Isaiah 35:1-10, Luke 1:46b-55, Matthew 11:2-11
Psalm 130 reads, “I wait for God more than watchmen wait for the morning, more than watchmen wait for the morning.”
Third shift. This psalm refers to watchmen who pull the third shift 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. The watchmen stand on the stone walls of their towns and look forth into the darkness. With no artificial light, all they can do is stand and wait, listening to each rustle of the leaves and crack of the stick. Their only light is the moon, the stars and the nearby torch.
(This imagery comes from the Advent Day of Quiet: Preparing to Receive the Light of Christ led by Anne Simpkinson)
Third shift. The sentries stand at their post, watching in anticipation for the first dawn light. The psalmist tells us that joy comes in the morning, but what if, what if joy also comes in the evening, when we are pulling the third shift and waiting in the brisk, cold night-time air?
What if joy comes not only with the morning but also with the darkest hour of the night?
This is a question not only for us but also for the Israelites exiled in Babylon. Uprooted from their homes and all that was familiar, the Israelites remembered joy only as a faint memory or an old friend who had not visited for a long time. They had forgotten what joy looked like, or how she laughed or what her mannerisms were.
They wondered: how do we sing a song of God in a foreign land?
How do we sing a song of joy when we are a watchperson pulling the third shift, longing for morning?
This is a question not only for the Israelites but also for John the Baptist. In today’s reading from the Gospel of Matthew, John the Baptist has been preparing the way for Jesus for years, and is beginning to wonder if the dawn will ever come. Imprisoned for his preaching, John sends a message to Jesus asking: Are you the One that we have been waiting for or is there another?
I find John the Baptist’s question striking because John has committed his entire adult ministry to preparing the way for Emmanuel, God-made-flesh. John’s birth was so special an angel came to his father Zechariah to foretell it and yet, John is still a bit unsure about the path before him. John isn’t sure exactly what God will look when God comes in the flesh to dwell among us. John thought that Jesus was the One, but Jesus did not start his ministry until his 30th birthday so in the meantime John becomes restless.
Still, through his restlessness, John continues to show up as a watchperson for the morning; while the world is still dark, John dares to get his hopes up; John dares to wait for the Lord whose day is near. John sings and prophesies, because he knows the truth of what is to come.
Perhaps it is when we are pulling the third shift that we most need to sing to remind not only ourselves but those around us that dawn is coming.
This is exactly what Mary, pregnant with Jesus does. Mary knows what it is to pull third shift, to work long hours, to not get paid enough to get by. Mary knows what is to be dismissed because you’re only a “kid” and what can you possible know at that age. Mary knows what it is to be oppressed by Empire and to be refused certain legal rights because you are not a citizen.
Mary knows what it is to pull third shift.
And yet, in today’s passage, Mary falls before her kinswoman Elizabeth, singing, “My soul proclaims your greatness, O God, and my spirit rejoices in you, my Savior … you have scattered the proud in the conceit; you have deposed the mighty from their thrones and raised the lowly to high places.” Mary celebrates God’s salvific acts. In face of all that oppresses her, Mary dares to sing, to dance, to delight, to take heart, to give thanks to God, to celebrate.
Mary does not wait for a better, more convenient time to sing her song. Mary does not wait for the morning light to dawn. As a watchwoman for the morning, Mary gives thanks in the darkest hour of the night because, even then, she refuses to let the forces of death claim her. In that moment, Mary shows us that joy comes not on the other side of pain and suffering but right in the midst of it. Joy is the defiant and persistent claiming of God’s promise in the face of the anxiety-producing rustles and whispers of the night-time air.
We know that these events are not the end of the story.
Third shift. We wait for God more than the watchmen wait for the morning.
Just like the Israelites in exile who struggle to find their song, stifled by the foreign air.
More than anything, they want to go home. More than anything, they want the dawn to come.
How do we sing a song of God when we are pulling the late night shift?
The Israelites hang up their harps and wonder if they have forgotten the song.
In that moment, the desert starts to hum. In the words of the prophet Isaiah, “Let the desert and the wilderness exult! Let the Arabah [a desert in Israel] rejoice and bloom like the crocus! Let is blossom profusely, let it rejoice and sing for joy!”
Even people forget, the earth remembers the Song.
The earth remembers the Song, like in Chile which hosts the Atacama Desert, one of the driest places of earth. You look at the dusty soil and think: nothing can live here.
And yet, there are flower seeds that lay dormant for years, buried deep within the ground, until there is an above average rainfall, and then they burst forth, creating is a pink-hued sea of blooms that carpet the Atacama Desert. The flowers peak out their heads and join with Mary in singing: Rejoice! For even the driest desert on earth can bear life!
Rejoice, you who live in foreign lands, who travel by night and live in desolate places.
Rejoice, you who watch for the morning!
Do not wait to lift your voice. Rejoice, rejoice!
At a recent speaking event, an audience member asked author and pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber when she least felt afraid. Without hesitation, she replied that it is when she is singing hymns. When she is singing hymns, she is not afraid. Nadia reminds us that we become uncertainty, it is the Song that leads us forth, the song of flowering deserts, rushing waters and a people who keep the third watch; is it the Song of seeds buried deep within the earth that will bloom in the most unexpected way.
Isaiah says to us, “Take courage! Do not be afraid! Look, God is coming.”
The desert hums with the tune. Our hearts pulse with the words. God is coming and, like the flowering deserts of Chile, life once more will blanket the earth.
We wait for God and, now, when the desert is driest, when the night seems darkest, when we are most afraid, is precisely when the world most needs our song. It is in the darkest hour of their exile, that Isaiah says to the Israelites, “Take courage!” for “the tongues of those who cannot speak will sing for joy.” As they keep watch, the Israelites hear the humming of Isaiah and the earth and their tongues loosen and the words come pouring forth. Suddenly, they see, even here, estranged from their home, they are children of God; even here, they are free, for the Babylonians cannot define them. Even here, they are valuable, precious, powerful participants in God’s redemption song, a song that echoes from the prisons to the walls of the evening watch, from young women pulling late night shifts to those living forgotten in foreign land. As the Israelites start humming this tune, they discover: they are not afraid.
We are not afraid as we sing out our hymns during the third watch for fear cannot claim us and hatred does not have the final word. We lift up our voices with all creation, singing, “Rejoice! Rejoice!” knowing that no matter where we end up or what shift we pull – whether it is during the brightest day or the darkest night – we are home. We are home because we are rooted in truth; we are rooted in God’s song that reaches backwards to the prophets and forward to God’s kin-dom coming on earth. As we wait for God, more than the watchmen wait for the morning, we sing out boldly. As our music flows into the houses, the fields and throughout the earth, others recognize the tune, remember the Song and join our harmony for the way is wide and not even a fool could get lost. We wait and sing, dispelling all fear until at last the dawn from on high breaks upon and all are liberated and our sing turns to shouting for all death has passed and we are no longing singing the song but it is singing us, for we have becomes a conduit for life, joy and liberation, right where we are.
My friends, as we watch for God, as we listen to the humming of the desert, the lyrical voice of Mary and the deep baritone of John the Baptist, will you join me in singing too?
For in singing, we remember that God-made-flesh was born in the deepest part of the night and none shall be afraid.