The Message translation of today’s Bible reading from the Prophet Isaiah is titled ‘God Is Leading You Out of Here,’ and goes on to exhort God’s people to wake up, throw off their chains and remember who they are. ‘God Is Leading You Out of Here.’ What a great sermon theme for our worship, as we stand together three days into a new year, after a particularly difficult 2020. In normal years we might not think we need God’s help to lead us out of this year unto the next. But in this past year of pandemic, isolation and disruption-along with the devastation of war in Armenia-many of us are grasping for God’s help to lead us out of here.
Well our scriptures and our church tradition bring us timely wisdom and grace to endure and triumph over years such as these, because they remind us that anything new-new beginnings, new blessings, new years- usually happen when old things falls apart. A lot of us were strained and many things fell apart this past year, because the pandemic aggravated whatever was already weakened. Some relationships were broken in divorce or estrangement, but lots of us are stuck and strained in old patterns of relating, walled in with old hurts. Some jobs were lost and businesses fell apart, but lots of us feel strained at work, trying to do the same work as before Covid, with one hand tied behind our backs. Some people have gotten very sick and some died from Covid, but lots of us are stuck between the fear of getting sick and the boredom and pain of strict social isolation.
Well wherever you may be strained or stuck, like God’s people in today’s reading, our scriptures also gift us with two ancient approaches to life that can help us get unstuck. The first approach is one we have spoken about much in the past difficult months. Be transparent with God and each other in the midst of our trials, because the only way forward to a blessed new year, is confessing our shortcomings in the year past. This is hard to do at work, or on facebook, but it is just what our church community is for. I pray that in this sacred space, virtual and in person, we can admit the fact that we don’t have it all together, at least privately with God, and then out loud with those dear to us. We can admit that many things in our lives are not well or not what we would like them to be. We can remember that no real change happens without something old falling apart, but with trust in God, we can live less in fear. Because while we Christians are not spared any of the hardships life brings, we do know that we don’t walk alone. We know that God is always leading us out of here, from isolation to intimacy, from despair to hope, from death to resurrection.
The second Biblical approach to finding the blessings of a new year amidst many trials is this. God is indeed leading you and I into a better place, but we often can’t even see it, because it’s not the place we hoped for or expected. Often our lives take us in a different direction than we wanted, a worse direction it seems, until we grow to see our situation with the eyes of God. This is not the work of one sermon, this is the work of a lifetime. To guide us in this spiritual re-orientation, I want to use a great illustration from a book called, Welcome to Holland; a book about one mother’s struggle and blessing in raising a special needs child. The author gives us this metaphor. When you are going to have a baby it is like planning a fabulous vacation trip to Italy. You buy guide books and plan out your visit, you even learn a couple of phrases of Italian; all very exciting. Finally, the day for your trip arrives, you board the plane and after 8 hours the stewardship announces, ‘Welcome to Holland.’ Holland you say, what do you mean Holland, all my life I dreamed of going to Italy! They say there has been a change in plans, we landed in Holland and here you must stay. The author goes on to say, the important thing is that they haven’t taken you to a horrible place, it is just a different place. You will have to get new guide books and learn a new language. Its slower paced than Italy, less flashy, but when you catch your breath and lean on your faith, you begin to see that Holland has windmills, and tulips, it even has Rembrandt. Sure you can live your life regretting that you never got to Italy, but if you do, you will never be free to enjoy the very special blessings of Holland.
Welcome to Holland is about the surprising trials and grace involved in raising a special needs child, but it may as well be a life phrase for all of us whose lives aren’t what we dreamed or expected, but whose lives nevertheless can be re-imagined with God’s grace. ‘Welcome to Holland!’ all of you whose plans for 2020 were derailed and taken in a different direction. ‘Welcome to Holland!’ all of you who lost a dream, a friend, or a parent, and all of us who lost some sense of well-being this past year. ‘Welcome to Holland!’ all of us who walk this earth, because our dreams fade and we lose our way. But at the same time, if we have eyes to see -God is leading us out of here…into someplace better, growing us into someone better; now and always and unto the ages of ages, amen.