Sermon from Advent III: Pilgrims

Advent III; December 15, 2019
Isaiah 35:1-10

Have you ever been on one of those trips where you said, “I don’t know where we are or where we’re going, but we’re making good time”? Doesn’t life feel like that sometimes? We’re making good time – speeding right along – but we don’t know where we’re going and not always sure where we are. I know: for you younger folks sometimes the days just seem to crawl; I remember that well. It feels different to us older folks.

I should say this about the Holy Way that Isaiah sings about here: he did know where it was going. It was going to Zion, taking exiled people back to Jerusalem. And, to be fair, we have an idea where our road of pilgrimage is taking us: it’s taking us to the heavenly Zion, to the Kingdom of God.

But how many detours do we have on the way? And how long a trip is it? There are still many unknowns.

We are pilgrims on a holy way. People often refer to life as a journey, and I like that metaphor. I don’t want to think I’m standing still, never growing or changing. For example, I hope I learn something new every day, whether it’s someone’s name or a scientific fact or a Catalan verb. I don’t retain everything I learn, but the journey of learning is interesting. But I prefer to think of life as not just any journey, but a pilgrimage. Pilgrims are visiting holy places, places of sacred meaning.

If you’ve been to the Holy Land and visited places where Jesus walked, you probably thought of yourself more as a pilgrim than as a tourist. For some, a visit to Memorial Stadium in Lincoln might feel like a pilgrimage. When I visited the memorial at South Pass City, Wyoming, the place where Narcissa Prentiss Whitman and Eliza Hart Spalding – Presbyterian missionaries – were the first white women to cross the Rocky Mountains, I went as a pilgrim. Likewise when Kathleen and I visited the Castle Church at Wittenberg, Germany, where Martin Luther initiated the Reformation. These are holy places.

Sometimes we find ourselves in holy places quite by surprise. You go to a meeting, and something wonderful happens (well, that’s a surprise in itself, isn’t it?). Anyway, someone says something that opens their soul or a beautiful contact occurs or somehow that place, even for a moment, becomes a holy place. That was a moment when, as Isaiah said, the desert rejoiced and blossomed. The desert of an ordinary, dull day suddenly had cactus flowers, and the place where it happened was holy.

Sometimes this is a holy place. We come here every Sunday hoping for a touch of God’s presence, and when we feel it then we know we’re in a holy place.

I experience holy moments from time to time, and they usually have to do with you. When one of you tells of a moment when you felt the touch of God, or you ask your hard question, or you let me see the markings on your heart: those are holy moments. So I hope you also have those moments with each other, and with family members and with friends. If you keep alert and recognize those holy moments when they happen, then you are not merely a tourist on this road of life, but a pilgrim on the Holy Way.

I wish the Holy Way were always as Isaiah saw it: flowers along the way, the pilgrims all singing together, disabilities healed and refreshing waters always nearby. And even more I wish his vision of a way without lions or other “ravenous beasts” were the reality. Frankly, it wasn’t that easy even for the exiles returning to Jerusalem, although I’m sure they were glad they got to make that trip. They had to deal with a lot, as you and I have to deal with a lot. If you’ve been in the Church for awhile, you’ve had to deal with lions and other ravenous beasts, metaphorically speaking.

Those who returned to Zion had to travel difficult terrain sometimes, needed guides, had to deal with dangers on the road. And when they returned they had a lot of work ahead of them to rebuild their lives. Although Isaiah’s vision is beautiful, the reality was a struggle. But that struggle was made bearable by knowing they were pilgrims, pilgrims on the road to Zion, in company with the people of God. And at the heart of the vision are these words:

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.” (3-4)

Imagine the pilgrims on the road. Those who were literally returning – who had been taken from Judah, lived in exile, and were now returning – would have been in their 50s to 70s. It’s a hard journey. Their children and grandchildren did not know the land where they were going. Some of the pilgrims would be frightened, some would be physically weak, some disabled by the journey. Yet on they went, not content to stop until they saw Zion, encouraged by the words “Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.”

To the reader: the next two paragraphs (“A thought… other ravenous beasts.”) were included when I preached the sermon at the 8:00 service but I missed them at the 10:30 service. I don’t know if it was faulty memory or the Holy Spirit leading me; either way, I decided to include them here.

A thought to bring it home for us. This pilgrimage we are on is sometimes frightening, sometimes maddening. If you pay attention to the reality of our place and time – and I hope you do – then you may alternate between anger and fear, perhaps with long periods of apathy in between. My preaching teacher said that we should always preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other – so I would be holding my iPad, since that’s how I read the newspaper – but, goodness, most of the time I would rather ignore what’s in the newspaper.

This week… what to say about this week? Perhaps the less said the better. I was listening to an interview program about the war in Afghanistan and the subject said to the interviewer, “Congratulations on being the only journalist in America interested in something other than impeachment.” Volcano in New Zealand, shooting in New Jersey, an ISIS raid in Niger, possible client abuse at the center in Glenwood, Iowa… my word, there’s a lot of cactus on this road and plenty of lions and other ravenous beasts.

Our road is the Holy Way, the Way that leads to Zion. There will be hazards and dangers and annoyances and lots of weariness; there will also be holy places and holy moments and the encouragement of those who say, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God.” I chose our final hymn, “It Came upon the Midnight Clear,” because it evokes that sense of our pilgrimage on the Holy Way. In particular, the fourth verse:

And you, beneath life’s crushing load, whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way with painful steps and slow,
Look now, for glad and golden hours come swiftly on the wing:
O, rest beside the weary road, and hear the angels sing.[1]

We follow the star, the star that led magi to Bethlehem and leads us to Zion, but we don’t travel 24/7. Sometimes we rest beside the weary road to hear the angels sing.

Wherever you are on your pilgrimage, remember these things. Remember that you have companions on the way, some older and more experienced, some younger and full of energy. Though some struggle and some fear, we all take heart from the encouragement, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God.” And remember that it is the Holy Way, the Way to Zion, the Way of God. There are dangers, difficulties, disappointments, and long stretches of boredom, like a highway through Kansas. But there are holy places, and holy moments, where the curtain between heaven and earth is thin and we catch a glimpse of our home, of Zion.

And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing.

Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
Omaha, Nebraska

[1] Edmund Hamilton Sears, “It Came upon the Midnight Clear” (1849); #123 in Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal (Westminster John Knox Press, 2013).


  1. To what information are you referring? A lot of this is from the Book of Isaiah. Other from personal experience. Although this sermon was months ago, I’m sure I can direct you to the source if you are more explicit about your question.

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