Date: Advent 3
Theme:: The Transforming Power of God
Text:: Isaiah 35:1-10
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
O. Henry told the story of Soapy. Soapy was what we today would call a street or homeless person. Nine months of the year, Soapy lived on a bench in Madison Square Garden. That was when Madison Square Garden was a park and not a sports arena and a cable sports channel. Soapy lived on his bench in Madison Square for nine months a year but, when the nip of autumn bit the air, Soapy longed for warmer places. Soapy did not have the means and where with all to go to Florida for the winter much less the south of France or a South Pacific cruise. All Soapy wanted was a three month stay on the Island, Riker's Island, still the site of the New York City jail. And Soapy knew the type of crimes to commit in order to be sentenced to three months on the Island.
One morning Soapy awoke to the nip of autumn in the air. Frost covered his shoes and he could see his steamy breath as he exhaled. During the night, the leaves fell from the trees and Soapy knew, he knew that it was time for him to move, to move to Riker's Island. With that thought in mind, Soapy decided to get himself arrested and sent to jail for three months, three months in which he would be warm, well-fed and in good company.
Now, Soapy was an expert in getting himself arrested. He knew the easiest and most pleasurable way to get arrested was to go to a fine restaurant, order an sumptuous meal, and not pay the bill. Soapy walked up Fifth Avenue and entered one of the tonier cafes; but before he could get through the door, the headwaiter looked him over, saw his shabby clothes, called another burly waiter, grabbed him, and escorted him with much haste, and a bit of jostling, to the front door and pushed him out on to the street.
Soapy was indignant; he looked forward to a good meal before beginning his winter journey to warmth and security. Soapy walked up Fifth Avenue and made a turn at the next corner. As he walked down the street, he stood before a big store plate glass window and looked at it. He picked up a brick and threw it through the window. With the ensuing crash a large crowd came running around the corner with a policeman in the lead. Soapy smiled at the sight of the policeman who came up to him and excitedly asked, "Where's the man who did this?"
"Don't you think that I may have had something to do with this?" Soapy asked. But the policeman wouldn't give that a thought because people who throw bricks through windows don't stick around and talk about it with the police. One of the crowd looked down the street and saw a man running to catch a cab. The cry went up and the crowd took off in hot pursuit of the running man, with the policeman again in the lead. Soapy was disgusted, twice now he had been unsuccessful at getting arrested and being sent to the warmth of the Island.
Soapy walked back to Fifth Avenue, made a right, and continued up town until he came to the theater district. It was time for the matinees. He walked down one of the many theater streets until he came upon a policeman standing in front of one of the resplendent theaters. Soapy walked into the middle of the street and began to act like a drunk, yelling, screaming, staggering, ranting and raving. The policeman looked at Soapy, and turned his back to him and remarked to a passing citizen, "He's one of those Yale lads celebrating their victory over Harvard. They're noisy but they will do no harm. We have instructions to leave them alone."
Soapy just about lost heart and he continued walking along. He buttoned his thin coat against the chilling wind, as the sun began to set. And there, in a cigar store, he saw a man put down his umbrella to light a cigar. Soapy sauntered up to the man, took the umbrella and began to walk away with it. "What are you doing with my umbrella?" The man shouted as he chased after Soapy.
"Your umbrella?" Soapy snarled. "Well, why don't you call a cop? There's one standing on the corner." Soapy began to walk toward the officer, the man in pursuit, knowing that his luck was about to change.
But the man slowed down as they approached the policeman. The man stammered, "Well, uh, you know how these things happen. Uh, uh, I was in a restaurant and I, uh, must of picked up your umbrella by mistake. If it's yours, well, uh, I hope you'll, uh" with that the man turned and ran away.
Soapy was beside himself. He walked down the street, cursing umbrellas, cursing cops, and began to make his way back to Madison Square Garden, his bench and another cold night. In the growing darkness, Soapy turned the corner and came upon a church. There was just one light shining through the stained glass window, and he heard the sound of the organ inside, undoubtedly the organist preparing for Sunday's service. But the sweet music of the organ held him transfixed and transported him back to days past. Days past when he had a mother and father; days past when things were different; days past when he had a sense of right and wrong; days past when he had plans for the future. All of the beauty of the memories flooded into him and he there, on the spot, decided to change his ways. Tomorrow he would go down town and look up an old friend who had promised to give him a job--he would start off small but would work his way up. Soapy was going to work at it and become somebody. Soapy was a changed person, transformed by the power of an organ and the old hymn he remembered from his youth.
Tomorrow, tomorrow he would go down town; tomorrow, tomorrow he would get a job; tommrow, tomorrow he would--and Soapy felt a hand grab his shoulder. He turned around and stood face to face with a policeman. "What are you doing here?" the officer demanded.
"Then you'll come with me."
"I sentence you to three months on Riker's Island," the police court judge declared the next morning.
A number of transformations took place in O. Henry's story but Soapy still wound up on Riker's Island. Today's Old Testament lesson, Isaiah, chapter 35, is a hymn of praise and glory to the transforming power of God. In this chapter Isaiah looked forward to the transforming work which God would accomplish. And Isaiah was sure that God would transform all of creation. Isaiah tells us that the desert will be transformed into a garden of delight; he tells us that the weak and wavering will be transformed into the strong and secure; the handicapped will be transformed into whole.
Isaiah looks forward to the transforming power of God; the transforming power of God which would occur in the messianic era. And, as we look at all the lessons today, we know that the transformation has started but is not yet complete. But that doesn't change the transforming power of God. And if we take a look at today's Old Testament lesson we will see how God transforms us.
We see this transformation in verses 3 and 4 of the lesson. God, speaking through Isaiah, declares, "Strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way; say to those with fearful hearts, 'Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you.'" And in these verses we see the transformation take place.
First, the weak and wavering become strong and secure. The time comes in each and everyone of our lives when our faith is tested and we question whether or not God truly loves us; days of trial and testing come; it's part and parcel of the Christian life. When we lay our loved ones into the grave and feel the hurt and heartache, we are tempted to question God's love and concern for us. As we sit beside our loved ones as they suffer long and debilitating illnesses we wonder; we question; we even doubt; we ask whether or not God loves us. When we've committed a particularly bad sin, one that plagues our consciences, one that keeps us awake at nights, we ask, we wonder whether God could possibly loves the likes of us. But God does not want us to wonder; he does not want us to remain unsure and unsteady.
John the Baptist, in today's gospel lesson, was in a similar situation. John believed that Jesus was the long promised, long awaited Messiah. John expected him to raise his Messianic army, defeat the Romans, and depose the hated house of Herod. As John languished in Herod's prison, questions arose, doubts assailed him; John wondered; John questioned; John doubted. That is why he sent his disciples to Jesus inquiring whether or not Jesus was truly the long awaited Messiah, or were they to wait for another.
How did Jesus respond? Did he condemn John? Did he chide John? Did he shake his head and give up on John? No. Jesus told John's followers to go back and tell John all that they saw and heard, "The blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor." Jesus points to today's Old Testament lesson and tells John that God's promise is kept, God's promise is fulfilled in him. John no longer wonders; John no longer worries; John no longer doubts; John no longer questions. Jesus points to the Word and its fulfillment. And John believes; John is strengthened; John is transformed.
And the same thing happens to us. It is through the Word, through the Bible, that we are transformed. When the questions and doubts and testings assail us, Jesus turns us to his Word, to his objective Word in which he confronts us with his overwhelming love, his overwhelming love of the cross. Through the Word, God the Holy Spirit transforms us. He transforms our faith; he transforms our lives; he transforms our questions and doubts and we are strong and secure--we are strong and secure through the Lord and his Word and his promise which he gives to us. Amen.
And may the peace of God which passes all human understanding keep our hearts and our minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.