More great lessons as we move into the third Sunday of our new liturgical year. The Psalm and Isaiah talk about how wonderful life in the kingdom of God is, life in the presence of God and in the joyful freedom of God's reign. They are absolutely exuberant: all the enormous wrongs of human existence are set right; justice reigns; there is no more hunger; prisoners are set free; the blind see; deserts turn green -- in fact the desert shall not only turn green, it will "flower and sing for joy."
On and on they go; hymns of praise not just for God, but for the life lived with God, human life lived with God: Happy are they who have the God of Jacob for their help; happy are they whose hope is in the Lord. In the midst of all this lushness and healing and forgiveness, in the midst of all this justice, freedom and redemption from oppression, guess what is there: a highway called the Holy Way. This is a protected road through the kingdom, sort of a spiritual interstate accessible to God's people as they go from here to there in the kingdom. There are several reassuring aspects of this interstate, one of them being the fact that there are no highway dangers -- no lions and ravenous beasts -- or whatever lions and ravenous beasts are for us today. But perhaps the most reassuring comment about the highway is that no traveler, NOT EVEN FOOLS, shall go astray -- get lost, hit a soft shoulder wrong, blow a tire, and so on and so on.
Isn't that great? There are fools on the highway. For those of us who fall into the fool category, or suspect we do, this is great news. For those of us who aren't fools and do not suffer them gladly, guess what? This is just a little piece of your redemption; life in the kingdom of heaven means learning to drive along the highway of a holy life with us fools in the lane next door or maybe the same lane. A great break for the fools, a great lesson in patience for the non-fools; but the Psalm and Isaiah reassure us that we all are going to obtain joy and gladness no matter, and that sorrow and sighing are going to be things of the past.
Which brings us to James, who sees fit to discuss patience and the holy life. It is a good discussion. James talks about patience in an extremely organic way. He is telling his beloved friends to be patient for the whole process of salvation, for the development of their life in the kingdom of God. The Lord comes into human lives in a process that is similar to the process of all growing things: there is a planting, a watering, a growing, a maturing. We must wait all this out; the process of salvation is part of the natural order of things.
The whole tone of James is loving and pastoral -- and patient. And through his words we glimpse true patience: patience is being happy about the process of growth and development, joyful about it. The patient individual is one who allows the kingdom of God to develop within and without life, and develop at its own rhythm and pace. The patient individual enjoys the planting of God, the first shoots, the rains, the sunshine, the full growth, the harvest, the gift of nourishment to the world.
This is a good lesson for us. Patience means letting things take time and being happy with that. Content. It means enjoying the journey along the Holy Way; it means understanding that traveling on the Holy Way is the goal, not getting anywhere in particular. One of the biggest problems we can run into in Christianity is not understanding about patience and its corollary of enjoying of each day. It is not that we are so goal-oriented that we become impatient for the coming of the Lord or the rapture or the second coming or whatever it is we decide to wait for as our ultimate goal. (Although that kind of impatience can sometimes lead individuals to try and manipulate God into appearing when, where, how and as they wish him to appear.) No; being excessively goal- oriented about the kingdom of God leads more generally to indifference and inattention, to a lack of interest in the whole business of salvation, spiritual health and spiritual wholeness. It all seems very far away; something that may or may not happen sometime, something rather unreal, but something we are willing to hold onto as a notion for one reason or another although it has no particular impact on our lives.
How this can change in an instant if we understand that the kingdom is not something far away but something that is here right now! We come to the Matthew story of John the Baptist and Jesus. John is in jail, and he sends his people to ask Jesus if he is the Messiah. Note that Jesus doesn't answer him directly with either a Yes or a No. Why is that? Perhaps it is because we each have to recognize the Messiah in and about us; we are to perceive and take OUR OWN word for it: I see, and I know you, I know you are God. As we have the ability to recognize God, part of our wholeness involves actually doing that: recognizing God.
Back to John the Baptist. Jesus doesn't answer him directly; he starts saying, go tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the deaf hear, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the dead are raised and the poor have the good news brought to them -- all the words from the Psalm and Isaiah and a million other places in scripture where the kingdom of God is described and announced. How about that! The kingdom IS here; it is not something we have to wait for eons down the road, it's here right now, and we can start living in it, being joyful, being healed, being forgiven, being patient, being free, traveling safe along the Holy Way, enjoying the journey and the time and nurture it takes, enjoying the people we visit, a jumble of fools, wise folks and the spectrum in between.
There is a line at the end of Paul's letter to the Galatians, where he is yakkety-yakking about circumcision and it being unnecessary, where he says, "the only thing that matters is the new creation," (or "the new creation is everything," in the NRSV translation). That IS the only thing that matters, for Paul, for us, for the Psalm people and Isaiah, for John the Baptist, for you and me. The new creation is everything. That is the life we are supposed to be living, it is the life we were committed to in our baptism when we were sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ's own forever.
This new life is here. It is the reason why we have a liturgical year at all. We are celebrating the new creation and its high water marks: its founder and its saints -- the people who have helped us live it with contentment, richness, patience and joy. It does us no good in our living of the new life to think of it as something yet to come. Maybe some things are still to come, but so what, really? So what when there's so much joy to be had today, so what when there is so much contentment available, so what when God is present this moment and every moment to love us completely, to speak to us, to heal us, to clean us, to enjoy us, to love us?
We are in the age of Psalm 146, Isaiah 35, James 5 and Matthew 11. We are in the new age, the new creation; we are walking the Holy Way. We may differ in our understanding of this, but not understanding something doesn't mean it isn't true. And we all can understand. We can say hello to the seed planted inside us and we can watch it grow. We can even get to know its gardener and say thank you for the rain. We can, with patience and joy, watch the seed turn to sprout, plant, blossom and fruit -- fruit rich with its own seed. We can learn when to call for help and when to rest easy in the sun.
We can see our feet on the Holy Way and say hello to our presence there. We can walk through the nurturing lushness of the Kingdom of God knowing that our journey is protected. We can have our blind eyes opened, our hunched-over spirits lifted up, our deaf ears unblocked and our deep hungers fed. We can know God's justice, we can sing for joy.
We do not have to wait for the Second Coming for these things to happen. We do not have to wait for Christmas just a few days away, or for Easter or for Pentecost or for anything. We can lift up our hearts, our hands, our heads and our feet right now. If we are too weak, or too chicken even if part of us wants the new life, God will do the lifting for us. If we are simply curious, we can turn our hearts to God and say with John the Baptist, "Are you the one who is to come or should I wait for another?" And with John the Baptist we can hear, "the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and the poor have the good news brought to them." We can remember the Psalms and we can remember Isaiah and the other prophets. John the Baptist understood and he could die in peace. We can understand, and we can live forever.