Bad math

Advent Three, Saint John’s Cathedral, Denver, Colorado, December 15, 2013


A sermon. The Reverend Canon Charles LaFond


In the Isaiah reading today we hear the prophet do what he does so often.


Bad math.


He gets the math wrong.


He adds up the numbers; and with the wrong numbers the answer is right.


Prophets add numbers differently.  They speak longing.  Isaiah sings a hymn of praise this morning against all the data. Isaiah sings praise when everything around the prophet smolders and decays.  He sings joy as an act of open rebellion. He announces advent to the tall and the small. He sings anyway.  He breaks into the pain of life and just sings leaving the hearers puzzling and puzzling.  How could God break into this painful life – this wilderness?


“A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; … they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”




This was another hard week.  A gun.  A disturbed person. A Colorado school. The memory of a Connecticut school. Blood. Children running into mother’s arms at the nearby church. Some not.


No one will ever tell me that Mary did not look into those big, dark eyes and wonder what would become of a child born as God – wonder if the insecurities of religious leaders would allow this child to live.  It takes guts to celebrate Christmas right.


The nightly news has been filled this week with words and images about Newtown, Connecticut and the shootings there of 26 people.  In the picturesque, New England town with its village green and white church, the steeple bell tolled 26 times for the 26 victims.  The villagers gathered in a circle around candles in the darkness. The Obamas lit 26 votive candles in the White House map room.


But there is this one woman, the mother of one of the 20 dead children from Newtown.  She lit candles too.  She spoke gently of her child as I puzzled and puzzled at her math.  She is heartsick that her little girl was shot and killed that day.  But this week she did not light 26 candles.  She lit 28.  She did math like Isaiah.


·         There were nineteen candles for little children gunned down that day.


·         There was one for her own sweet child.


·         There were six for the adults who died that day.  T


·         here was one for a gunman and one for the mother of a gunman.


·         28 candles she lit. Not 26…28. Her math makes me puzzle and puzzle.


I want to be like her.  I want to see the kind of Advent light she sees without packages, boxes or bags.  I want to sing when what I see should have me howling.  At this point in Advent, I want to feel the longing for a savior. Christmas, with its exhaustion, and national greed, is entwined with the Holy like the red and white of a candy cane. But the light shines in the darkness.


A couple weeks ago, Jews lit the nine candles of their menorah on Hanukkah while turkeys were being carved– they remembered the longing for light in their temple.


And in ten days we will gather in darkness around light as the great Midnight Mass plays back and forth between


·         the faint light of an angel announcing in darkness, and


·         the tremulous light of a bit of oil-soaked stable-straw as a virgin screams, and


·         the flickering light of a torch leading shepherds and kings, and


in the reading from the prophet Isaiah, we hear a song of joy break into the lament of agony. And for many of us that is Christmas. A brief, disjointed, out-of-place song; announcing that God is breaking in on us before ribbings and before tags.


If you could see the whole text, you would see how this song we read today is absolutely random. There should be no song of joy but it came just the same. In the middle of readings about the molten tar and burning sulfur there is this Advent song:


“Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God… He will come and save you …a highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way.”


For many, Christmas is not all boxes and bows.  There are


·         bodies weakened by the ravages of age or illness


·         hearts broken by the evils of human unkindness


·         souls nearly crushed by disappointment, grief, betrayal


·         families whose wealth is only a thin veneer covering abuse, addictions and manipulation


·         people whose poverty of money or authentic friendship is a daily hell on earth.


But like the reading from Isaiah today, joy crashes in on pain, strengthening weak hands, and making firm weak knees. Like Isaiah we gather, hold hands and sing anyway.


Every Who down in Who-ville, the tall and the small, Was singing! Without any presents at all! He HADN’T stopped Christmas from coming! IT CAME! Somehow or other, it came just the same! And the Grinch, with his grinch-feet ice-cold in the snow, stood puzzling and puzzling: “How could it be so? It came without ribbons! It came without tags! “It came without packages, boxes or bags!” And he puzzled three hours, `till his puzzler was sore. Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before! “Maybe Christmas,” he thought, “doesn’t come from a store. “Maybe Christmas…perhaps…means a little bit more!”




THE FIRST LESSON Isaiah 35:1-10


The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God. Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.” Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass


shall become reeds and rushes. A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God’s people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray. No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there. And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.




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