The “Wonder” of Advent

Sing verses 1 & 2 of “I Wonder as I Wander”

I wonder as I wander, out under the sky,
how Jesus the Savior did come for to die
for poor ordinary people like you and like I;
I wonder as I wander, out under the sky.

When Mary birthed Jesus, ’twas in a cow’s stall
with wise men and farmers and shepherd and all.
but high from God’s heaven a star’s light did fall,
and the promise of ages it did then recall.

There’s a lot of wondering going on in the gospel reading today (see below). First we have John the Baptist wondering about Jesus, sending some of his disciples to ask him, “Hey, are you the Messiah we’ve all been waiting for; or should we look for somebody else?” Then we have Jesus himself, turning to the crowd of people around him, wondering what they’d been looking for when they’d been flocking out to where John was preaching in the wilderness.

And then there’s us. We might be wondering what’s going on in this story, which ends with one of those Zen-like sayings of Jesus: “There’s no one alive greater than John, yet the least born into the kingdom of heaven is greater than John.” It’s sayings like that that leave us scratching our heads and wondering what it means. That’s why I thought the Christmas carol “I Wonder as I Wander” would be appropriate today. 

Side note here. I used to think the words were: 
I wonder as I wander out under the sky; How Jesus the Savior did come for to die, For poor ornery people like you and like I. 
(I’m not even going to get into the fingernails on the blackboard use of a subjective pronoun after a preposition. I get it; me doesn’t rhyme with sky.) But ornery made senseSo I was astounded when I saw how our hymnal says that the contraction means ordinary. Well, that makes sense too. So I wondered: which was it? Ornery or ordinary? 

It seems that in the original version of this Appalachian song, the contraction on’ry was probably meant to convey the idea of “ordinary.” According to Merriam-Webster, “ornery was first used in American regional speech in the beginning of the 19th century as a simple variant of ordinary, and for some while it had the same meaning. By the end of the 19th century ornery had taken on its now-common meaning of cantankerous.”

No wonder I was confused!

And we do wonder about a lot of stuff, don’t we? I mean really wonder. And not just little things like, “I wonder what we’ll have for supper tonight” or “I wonder what’s new on Netflix,” or “I wonder what I’m going to get for Christmas.” But big deal things, like:

  • I wonder how I’m going to pay all the bills this month.
  • I wonder if this new prescription will finally work.
  • I wonder how I can mend this broken relationship.
  • I wonder why no one stops the bullying that goes on at school.
  • I wonder how peace can ever possibly come to Ukraine.
  • I wonder . . . you fill in the blank with one of your big deals.

And now, as we’ve called to mind our own personal litany of what another carol writer called “the hopes and fears of all the years,” we’re ready to turn the kaleidoscope and watch the pattern and meaning of wonder shift – from puzzled, doubt-filled questioning to surprise, amazement, astonishment, and awe! And now we’re ready to be changed, too.

We’re ready to sink fully into Advent, where we’re reminded that this shift is possible. That bright flowers can bloom in a dry and dusty desert. That new life can emerge from the ruins of bad choices and forced exiles. That hope can appear in places where we’d least expect to find it. 

This is the imagery of Isaiah’s poetry (see below). Surely the prophet knew that people needed a sign of hope. He wasn’t writing this in happy times.

This passage dates from the time, some 700 years before Jesus was born, when the kingdom that had been united by King David had split in two. Israel in the north had already been invaded by the Assyrians, and the people carried off into exile. Now in the south, in Judah, the people were surely wondering – in the most despairing sense of the word – if all was not lost for them, too.

Into the ashy, gray bleakness of their world, Isaiah brings them bright flowers.
The desert and the dry land will be glad; the desert will rejoice and blossom.  
Like the crocus, it will burst into flower, and rejoice with joy and singing.

Now this is really weird because it doesn’t fit at all with what’s come before. Isaiah has been prophesying doom and gloom, war and desolation. The poem before this one was all about destruction: “streams will be turned into pitch, soil into sulfur; land will become burning tar…Thorns will grow over its strongholds, nettles and thistles in its fortresses.” Not a lot of optimism there. Maybe some of those who heard Isaiah’s words thought he’d gone off the deep end. There was no rational reason to think that any such thing would happen. But there it was – a bright vision of hope and joy on a bleak landscape. I can’t help thinking about Christmas and Hanukkah in Ukraine. I’m sure the people there can identify all too well with the desolation Isaiah describes. And how they must long for a time when, as in Isaiah, unexpectedly and without explanation, hope interrupts devastation and despair:

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 wonder of this flowery outburst is that it’s a word out of place. It’s a promise of something that has no reasonable chance of happening. As Old Testament scholar Walter Bruggemann has noted, “Israel’s (hymns of praise) are characteristically against the data.”

We’re not in ancient Israel; we’re not in Ukraine. But we know the data; we see and hear it every day and night in the news. Add to that the data of our own lives. We know the data all too well. We know the desert. We know exile. We know the valley of the shadow of death. And we long for the wonder of a word out of place – like a crocus blooming in the desert.

I don’t know much about winter in the desert. In the winters of my growing up years, the tiny purple or white or yellow tip of a budding crocus peeking up from snow-covered ground was a sign that spring was on the way. When I’d spot that first speck of color in the snow, I’d have to stop in my tracks, bend down to get a closer look – and simply marvel at this tiny, yet powerful miracle.

Living here in the Bay area, of course, is different. Snow is an optional winter experience. But even living in a place where flowers bloom year-round, we get what Isaiah is saying. The symbol is powerful. It reminds us that we will find crocuses when and where we least expect them: under icy snow, when our world has turned cold – and in the bleak desert, when we are tapped out, worn out, discouraged. When we’re trapped like John, in Herod’s prison, where there’s no good reason foranything like hope, when we’re devoid of joy and way beyond surprise. And yet, a crocuses just might bloom again. 

So then, the question to ponder on this day of wondering is: where do we find these crocuses? Where in the world this Advent can we see a speck of hope? We might have to look closely. Imagine that tiny bud poking out through a blanket of snow.

And don’t be discouraged by the smallness of it. The blossom may be tiny but remember it can push up and out against daunting odds. So what we’re called to do in Advent – look for the crocuses. Advent reminds us that, against all evidence to the contrary, another world is possible. New life can emerge from ruins. In the patient partnership between divine and human, God keeps on creating and calls us to be innovative as well. 

The third Sunday of Advent is usually designated as “Joy Sunday.” And if you’re already deep into the joy of the season, wonder-ful! But if you’re not – or if the joy comes and goes – just remember John, sitting alone in a dark and dank cell, questioning his earlier confidence and maybe his very mission and identity, as he sends word to ask Jesus a poignant, even heartbreaking question: are you really the one or should we look elsewhere?

The movement from the John of earlier years, full of confidence, preaching with power about the one to come, whose sandals he was unworthy to untie is a jump from a sure and certain confidence to doubt; from fiery conviction to uncertainty and despair. Anticipation to disappointment. Hope to desperation. We’ve all been there, right? Charging ahead with dreams and plans, moving forward with optimism about the future, only to be stopped in our tracks: maybe by illness, or injury, loss ofemployment, the death of a loved one, or the loss of a relationship, or any of a thousand other things that cause us suddenly to stumble and lose our confidence. And when our heartache, uncertainty, despair, disappointment, and desperation isn’t only about ourselves, but our entire nation, our entire planet – the pain can be overwhelming.

And yet. And yet.

Here we are with our Advent candles burning down: candles for hope, for peace, and for joy. In the midst of the deep dark night, we really need to go a lot deeper into these words. Spiritual platitudes won’t do – not for me, and I’m certainly not going to spout them to you. But just as hope is not the same as optimism and peace is more than absence of conflict, joy is more than fleeting happiness. Remember the old camp song: I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy. Down in my heart, Down in my heart, Down in my heart?

It’s not just a dumb old camp song. Sometimes those old chestnuts get at a profound truth. Down in your heart is where you find the hope, peace and joy that passes all understanding. Now getting down into the heart may not always be so simple. We let our hearts get pretty well defended, especially – let’s just admit it – against God. Because if we really allowed ourselves to feel the presence of Divine Spirit within us, well, it could shake our world. We might be inspired to do something that would totally mess up our vision of the way life is supposed to be. And I’m not going to tell you that couldn’t happen. But I am going to tell you that by opening our hearts to Divine Spirit, we also open ourselves to deep joy.

That must have been what Isaiah experienced. What else could have caused him to proclaim to the people who dwelled in deep darkness, the exiles in Babylon:

Let the desert and the wilderness exult! Let them rejoice and bloom like the crocus! 
Let it blossom profusely, Let it rejoice and sing for joy!
Those whom God ransomed will return.
They will enter Zion with shouting for joy, with everlasting joy on their faces.
Joy and gladness will go with them; sorrow and lament will flee away.

We owe it to ourselves and the world to find this place of joy down in our hearts. George Vaillant, in his book, Spiritual Evolution: A Scientific Defense of Faith, said “It is so much easier to sing about joy than to talk about it.” Will singing immediately take away the troubles of the world? No. But it might create joy deep down in your heart where the Holy Presence resides in you. And from that holy heart of it, the world will change. In the patient partnership between divine and human, God will keep on creating and will keep on calling us to be innovative as well.

In the meantime, we poor ornery, ordinary people may keep on wondering – until the wonder of Christmas breaks through and we are reminded – yet again – that a crocus can appear at any time. So we keep looking, keep singing, keep wondering. 


“I Wonder as I Wander” vv. 3-4

If Jesus had wanted for any wee thing,
a star in the sky, or a bird on the wing,
or all of God’s angels in heaven for to sing,
he surely could have it, ’cause he was the King.

I wonder as I wander, out under the sky,
how Jesus the Savior did come for to die
for poor ordinary people like you and like I;
I wonder as I wander, out under the sky.

FIRST READING   Isaiah 35:1-10 (from The Complete Jewish Bible)                                                         
The desert and the dry land will be glad; the desert will rejoice and blossom.  Like the crocus, it will burst into flower, and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon will be given to it, the splendor of Carmel and Sharon. They will see the glory of ADONAI, the splendor of our God. Strengthen your drooping arms, and steady your tottering knees. Say to the fainthearted, “Be strong and unafraid! Here is your God, who will come with vengeance; God’s retribution will come and save you.” 

Then the eyes of the blind will be opened, and the ears of the deaf will be unstopped; then the lame will leap like deer, and the mute will sing. In the desert, springs will burst forth, streams of water in the wilderness; the sandy mirage will become a pool, the thirsty ground springs of water. The haunts where jackals lie down will become a marsh filled with reeds and papyrus. A highway will be there, a way, called the Way of Holiness. The unclean will not pass over it, but it will be for those whom he guides fools will not stray along it. No lion or other beast of prey will be there, traveling on it. They will not be found there, but the redeemed will go there. Those ransomed by ADONAI will return and come with singing to Zion, on their heads will be everlasting joy. They will acquire gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing will flee.                                                                                                                 

GOSPEL Matthew 11:2-11
While John was in prison, he heard about the works the Messiah was performing, and sent a message by way of his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you ‘The One who is to come’ or do we look for another?”                     
In reply, Jesus said to them, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: ‘Those who are blind recover their sight; those who cannot walk are able to walk; those with leprosy are cured; those who are deaf hear; the dead are raised to life; and the poor have the Good News preached to them. And blessed is anyone who finds no stumbling block in me.”                                                               

As the messengers set off, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out to the wilderness to see—a reed swaying in the wind? Tell me, what did you go out to see—someone luxuriously dressed? No, those who dress luxuriously are to be found in royal palaces. So what did you go out to see—a prophet? Yes, a prophet—and more than a prophet! It’s about John that scripture says,
‘I send my messenger ahead of you to prepare your way before you.’ 

“The truth is, history has not known a person born of woman who is greater than John the Baptizer. Yet the least born into the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”