Sunday, December 12, 2010

Advent 3 -- Year A

Delivering Signs and Dusting From Their Eyes

Image from

On Sunday, April 25, 1935, for many who lived throughout the great plains of America, the world turned black. It was a darkness heavy enough to topple buildings, a thick darkness that covered all the people, so that they could not see past a few feet in front of them, a cloud of dust that blocked out the rays of the sun.

This was the time of the dust bowl. Poor farming techniques that did not use crop rotation drained the top soil of the rich great plains of its nutrients. Due to over plowing, many of the fields lost their natural grasses, which in turn, meant that the ground was now prone to erosion. And after a very fertile period in the early twenties, a dry spell came. This near-nation-wide drought affected this weakened soil. That, coupled with the high winds of the plains, winds that could easily reach sixty miles per hour because there are no mountains or sky scrapers or massive forests to stop them, blasted the plains. These winds picked up the dry, dusty soil, turning them into massive clouds of dust. These dust storms could tower three miles high in extreme cases.

The one on Sunday, April 25, 1935, was particularly severe. It is said that 300,000 tons of top soil were carried by that storm and later deposited into the Atlantic Ocean. Three hundred thousand tons. The day became known as Black Sunday, because of the darkness these dust clouds brought. To quote Bette Wolf Duncan’s poem ( inspired by the event,

Black Sunday, nineteen thirty-five...
the day turned into night;
the thick, black dust that plagued us
had blotted out the light.
It looked like some satanic hand
had poured tar from on high.
It blew and boiled above us,
and charred the raging sky.

And to make matters worse, this was just one storm of many that occurred throughout the decade that would later be remembered as the dust bowl. The dust displaced millions of people who attempted to escape west towards California, where false rumors of labor gave them false hope of food and making a livelihood. Due to the stock market crash back in ’29, the economy was so broken that these millions of Americans without jobs or homes could not be supported by the government or any other community.

And the dust storms blew. Apparently, one Christmas it snowed red dust in New England. Baltimore, New York, Washington, D.C., all experienced this black or red dust rain as the storms blew the dust from the great plains over the east coast, depositing the soil over these cities and into the Atlantic ocean.

Bette Wolf Duncan’s poem ends by saying,

Oh, the dreams- all dashed to dust.....
and hopes that wind did quell;
no golden fields of wheat for us-
just bitter grains of hell!

The American Dream proved to be nothing more than a pipe dream for these families. Their hopes and dreams literally turned to dust.

And so, we are in the midst of Advent. This is a time full of expectancy, hope, dreams, yes, and prophecy. And here, today, we have the prophet Isaiah tell us of a day where the wilderness, the dry land, the dust of the earth, will be glad. The desert will rejoice and blossom! This is a message of hope, a telling of the end of the world when all things bad come to an end and God renews and restores the entire universe, mending wounds, healing the blind and lame and deaf so that the blind can see and the lame can dance and the deaf can hear! The desert, the lifeless, will become fertile and full of life, and praising God with shouts of joy and thanksgiving!

Can you imagine a day like that? A day where there is no more sadness, no more sorrow, no more pain. Where everything broken will be made whole, where everything wounded will be healed, where everything will be made right?

This is the message Isaiah brings for us today. A message of the day of the Lord. Today is traditionally called Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete is the Latin word for joy. For rejoicing. And with a lesson like that, I mean, how much more joyful can you get than hearing that the entire world, even the desert and dry places will shout and leap for joy for all the good things that God is doing. Rejoice! Rejoice! Immanuel shall come to thee O Israel! In some churches they even change the paraments to rose colored for this Sunday, which is the liturgical color of joy.

All of this joy! All of this good news!

But now, we live in a time where this is simply not the case.

For as much as Advent is a time of hope, it is also a reminder that the world is still very broken, that we still wait in the in between time. We still wait for the Messiah to return. That is why Advent is so important. Because in the midst of all this holiday preparation, this quest to have the perfect Christmas, there is much hurt in this world. We live in the wake of the dust storms of fright, hurt, pain, loss. Oh, the dreams all dashed to dust, and the hopes the wind did not quell… this was supposed to be a time of joy, looking towards Immanuel.

And yet. We live in a world where we are being barraged with these images of what our Christmas should look like. We hear it on the radio, see it on tv, participate in it at Christmas parties at work and school and wherever else. It’s as if the world is teaching us to sing

We must have a perfect Christmas!
We must have a perfect Christmas!
We must have a perfect Christmas!
And an hectic New Year!

And it doesn’t stop there. Try to find parking at my Mall in Columbia! Or, even White Marsh or Towson. Which brings to mind another festive song of the season:

Joy to the world, I found a spot
To park my S-U-V!
It might be handicapped, let’s hope I don’t get caught!
The mall’s as busy as can be,
The mall’s as busy as can be,
The mall’s as busy as can be!

In spite of all that, in spite of all that, we are called to find that holy time in the midst of the hectic. This advent season is about taking a break from preparing for the perfect Christmas. It’s about finding holy time in the midst of holly time. Where are we supposed to fit God into this celebration of Santa Claus and toys? Wait, isn’t that equation inherently messed up? Shouldn’t it be the other way around, shouldn’t we be trying to fit Santa Claus and cookies and hot chocolate into a celebration of God’s promise and remembrance of the incarnation?

I’m not trying to create an “us” versus “them,” a holy Christmas versus the secular Christmas, for all of us, all of us, secular or not, participate in the consumerism of the holidays, all of us are at fault whether we shopped on black Friday or not, or cyber Monday or any other day. But the call remains for all of us to come back and find a sacred space in the midst of this chaotic time.

For the farmers of the dust bowl, it must have been hard to imagine Isaiah’s words ever coming true, when all around them was dust and the waste lands. When every breath filled their lungs with dust. When the entire world was desolate. And yet, and yet, after the fifteen year dust storms, the land healed. And now, once more, the American Great Plains is one of the most fertile regions in the entire world.

For the Isrealites on the verge of capture and defeat by opposing forces, the city of Jerusalem surrounded by warring nations, the words Isaiah was telling them must have seemed idle and impossible. How can the line of David last forever when we are about to be captured? And they were captured and taken into exile. But they were released from exile and allowed to return home. And seven hundred years later, the Christ child was born along with all the hope of the world in a small Podunk town of Bethlehem.

For us, surrounded by the holiday mayhem, how can we hear these words of Isaiah and find them true? There is loss and sickness, pressure to have the perfect Christmas. But here we are, gathered together, finding holy time in the midst of this holly time. For the promise remains. In the midst of hectic time, we have hope.

The dead will live again. The lame will leap for joy. The blind will see. The deaf will hear. The desert and dry land will sing praises of thanksgiving. If you listen, can you hear it? Can you hear the rocks and trees and fields clapping for joy? Can you hear the new creation breaking forth from the dust of the old? Can you feel the promise of God’s continual presence coursing through the very veins of this earth?

The world trembles with anticipation. And so we saunter along that holy road redeemed children of God, in hope and expectation.