What is the first image that comes to mind when you hear the word threshold? I picture a groom carrying a bride over the threshold? (Is that even still done?)
The threshold signifies a passage, a change…a movement from one place to another. I remember in the movie Roots one slave couple married and jumped over the broom stick together signifying their new life together. A very primitive threshold.
The Advent season is a threshold. It’s an in-between place where we wait for God’s coming. It’s liminal time. A time and space where the gap is blurred between the present and the future. Between expectation and Arrival.
When an engaged couple is preparing for their anticipated wedding day, they are living in a threshold time. When parents wait through nine months of a their baby’s gestation, they are living in threshold time. Preparation, expectation and even a little anxiety are all present in a threshold time.
In Advent the story of God’s people–past, future and present–collide. In Advent we re-tell the ancient story of Jesus’ coming. At the same time, we anticipate the future of his coming again. But, most importantly, we attend to the present; for it is in this time and in this moment when God comes.
That’s why over and over we are told: Stay awake! Pay attention. Keep attuned. Be present to THIS threshold season.
Coming to church each week is one way we stay awake and we attend to the present moment for God’s coming. I dare say, it is an adventure each week to put ourselves into this liminal space.
It’s nothing short of a miracle really. From where I stand, literally, I look around and see about 250 people in this place. 250 reasonable, rational, highly intelligent, caring human beings who’ve come together with an expectation–maybe a quiet expectation, but an expectation nonetheless –that God is going to meet us here. We come through the sanctuary doors leaving behind our ordinary lives; entering into this sacred space; and, anticipating that something just might move our hearts and minds while here.
We hope that in some way we will feel the Divine presence. We hope that we might even be changed by the encounter. A colleague and friend of ours in Florida was a German professor and a very rational thinker. He’d go to our church dutifully with his wife. He confessed that he normally did not expect much from attending worship. But when he was faced with a difficult professional situation and decision, he said, “Then I found myself leaning forward listening for a word in the sermon or a message in the prayers that felt like God was speaking to me.”
That’s why we’re really here, isn’t it? We want to meet God. We want that encounter to affect our lives. We want to get past the malaise or the boredom. If it’s not the reason why we come, let’s just stay home instead and read the newspaper. Enjoy a second cup of coffee. But that’s too cynical an attitude because I believe in our heart of hearts we anticipate that God is here to meet us.
At this very moment, we are attending to the coming of God.
Annie Dillard, in her book, Teaching a Stone to Talk, says this about speaking to God in worship services: she asks, “Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke?” She goes on: “It is madness to wear ladies straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing CRASH HELMETS. Ushers should issue LIFE PRESERVERS and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.”
Dillard articulates the risk we take being in relationship with a Living God. When we dare to enter into a real exchange with God Almighty, we open ourselves up to the Holy One. We risk being radically changed a holy encounter. We risk being led over a threshold and , as Dillard warns: God may draw us out to where we can never return.
This is what happened to the people of Israel. They were taken into captivity, exiled and deported from their homeland by the Babylonians. The prophets warned beforehand that there would be consequences to their behavior. Enacting certain injustices would mean reaping certain consequences. As predicted, consequences came and the people suffered exile for over 50 years from they land.
The book of Isaiah is broken into three distinct parts; scholars assert that the whole book of Isaiah was crafted together over roughly two hundred years. Chapters 1-39 speak to Israel’s pending captivity. Chapters 40-55 speak of the promise of God to Israel for their restoration to Jerusalem. And chapters 55-65 speak to a post-exilic world.
But a significant gap of information remains between chapters 39 and 40. A gap that Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann says is filled with the lamentation of the people in exile if we listen carefully. He says the whole book of Lamentations lies in between chapter 39 and 40.
Isaiah 40:1-11 captures within its words the threshold in which God’s people resided. The pain and suffering they endured in exile were fresh in their minds. And the words of God’s promise to return home were ringing in their ears. In fact, not only did God promise they’d be going home, God promised they’d be taking a shortcut through the wilderness.
Like children on a long car ride asking over and over again, “Are we there yet?”
And the parents respond, “Not yet. But soon. And when we get there it will be great. The motel will have a pool.”
So too the children of Israel anticipated returning to the land flowing with milk and honey. But in our text, they remained on the threshold.
“Comfort, O Comfort my people,” says the Lord. Reassure them that all will be well. They don’t see it yet, but all manner of things shall be well. The end of their suffering will come; the penalty of their sins has been paid.
Have you lived in a threshold space? It could have been a place of joy or it could have been a place of pain. A place of boredom? The routine of life was weighing you down and weariness crept into your bones? You craved newness?
This past week was my birthday. And on each birthday, my ritual is to sit alone in a coffee shop and journal about the previous year. I take my life-temperature at my new age.
While journaling this week, I remembered vividly the first time I did this ritual. It was half my life ago. I was sitting in a warm, favorite breakfast café in Seattle. I had been out of college for six months, and was working my first real job, and was in love with the young man I would later marry. I wrote in my journal: “I am so happy with my life, so content with where I am at this moment I feel if I died today, it’d be o.k. It’s been a good life.” I remember those feelings clearly on that morning, and it makes me smile.
Being 23 years old was a threshold age. I was attending to what felt like being positioned between the completion of my childhood, and the beginning of my adult years. I didn’t have the slightest idea what was ahead in my life. But, I’ll always cherish that birthday as a threshold moment.
There were other thresholds that felt more like being suspended in a blurred space; caught between pain and promise.
Every time I write a sermon in fact I feel I’m in a blurry space, not sure where I am going, but feeling my way through to the promise of an ending.
Sometimes as I am writing a sermon, I fear that preaching words of hope might ring hollow in light of so much suffering the world-personal and collective suffering. I wonder if the prophet Isaiah was reticent to speak words of hope to his people.
What does one have to say to those who are in the midst of great pain? To give reassurance saying “though you cannot imagine it now, the pain will lessen” can sound trite. It’s almost too good to believe for both the speaker and the receiver.
Nevertheless, it IS what we have to say to each other. It IS the hope to which we are called. It IS God’s promise. Even in the midst of anguish, we must hold on to the hope that new life will return. That we are going to get home.
Reticent though he might have been, Isaiah came forth with his “I have a dream” speech. He assured the people: one day we will not be living this way. We might be caught between desolation and consolation right now, but God will not leave us here. God will not leave us here.
God is making a way for us-the hills will be brought low, the valleys will be raised up. And there will be a way for us right through the wilderness.
Isaiah also paints an image of the God of Israel as a God with a strong arm of power. But what kind of power does this God exhibit? Is it military strength? No, God’s power is shown in quite the opposite image. In gentleness. The mighty arm of God lifts up the lowly, makes the hills smooth, and raises up the suffering one. As a shepherd lifts up his lambs to his bosom, God is a shepherd gently tending his flock.
As I read and reread this passage over the course of the week, this particular verse would stop me up short; it left a lump in my throat. The tenderness in the passage can nearly knock you over. The shepherd not only calls the sheep, but intentionally seeks after them.
It’s no wonder Jesus described himself as the Good Shepherd in the Gospel of John ch.10. Jesus said the shepherd knows his sheep; and when his sheep hear his voice, they follow because they recognize his voice. And he calls his sheep by name, and he leads them out.
The early Christians must have made the connection immediately with the Isaiah text.
It’s fascinating that Protestant Reformers, Martin Luther and John Calvin, believed that the whole gospel message was summed up in Isaiah 40:1-11. And it’s this: though we’ve been called to prepare a way for the Christ to come, it is actually God who has paved the way.
In Jesus, all are welcomed into the loving arms of God. No obstacles exist between the Creator and the created. Tell the people the good news: Here is your God! God has made a road through the desert. The way is clear. We are free to go home.
I want to end with a prayer by Walter Brueggemann from his newest collection:
ON LEAVING BONDAGE…Yet Again.
Let us pray:
Now we depart,
As our ancient ancestors always departed.
some of us encouraged,
some of us unscathed,
some of us energized,
all of us weary.
to depart to a better place…
where we will be welcomed
with varying measures of eagerness,
We pray for good departures,
in the way our ancestors left Egypt,
that we may leave the grind of productivity,
and the hunger of craven ambition,
that we may leave for a place of wondrous promise,
visited en route by bread from heaven and water from rocks.
We pray for big departures,
like those of our ancient parents,
that we may leave where we have been
and how we have been
and who we have been.
To follow your better lead for us,
you who gives new place, new mode, new self.
We pray, each of us,
to travel in mercy,
that we be on our way rejoicing,
arriving in wonder, love, and praise.