Way Off the Map

In his great book on adaptive leadership, “Canoeing the Mountains,” Tod Bolsinger tells the story of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.  In August of 1805, Captain Meriwether Lewis stood at the freshwater spring that was the source of the Missouri River.  It had been a long and painful journey.  He and his company had been traveling for fifteen months by canoe, paddling up the Missouri river…against its strong currents. 

  • They had been attacked relentlessly by clouds of mosquitos.
  • They had survived a long, bitter-cold winter. 
  • There had been Grizzly bears attacking and harassing them.
  • There had been that month-long portage dragging canoes and equipment up steep hills around an immense waterfall. 
  • And they had suffered the death of one of the men under his command.

But now, he was here.  His party of explorers had followed a small trail up a creek and now were at the spring that was the source of the mighty Missouri River. 

According to his early navigational estimates, from here it would be a relatively easy portage…just over the crest of the next hill, then a half-day portage down to the Columbia River, and then an easy paddle, this time with the current, all the way to the Pacific Ocean.  That was his expectation.

He could not have been more wrong.

Because when they crested that hill, in front of the exhausted explorers was not a gentle slope and a river to the ocean, but instead the Rocky Mountains.  Stretching in front of them for as far as the eye could see, was mountain peak after mountain peak. 

They couldn’t have known. Months earlier, the explorers had traveled past the boundaries of their maps.  They were now in uncharted territory.  They were in the wilderness.

Today, in 2020, there are not that many places left in the United States that can really be considered “wilderness.”  There are a few, in the mountains…the deserts…and the forests…these are places where there is immense beauty…but there is still danger.  The danger is because these places are not within our control.  And you always have to be so careful.  I’ve spent time in these wilderness areas.  I’ve experienced the beauty, and the risk.  In the wilderness, you always have to be watching:

  • Watching for storms
  • Watching for winds
  • Watching for bears, moose and other critters
  • Watching your path
  • Watching for rocks as you paddle

In the wilderness, you watch, because you don’t always know what to expect. 

I don’t know about you, but I feel like this last year has been a long trek through a wilderness.  It feels like the last 9 months have been stretched over what…2 years?  Maybe 3?  And it’s been hard.  And we haven’t known what would happen next.  And the COVID numbers have gone up…and then down…and then up…and down…and now way up…and it feels like we left the boundaries of the map a long time ago.  And we fear that the mountains may still be ahead of us. 

And then we hear our Gospel text for this, the first Sunday in the season of Advent: 

“But in those days, after that suffering,

the sun will be darkened,
    and the moon will not give its light,
   and the stars will be falling from heaven,
    and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. (Mark 13:24-25)

And I think to myself “yeah, life has felt kind of like that.”

Dr. Michael Chan, who teaches at Luther Seminary wrote about this Gospel text and the season we begin today.  He writes: “The heart of Advent is a deep wound:  God’s groaning, limping creation still waits for its healer to appear in glory and bring into reality what Christians know through faith.” 

My friends, Advent is a season for those of us who’ve been in the wilderness.

  • Advent is a season for those who are wounded.
  • Advent is a season for people who feel lost. 
  • Advent is a season for people who need to find their way. 
  • Advent is a season for people who feel like Captain Meriwether Lewis; who have been through a lot…who are tired…and who look ahead and only see are mountains. 
  • Advent is a season for you and me. 

Our Old Testament lesson from Isaiah begins with this beautiful,  powerful cry: “God, oh that you would tear open the heavens and come down!”  This year, this is our cry too. 

It is our cry because we know what we need, and because we have faith that God will provide.  God will provide.  God made a promise with God’s people.  And God has never broken a promise.  And this year, we cling to that.  “Please God, come down!”

And we know, that on that Christmas Eve, 2000+ years ago, the heavens did tear open, and God did come down.  And God’s promises were fulfilled. 

And we have faith, that on Christmas Eve, 2020, the heavens will again tear open, and God will come down.  And God’s promises will again be fulfilled.  We believe in the power of promises.

Harold Higgins and Mack McClain became buddies when they were assigned to the same infantry unit during the second world war.  Their platoon fought, in Italy, at Anzio, the site of some of the must brutal and deadly battles of the war in Europe. 

One day, McClain had a premonition.  He came to this belief that he was not going to survive the battle they knew was coming.  He told Higgins “If I don’t make it home, I want you to take these things and give them to my sister, Grace.”  And he put a small box in Higgins hands, with some photos, some mementos and one of his belts.  Tell her I love her, and if you want, you can give her a kiss on the cheek from me.” 

McClain’s fear became a horrible reality a few days later when he was killed in a fierce artillery barrage. 

After the war, Higgins was determined to keep his promise.  He searched for McClain’s sister.  But he lived in Illinios, and McClain’s family was from California.  And she had married, and changed her name.  He searched for years but could never find her. 

Finally, in 2001, this thing called the internet came along, and his search became easier.  With the help of a California veterans group, he was able to locate McClain’s sister.  A few weeks later, he was on a train west.  He was carrying a small suitcase, and a small, old, battered box.

He met the sister at Mack McClain’s gravesite, at the national cemetery.  First, he turned to the gravestone and he saluted.  And he held the salute for a long moment.  Then he turned to Grace.  And he told her stories, and he told her stories about her brother’s time during the war, and he told her about how Higgins had held his hand as McClain’s life slipped away.  And he told her about his promise.  And then he handed her the box. 

“Thank you,” she said.  “I never knew these things.  I just had the letter from his commander, which had no details.  Not knowing what happened has haunted me every day.  I just couldn’t get past it.  It has been horrible.  You brought me closure.  You brought me peace.” 

And Higgins leaned over and fulfilled his last promise.  He gave Grace just a little kiss on her cheek and said “that’s from Mack.”  In an interview later, when asked how it felt to fulfill his promise, Higgins simply said “mission accomplished.”

Mack McClain’s sister Grace had been in the wilderness.  For 57 years she didn’t know what happened to her brother.  And it haunted her; and she wandered.  But a promise made during difficult times carries a lot of power.  And Harold Huggins wasn’t going to let go until the promise was fulfilled.

My friends, we too are the recipients of promises.  In your baptism, God made you a promise.  And that promise carries a lot of power.  And because of that promise, we know what is true, and we know what is not true. 

  • It is not true that creation, and the human family are doomed to destruction and loss.
  • It is true that God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but will have eternal life.
  • It is not true that we must accept inhumanity and discrimination, hunger and poverty, death and destruction.
  • It is true when Jesus says that “I have come that you may have life and have life abundantly.”
  • It is not true that violence and hatred should have the last word, and that war and destruction rule forever.
  • It is true, that unto us a child is born, unto us a Son is given, and the government shall be upon his shoulder; his name shall be called wonderful councilor, mighty God, the Everlasting, the Prince of Peace. 
  • It is not true that we are simply victims of the powers of evil who seek to rule the world.
  • It is true when Jesus says “To me is given all authority in heaven and on earth, and lo, I am with you always until the end of the world. 
  • It is not true that COVID, or national division, or systemic racism, or political angst will define this age.
  • It is true that love will win, and that the light will shine!

For those of you who long for something different, for something new, for health, and peace, and a restoration of the world and a renewal of our relationship with God, this Advent season is for you.  And it is for me.  I’ll admit my impatience.  Advent is not the season I want…I want Christmas…right here…right now!  But Advent is the season I need.  And Advent is the season in which we are living now. 

We are way off the map.  We are exploring how we live and relate to each other and to God, during difficult, pandemic, angst-filled days.  We are watching…watching for signs of hope.  And we are holding on to a promise:  The promise of a baby…born in a stable…who brings love, and peace, and all that we need.  That baby is Jesus…Emmanuel… God with us. 

And that baby will live, teach, heal, be crucified and be resurrected.  Because of great love, this baby will guide us during the difficult days in the wilderness.  This baby does this so that all of God’s people…so that you…may live fully into the promises of God.  Trust in God’s promises…and watch.

May Christ be with us.  Thanks be to God!


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