no amount of hot air will thaw icy relationships. Frostbite has set in. The damage has been done. The only hope is amputation. Of course, if lions and lambs can peacefully live together (Isaiah 11:6, 65:25), then maybe there is more "hope" out there than what we realize.

            "Iíll be home for Christmas," may just be a romantic ideal, only existing in our dreams. Iím not just talking about "over the river and through the woods" kind of home. Iím thinking of "Zion." No, not that specific hill in Jerusalem upon which the Temple was built. But that place, that space to which we look as our "home," where our heart yearns to be. Home is not just where we grew up, you know. People who try to go back to home "as it used to be," will almost always be disappointed.

            The exiles who finally made it back to Jerusalem after many years "by the waters of Babylon," found things very different when they returned. If they tried to recreate what once was, they found resistance. The biggest roadblock was actually God, who desired this people to move forward, not backward. The "good old days" were not exactly the "good old days" in Godís eyes. God looks ahead, and so should we. Returning to Zion is a step forward, not backward. In a sense, thatís what Advent, this season leading up to Christmas, is all about. Weíre not just looking back to the first coming of Christ into this world. Weíre looking ahead to the future, seeking to journey upon the "Holy Way," having our own eyes opened, our ears unstopped, our weak legs strengthened, our voices tuned to joy. We may be fools at times, but thankfully even fools will not go astray, as long as our hearts are set upon our true home.

            This "fool for Christ" plans on heading to the Jentry McDonald House on Wednesday. Those children, whose "home" right now is that place, are such a delight. My guitar is an ice-breaker with them. They all want to play it. The joy in their voices as they sing the songs is great medicine. See that little one, sitting in Carolynís lap, eating up all the attention she can give. Pizza is not exactly what I grew up eating as a Christmas party food, but - hey - Christmas is not about what once was, but about what is and what will be. If I try to impose the Christmas of the past, I will get disappointed. But the Advent of Christ, the home he is preparing - there at the Jentry McDonald House as well as off down the road in the Kingdom - when thatís what my eyes, our eyes are looking toward, watch out.

            I wonder what Godís going to be doing in the lives of these little ones in the years ahead? Stop focusing upon the drug dealers, the prostitutes, the abusive parents, the poor choices that line the streets of their current way home (as well as all the negative "stuff" that lines our own road). Instead, dream on with Isaiah. See that desert blossom. God is the redeemer of those kids. God is my redeemer as well. Christ came to pay the price to bring us all home. All of us, even those who may be wondering how to sing the Lordís song in the strange territory in which we currently find ourselves. All of us, even those who may be sitting and weeping, having hung up our harps. All of us, even those who may feel withered, without a future - or at least a future we can imagine.

            Brothers and sisters, dream on with Isaiah! Dream on with Jesus! Say to the Lord, "Iíll be home for Christmas, you can count on me." Zion is where our heart lives in God. Home is where God lives in our hearts, now and forever. Keep focused this year. Come home! ... "And the ransomed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away."

"Weíre marching to Zion, beautiful, beautiful Zion.
Weíre marching upward to Zion, the beautiful city of God."
(Robert Lowryís refrain to Isaac Wattsí "Come, we that love the Lord," #14)

©2001 Peter L. Haynes

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