Robert Louis Stevenson once made the statement ‘It is better to travel hopefully than to arrive’. Think about it for a moment; do you agree with this statement?
When I first heard these words they seemed so good, so true, so spiritual! We’ve all heard of people who mortgage their health and their family life in order to make big bucks and prepare for a rich retirement, only to die of a heart attack six months after they retire. How much better it would have been if they had learned to slow down, enjoy the journey and concentrate on travelling hopefully rather than arriving!
But when I gave it some more thought I realised that Stevenson’s statement was nonsense. You can only ‘travel hopefully’ if you believe that arriving will be better than travelling! When I was working as a consultant for parishes in the Diocese of Athabasca I made long trips to various congregations to lead weekend workshops. I often came home on Sunday afternoons on lonely, icy roads, and I can tell you that the only reason I was able to ‘travel hopefully’ was that I knew there was a warm, loving welcome waiting for me at home!
What has this question got to do with Advent and with our scriptures for today? Well, one of the main themes of Advent is ‘hope’; it’s about looking ahead to the end of the journey, to the time when humanity will arrive at the kingdom of God. It’s about gaining strength from that hope to sustain us on our journey. And we see the same theme in our Old Testament reading today, in which Isaiah foretells a time when the Jewish exiles will journey through the desert back to their homeland.
God’s people had been taken from their own land into exile in Babylon because of their unfaithfulness to God and disobedience to his will for them. This is a theme which runs through the whole of scripture, all the way back to the story of Adam and Eve leaving the Garden of Eden: the effect of our sin and rebellion is to shut us out from our true spiritual home with God. But now God is assuring the exiles that he is going to bring them home. They are going to cross the desert, and to their surprise they will find it blossoming with growth and life. They will find healing for their sicknesses and protection from wild animals along the way. When they arrive in Jerusalem, or Zion, they will sing and rejoice, and they will never experience sorrow again.
Parts of Isaiah’s prophecy were fulfilled in the 6th century B.C. when some of the Jewish exiles returned to Jerusalem after their captivity in Babylon. But the return did not fulfil all of their hopes. There was still injustice and oppression in the land, and the people still experienced sickness and death. Moving their geographical location had not cured their spiritual exile; there was still a spiritual journey they had to make. And you and I have to make it as well.
So - in our spiritual journey, is it better to travel hopefully than to arrive? Let me answer that with two complimentary statements.
Firstly, the reason we can travel hopefully is because we know arriving will be better! In the book The Sacred Diary of Adrian Plass, Adrian admits to a priest that he’s afraid to die and he really doesn’t find the biblical pictures of heaven all that appealing; he’s afraid he’s going to be disappointed when he gets there. The priest asks him “What are you interested in - really?” He replies “Cricket”. The priest says “So, then, for you God has to make heaven as exciting as scoring a century against Australia”. He then suggests to Adrian’s wife that if Adrian collapses and is about to die, she should dress him in his cricket gear to prepare him for the journey!
Isaiah 35 contains some wonderful poetic imagery about our arrival in the kingdom of God. One image used is freedom. Verse 10 talks about ‘the ransomed of the Lord’ returning and arriving in Zion. A person who has been ‘ransomed’ or ‘redeemed’ has been set free by the paying of a price. We think about all the things that enslave us in this present life: sickness, death, poverty, greed, oppression and violence and, underlying it all, our own sinfulness and self-centredness. Imagine the joy of being set free from all that by God! That’s part of arriving in God’s kingdom.
A second image Isaiah uses is fruitfulness. When we lived in the high Arctic there was about a six-week window in the summer when the tundra burst into colour with wildflowers. A similar thing happens in much of the middle east in the spring, when the winter rains transform the dry land into a fruitful place. For most of the year there isn’t enough rainfall for anything more than grazing sheep, but for this brief period of time the land bursts into life. And Isaiah uses this image in verses 1-2:
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.
Again, we can meditate on this image of fruitfulness and think of how very rarely in life our hopes and dreams come to their full fruition. Imagine what life will be like when all our hopes and dreams are fulfilled! That’s what it will be like when we arrive in the Kingdom of God.
The other image or word that’s used in this passage to describe our arrival is joy. We’re told in verse 2 that the desert will ‘rejoice with joy’, and at the end of the passage we’re told that when the Lord’s redeemed people arrive at their destination ‘they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away’ (v.10). In the Bible joy is usually connected with God’s action; God has done great things for us, and we are glad! Even in this life we experience some of this joy; how much greater will it be when God has set us free from everything that binds us and has brought us to the place where all our hopes and dreams are fulfilled.
So you see, the reason we can travel hopefully is because we know that arriving will be far, far better than what we are experiencing right now. But the other thing we need to say about this is that because we know that arriving will be better, we can actually enjoy the journey more!
When God’s Old Testament people began their return from exile in Babylon they faced a daunting trip; between them and their destination were four hundred miles of desert. Many decided not to attempt the journey, and those who did make the attempt must have been afraid. In today’s reading Isaiah tries to encourage them with poetic images of how the desert around the travellers will bloom into life. ‘The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad’, he says, ‘the desert shall rejoice and blossom’ (v.1). He foretells that their injuries will be healed along the way: ‘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’ (vv.5-6). He also talks about how the weak will be strengthened and how they will be protected from wild animals along the way. Apparently the journey was going to be a lot better than they had feared!
We New Testament pilgrims are on a spiritual journey from our exile in sin to our home in the kingdom of God. This journey began with the life and ministry of Jesus - in fact, in today’s Gospel reading Jesus refers to Isaiah’s prediction of ‘the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the deaf hear’ (Matthew 11:5). The journey continues today, and it will not be completed until the day when our Advent hope is fulfilled and Jesus ‘comes again in glory to judge both the living and the dead’. On that day, we pilgrims will arrive at our eternal home forever – or rather, our eternal home will have arrived for us!
The image of a journey through the desert warns us to expect difficulties on the way. The Kingdom hasn’t arrived in its fulness yet, so we still experience evil, sickness, injustice, oppression and all the results of human sin in the world. We know better than to expect heaven on earth as things are at present (even though politicians of all stripes continue to promise it to us!); if we do expect it, we’re certainly going to be disappointed.
And yet in the midst of the difficulties there are also signs of hope. There are wonderful stories of God’s power bringing healing to people in both the physical and spiritual senses. But most important of all, there is the awareness we have of God’s presence with us on our journey. Isaiah says of the travellers ‘They shall see the glory of the LORD, the majesty of our God’ (35:1). God promises to accompany us all through our journey.
In fact, it’s only the presence of God with us that makes it possible for us to make this journey in the first place. Without him, we would be too fearful. Isaiah says ‘Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God…He will come and save you”’ (Isaiah 35:4). In the Bible, an exhortation not to fear is almost always coupled with an assurance of God’s presence. It’s as if I hum the first bar of ‘O Canada!’ and immediately you can finish the tune. Thus the biblical people hear God saying ‘Don’t be afraid’ and instinctively they understand that he is promising to be with them on the way, to protect them and help them.
Some years ago I was attending a course at Regent College in Vancouver; while I was there, God helped me to begin to confront some of the fears that have dogged me throughout my own spiritual journey. I realised that I have been afraid to ‘Let go and let God’. I’ve always been comfortable in ministry situations such as preaching and teaching, where I can do what I’m good at. I’ve always been afraid of things like praying for the sick, in which God’s answers are outside of my control. It was a difficult thing for me to realise the enormous impact these fears have had on my Christian life.
But God is gracious, and there were many words of encouragement coming through as the week went by. One of the most important ones, for me, was a little song that our worship leader taught us, and that we sang almost every day. The words go like this:
Don’t be afraid; my love is stronger;
my love is stronger than your fears.
Don’t be afraid; my love is stronger,
and I have promised, promised to be always near.
It was funny how that was exactly the message I needed to hear, and we ended up singing it almost every day! You’d almost suspect the thing had been planned, wouldn’t you? We can travel hopefully, even when we are afraid, because God himself is with us, and his love is stronger than all our fears.
There’s one more thing I need to say about ‘travelling hopefully’. What is this road that we’re travelling on? Strange though it may sound, the road is Jesus himself; he said “I am the Way” (John 14:6). An early church writer prayed to Jesus like this: ‘You are not only our destination; you are also the road to get there’. The life, death and resurrection of Jesus have made this road for us. His life and his teaching give us the pattern to follow. Faith and discipleship - trusting him and putting his words into practice - are the way in which we stay on this road.
And staying on the road is important. There will always be enticing little detours! A hymn sometimes sing reminds us of this:
O let me feel thee near me -
the world is ever near.
I see the sights that dazzle,
the tempting sounds I hear’.
There will always be voices telling us that life would be much more fun if we disobeyed the teaching of Jesus and chose our own path instead. We need to remember that if we stray from the road we’re going to find ourselves out in a trackless desert. It’s much safer to trust Jesus and stay on the road.
So I believe that Robert Louis Stevenson was dead wrong; it’s not ‘better to travel hopefully than to arrive’. Arriving will be far, far better than anything that we experience in life as we now know it; that’s why we pray daily ‘Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven’. But that doesn’t mean that the travelling is not good either. Because we know that our destination is so much better, we can enjoy the journey too, and especially the presence of Jesus with us. We still go through sufferings and imperfections, but we know that they aren’t going to last forever. One day our Advent hope will be fulfilled as we experience for ourselves those words of Isaiah:
‘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’ (Isaiah 11:10).