I don’t remember if I was 5, 7, or 9, as our children’s choir was rehearsing to sing in worship with little blue smocks with a big white English bow. Our choir leader smiled at me and softly said, “Paul, you do not need to sing so loudly… you don’t have the nicest voice.” I was stunned silent and succeeded in not bursting into tears. I would move my lips but not risk singing. This story always makes my elementary music educator sister-in-law go bananas with rants about joyful singing, puberty voice changes, pedagogy and the like. I know that the director meant no harm, she was always kind and would become one of my trusted youth leaders. I have not yet sang with Dolly, but I am fine, but even our unthinking exclusions leave marks.
Luke’s Gospel begins with the story of God breaking a cycle of alienation, Zechariah and Elizabeth had endured decades of religious reproach despite their blameless living. Zechariah was one of the ten of thousands of Israel’s lay priests, who served as Temple liturgists and officiants two weeks each year. According to the ancient Levitical Code you could not serve as one of Israel’s priests, if you were different. If your were unable to speak, hear, see, needed crutches or a wheelchair, lacked a finger, your hand could not make a fist, your spine was not straight, your mouth curved atypically, your ears missed the norm, or you were below the standard deviation for height you could not offer incense on the Lord’s altar. The Law labeled you as religiously contaminated, unclean and impure. You could not stand near the altar lest your presence make “God’s sanctuary” unclean.. (Leviticus 21) And what about girls? No woman was allowed even to enter the inner Temple. A new mother was considered impure for a month after she gave birth to a boy, but two months if she gave birth to a girl. (Leviticus 12) Those sorts of excluding rules were never okay. We are made in the image of God and calling people impure is oppressive, gross and wrong. (Act’s 10) Isaiah’s prophetic vision poetically sews disruptive seeds of liberation along God’s Holy Highway.
Isaiah sings a pilgrimage song- a poetic vision of blind, deaf, and voiceless people, who have too long endured reproach, laughing, leaping and singing as they travel the Holy Highway towards God’s Temple. If you made a literal pilgrimage to the Temple you could only get so close to the Holiness. You encountered gates and barriers. Almost everyone was welcome in the massive outer courts and gardens. But if you wanted to get closer a sign stating “Gentile trespassers will be stoned to death” made clear who was not welcome. Another gatekeeper kept women from entering the Temple proper. Mary, Magdalene, Elizabeth, and Anna (who never left the Temple for 5 decades) never saw a priest actually standing before the altar- only seeing secondhand smoke and smelling the aroma of incense drifting over walls designed to keep them out. Next was the clergy only section and then the closed off 30 foot high by 30 foot wide 4 sided embroidered curtain that separated everyone from the Holy of Holies. Once a year, the high priest entered the Holy of holies with jingling bells in his robe’s so as to not startle God and a rope tied around his waist in case some unconfessed sin led God to strike him dead. The rope allowed the other priests to pull out the body. Why risk sending another priest in there with an angry God? (Leviticus 16 & Exodus 28) The people believed seeing or touching God would bring instant death. (2 Samuel 6) It is easy to put down people who believe in such a scary hyper- transcendent God. We all need a sense of reverence for the mysteries of God, life, and the universe. However, theologies rooted in God’s unapproachable holiness alienate us from God’s ever-present Love. The gatekeeper and rule-makers who proffer long lists of no-nos, disqualifying restrictions, and religious barricades keep people away from God and God away from people. Alienation always hinders transformation.
We church folks often focus on sin more than grace and the Fall more the God who created humanity as “very good”. (Genesis 1-2) Such a focus on “imperfections” continues to push people away from God- who is The Source Of All Love, mercy, faith, hope and love. ( 1 John 4) Why would we fear the unique ways that God made each of us? Is not Grace greater than any Fall? Paul answers, “Nothing in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God” (Romans 8)
Christmas should obliterate that fear-based sense of separation from God’s boundless Love. God’s Perfect Love and Relentless Holiness came to dwell with us as a baby, born out of wedlock in violation of purity laws, to refugees dealing with insecure housing. God leaves heaven’s throne and lays helplessly in a feedbox crib. Charles Wesley asked how can it be that “Christ left heaven above and emptied himself of all but love?” answers that such amazing Love boggles even the best angel minds. (“And Can It Be?”) Instead of walls separating us from God’s Holiest Place and ropes to pull us back to safety (Leviticus 16 & Exodus 28); Mary holds God in her arms. Mary tenderly nurses God. God becomes that vulnerable. Perfect Love crosses every barrier, pushes open every door, and welcomes everyone home. (Isaiah 9,11 &35) Love’s touch brings healing. (Ephesians 2 and 1 John 4) Hebrews 8 tells us those old excluding covenants are obsolete. On Good Friday, as Jesus breathed his last, Luke tells us that the great 30 foot high Holy Of Holies curtain, separating God from us and us from God, was torn in two from the top to the bottom. God’s incarnational Love must desecrate those alienating boxes and separating sections that keep us away from God and God away from us.
I am not here to beat up the Temple or its beautiful faithful people. Every church puts up barriers. Jesus worshiped in that very Temple. While watching the orange embers of a campfire glide upward towards the Milky Way I often feel my own smallness and the awesome transcendent of God.
Today, I might have preached a correction about Isaiah’s desire for vengeance upon those Babylonians, who desecrated the temple, destroyed the capital, enslaved young friends, and mocked his faith. Jesus’ call for redemptive goodwill for enemies hits hard after Charlottesville or 9-11. I’ll only say God invites us to bring our bitterest moments into the healing light of confession and prayer.
Today, Isaiah’s excluding line: “the unclean will not walk the holy highway” seems more an out of place unhelpful line. How can Love leave anyone out? How can God not embrace the uniqueness that God created? Maybe we never were or are unclean on God’s highway? Maybe God makes all who will walk on the Holy Highway clean? Maybe we all need to confess with Peter that “God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.” (Acts 10) We all travel with a limp, navigating our pilgrim path with blind-spots, not quite always hearing God’s voice, but as we move towards God’s Perfect Love: Love makes us all whole! Love perfects our beloved uniqueness. ( 1 Cor 13 or Romans 8)
So hear Isaiah pushing poetically against closed Temple gates to invite more inside:
The desert will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom with wildflowers.
The deserts will burst into bloom and rejoice with joy and singing.
We will see the Lord’s glory, the splendor of our God (and not be struck dead! Exodus 24)
Strengthen your weak hands. Support those with unsteady knees.
Say to those who are panicking- those with fearful hearts: “Be strong! Don’t fear!
God is coming.” God is coming to save us.
Blind eyes will see. Deaf ears will hear.
Those unable to walk will leap like deer. The voiceless will sing.
Streams will flow in the desert.
Wetlands will return with songbirds and dragonflies.
A highway will be there.
The road will be called The Holy Way.
Even Fools won’t get lost on God’s holy highway
No lions will be there, no murderous warriors, no predators.
God will make clean all who step onto the holy way
the redeemed, who God saves will walk that sacred path unafraid
The Lord will call home all the disinherited, refugees, outcasts and survivors
We will all come home singing, everlasting joy will fill our minds,
Happiness and joy will overwhelm our souls; grief and groaning will flee away.
Come let us walk the Lord’s highway.
The Psalmist sings of that holy highway- that pathway that restores community, that buys us back despite our imperfections and liberates us from death-dealing ways.
God gives justice to oppressed people,
God gives bread to people who are starving!
The Lord frees prisoners.
The Lord makes the blind see.
The Lord straightens up those who are bent low.
The Lord loves right actions.
The Lord protects immigrants,
The Lord helps orphans and widows,
Praise the Lord!
Oh siblings, come, let us walk such a path
It is the Lord’s holy way- not our merit, theology or skill that makes us clean. It is the Lord who made us unique and beloved, who makes us whole. It is grace that purifies and perfects each of us into exactly all God created us to be. It is about the Lord- not us! It is God’s holy highway- not ours!
And Mary, our hero, who bears Jesus out of wedlock which was a capital offense, who nurses Jesus inside insecure housing, who becomes a refugee, who dedicates Jesus in the Temple despite being unable to actually stand before its altar: Mary sings a holy fight song, a song of personal liberation and radical systemic realignment. Mary too sings of God’s Holy Way: the pathway that makes everyone who will walk along it clean.
“With all my heart I glorify the Lord!
In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God.
God has looked with favor on my low status
Look at me, here I am- highly favored by God
Listen every one- every generation: Hear my voice,
The coming generations will call me highly favored by God
God has done great things for me. Holy is the Lord’s name.
God shows mercy to everyone in every generation
God scatters our arrogance and proud inclinations.
God pulls the powerful down from their thrones
God lifts up the lowly.
God fills the hungry with good things
But sends the already well fed away empty-handed.
God comes to the aid of all us strive along the way,
Remember God’s mercy,
Remember God’s mercy forever and ever.
Oh, come let us sing with Mary, Elizabeth and Isaiah God’s liberation song. Let us celebrate God’s mercy who made us and perfects us. Let us all come home singing, dancing, and rejoicing together, for it is God’s radical Love that calls us all home. Amen.