Greetings! Welcome to the season of Advent, a time of preparation for our readiness to receive the coming of the Lord. We prepare for Emmanuel, God is with us, as God's in-breaking into our world is celebrated each year at Christmas. As we long for the incarnation presence of the Christ, we celebrate four Sundays of Advent with themes of hope, peace, joy, and love. As I will not be preaching on the third Sunday of December, I offer here one of my previous Advent 3 sermons. On December 15th at 10:30 am, I will be singing with the Hunt Community Choir as Hunt UMC presents A Celebration of Carols. Join us for the season. Join us on December 15th at 10:30 am in worship. Emmanuel!
Rev. Paul Harris
Year A – Advent 3 Sermon
“God Sees, Even When We Can’t”
A Story from Along the Way: The Map, The Messenger, The Way
In the brilliance of early August in the mountains, our group made camp near one of the lakes just below the Truches Peaks. It was a worthy prize for several days of uphill hiking at an altitude between 10,000 and 13,000 feet above sea level. We stayed there for several days of summit day-hikes, lake fishing, and story-telling. It was beautiful. It seemed as if time was standing still and the world had been put “on-hold” for a moment of peace and light. You might say this was one of my favorite places and one of my favorite times.
As this camp was the furthest outbound camp on that year’s venture into the Pecos Wilderness, the new day meant it was time to move on - Along the Way. So, we headed up for some ridge hiking in the full sunlight of a cloudless day. We walked along the ridge that distinguishes the beginnings of the Pecos River and the Rio Grande River. It was a great day for hiking. God’s good creation was on full display. The majesty and wonder of that experience keeps me going with just a thought and a memory of the group, the trail, the beauty of all that was around me.
Our trail itinerary called for us to walk a certain distance along the ridge and then turn downhill toward our next camp. As I recall, we stopped for a snack, we took some photos, we hiked some distance more and then a trail appeared to our right. So those in the lead, discussed the merit of the trail and made the turn. It wasn’t long before some began to feel that we made a wrong turn. We seemed to be headed back in the direction we had traveled but at a lower altitude. So Rule One came into play. Rule One is that anyone in the group can call for a break and all hikers stop.
Our discussion of the direction of travel took some time. Packs began to come off. Some ventured just far enough away for a quick necessity-stop. My friend Mart took out the trail map and his compass. As he and others began to examine the Wilderness Map, there was some commotion from the person in our group located furthest down the trail. “Hey! There is another hiker coming up the trail.” Sure enough, as our group was there wondering if we had chosen the correct path, a lone hiker made his way up to our group. We all saw him as he turned just below us on the last switchback.
The lone hiker was a man about my age, maybe early to mid-50s. He had all the right gear. He was dressed properly for the trail. You know one notices stuff like that when assessing a stranger coming up in the wilderness. The man quietly made his way to where the largest part of our group was gathered around the map. The man said, “Hi, how is going?”
Immediately, the women in our group said in chorus, “We are LOST.” Not so loudly, the map-tenders invited the man closer and asked, “Where are we on this map?” A bit of a discussion ensued, the man asked of our destination, and then he commented on his travel plan. “Yes, I’ve made my way up this trail to find my way to the ridge. I came from a camp just below where you all were camped. I have been watching you from a distance.”
As our eyes converged on the man and then as we searched each other’s eyes for the answer to the question – how weird is this? – the man put his finger on the map and said, “Here! This is where we are! You may have turned off the ridge just a bit too soon. I suggest you make your way back up the hill and hike on another half-mile or so. I bet you will find the trail you seek.”
When a lone hiker makes his way among you in the wilderness and locates your position so that you are no longer lost, one would think that the group would have said okay and put packs back on. But NO! The map-tenders wanted verification. Yes, I was among those who asked, “Are you sure?”
After all, this man was a stranger. He seemed to have no more knowledge than we did on that day. HOW COULD WE TRUST HIM? And where was this guy from anyway? He had been watching us from a distance? The one among our group with the lowest threshold for embarrassment began to ask more of the lone hiker. He was from Texas, like us. He was out for an eight-day trip, like us. He had walked up that day because he saw us stopped and it looked as if we might need direction. He gave us more information to make us feel better about his credentials for assessing whether we were lost. (laugh) The conversation lightened up, the map was folded up, the packs began to be heaved back up on shoulders, the call came for “All Ready?”
When we made it back up to the ridge, we went one way and the lone hiker went another. We said thank you and sent blessings with him for his journey. And I wondered, who is this Messenger that was sent to us this day?
Friends, sometimes we find ourselves lost in the Wilderness. And the Lord Almighty has a way of sending the message. YOU ARE LOST? TURN AROUND! GO IN THE OTHER DIRECTION! It is way too easy to stray from the ridge path and turn off into what seems to be the correct direction of travel. Without the Messenger, the map did us no good that day. The surroundings were too similar between the trail we took and the trail we needed. Our perceptions were incorrect. Our egos almost led us back to place we started instead of the place we wanted to go.
I share this story on this 3rd Sunday of Advent as a way of saying to all of us: IT IS OKAY TO STOP AND ASK FOR DIRECTIONS. And if you are in the wilderness, a lone hiker has been dispatched to the intersection of your despair with Good News and re-direction.
From our Gospel Reading today, Matthew 11:2-11, John the Baptist wondered about Jesus: Are you the one? As I have been in the wilderness pointing toward the time of salvation and coming of the Messiah, is it you that the Lord has sent?
Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see. The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and the good news is preached to the poor. Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me.”
Today, I invite you to join with us in asking the question: Are We on the Path We Need? Are we walking in the direction that leads us to salvation? Are we listening to the messengers God has placed in our midst? How Can We be Certain?
Friends, Along the Way of my faith journey, I have found that the paths worth walking are the paths that show evidence of God’s beauty. The camps worth staying at were places where good news was shared. But most importantly and to the point of this story, I have found that the paths that continue to call me are the ones on which Jesus is already at work healing, loving, feeding, being with God’s people. These are the signs we seek. These are the trail-markers we need to avoid getting lost in the wilderness.
Glory be to God for sending the One who comes into the world to reconcile the world and its people – to God and to each other. In these days that seem to me to be like days in the wilderness, may the certainty of Jesus Christ guide us Along the Way.
Author: Paul E Harris
Journal posts from a pastor and spiritual friend