Many of us have had the good fortune to visit the Great Smoky Mountains.
The area can best be described as breathtaking!
To walk the trails, and drive the roads, is to view mile-after-mile of spectacular vistas that literally cause one to gasp in awe.
And if you happen to be a person who views God as the earth’s creator, you cannot help but be impressed by this particular part of God’s handiwork, and stand in awe and wonder at God’s creativity.
The Great Smokies, like the many mountain ranges that are scattered over our planet, can cause one to feel as if she is standing on holy ground.
So it is disturbing to hear of the recent devastating fires which have so severely disrupted life in those mountains.
I find I am hesitant to consider returning there, in light of the destruction to property and the loss of life—both human and wild!
Because of this tragic fire, some things and some people who can never be replaced have been lost.
This is true of all tragedies that erupt on earth and interrupt our lives!
Yes, I know the beauty will return.
I know life will return!
But this is little consolation for those who are now suffering.
This is when people of faith wait for words of comfort, consolation and assurance.
This is when we expect to hear from God.
Perhaps some of you have heard one of the more poignant stories to reach us after the fires.
It’s about a young man named Isaac McCord.
As an employee of Dollywood, McCord was assigned the task of helping with the clean-up effort in the park after the fire.
As he was picking up burned material from the fires in the area, he noticed a page from a book floating in a puddle of water.
As he lifted the paper from the water, he discovered he was holding a page from the Bible that had survived the fire.
When he looked more carefully at these charred remains, his eyes landed on a verse he later identified as Joel 1:19:
O Lord, to thee will I cry:
For the fire hath devoured the pastures of the wilderness,
And the flame hath burned all the trees of the field.
What Isaac McCord discovered in the rubble was a sign—that even in our modern and jaded age cannot be dismissed:
God is present, even in the suffering after a devastating fire.
I, for one, wish God were always so direct with his message.
But more often, God is more subtle when speaking to us.
While the images of fire in the mountains are difficult to witness in the news, the message of the Advent season comes through clearly in this story.
The residents of Gatlinburg must now wait for their lives to be restored and rebuilt.
In some respects, all of us are like that: People who must wait for our lives to be rebuilt after a disaster.
Advent reminds us that we are always waiting for God to act in our lives.
Today’s Gospel brings the issue of waiting into clear focus for us as well.
We fast-forward about thirty years from the birth of Jesus.
King Herod has thrown John the Baptist into prison.
In prison, John finds time to reflect on his situation, and he begins to ask questions—questions we might ask in similar circumstances:
“If I am on God’s side, why am I suffering this punishment?
“Does my life matter?
“Was I right about Jesus?”
It isn’t difficult to imagine John’s feelings as he ponders his situation in his imprisonment.
In prison we find a John the Baptist we can sympathize with—much more than the wild preacher in the wilderness.
But true to his nature as a man of action,
John sends a message to Jesus asking for an answer to his question.
Jesus responds simply:
“Look at the signs—the blind see; the lame walk; the deaf hear; the mute begin to speak.”
All these signs point to the truth that God’s Kingdom is being made real.
These signs represent God’s ongoing presence in the world.
The message to John is that God is present in all that is happening.
Jesus says, “Go tell John that God has not forsaken him, even in his dire circumstances.”
God’s signs are still here.
God’s message has not changed.
Maybe after the changes of the last 2000 years, we have grown more skeptical.
If you are among those skeptics, take heart. God is still active in our world.
And the story from Dollywood is one small indication of God’s action!
When Mr. McCord found his message from God, he shared it in the modern way—by posting it on his Facebook page.
Within hours, 50,000 reposts of his page had been generated.
A few days later, Dolly Parton herself announced that she would be donating $1000 a month to all the families in the county who had lost their homes in the fires—as an expression of her faith in God and her unwavering commitment to the community of her birth.
What we must remember is that what seems to be the end of the world has never yet been the end of the world!
We just figure out what to do next, and get on with it—while trusting in the God who speaks even in the midst of earthquakes, fires, tornadoes, and floods.
The world is not coming to an end.
The Apocalypse is not here until the Apocalypse is actually here!
There is still work to be done.
Many problems still need to be solved.
Injustices abound around the world. Conflicts continue.
People need to be fed.
The urgent needs of the world demand to be met.
Signs of God’s presence need to be interpreted for unbelieving and doubting audiences.
In some respects, we live in exactly the situation John faced.
We don’t yet know how impending changes will affect us.
It is easy when fears overtake us to question or to doubt, just as John did.
We should remember that even the last of God’s prophets, John the Baptist, experienced fears and doubts.
Even he needed a word of assurance from God.
To me, that is the real strength of this story.
Waiting is not easy.
Many difficulties arise.
Effectively, our entire lives are tied up in this task of expectantly waiting—and striving to live in faithfulness.
But the signs continue.
One other thing about Isaac McCord.
He freely stated that he didn’t see himself as particularly religious.
He did report that he read the Bible from time to time.
But after he found that page of Scripture, he said that he realized it was such a powerful sign from God that he made the commitment to turn his life around.
The page in the water became the turning point for his life.
I guess time will tell.
John’s questions were answered directly by Jesus.
And few of us have had so clear an answer as Mr. McCord received.
As I said before, God often answers in more subtle ways.
And so—may we seek and find assurances of God’s presence with us!
May we glimpse the signs of God’s presence in our lives—that our spirits, like John’s, may be re-kindled;
And—like Mary the Mother of our Lord—may our spirits rejoice in the God who is faithful to his promises!