Text: Isaiah 35:1-10; Matthew 11:2-6
John Lee Hooker was born In Mississippi around 1917, the son of a sharecropper who was also a Baptist preacher. He was the youngest of 11 children. When he was still very young his parents separated and his mother, Minnie, remarried a musician named William Moore, who would introduce John Lee to the guitar and the blues. At the age of 14 John Lee ran away from home; he eventually made his way to Memphis and then to Detroit, where he worked in factories and eventually with the Ford Motor Company. He frequented the bars and blues clubs in Detroit and made a name for himself as a Blues singer. (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Lee_Hooker)
What is it about blues music that connects with people? I would argue that it is, in large part, having someone identify with and name human suffering. When you hear John Lee Hooker sing, you don’t doubt for a minute that he knows and has lived what he sings about. And if you have known suffering of the kind he describes, you also know you are not alone. There is someone else who has been there – or who IS there. And while that may not give you any solutions or answers, it reminds you that you are not alone. The blues also sets human suffering to music; it turns it into art. In its own way it makes something – if not beautiful, than at least haunting and soulful – out of something that could destroy us. It takes hunger or poverty or loss and says, “I’m gonna sing about that and tell my story” and people hear it and sing along and say “that’s my story.”
I want to play part (:35-2:28) of a John Lee Hooker song for you. I can well imagine it comes from his childhood experiences and perhaps from his own experiences trying to find work and take care of a family. Most of us here today have probably never experienced this, but we can at least recognize a man acquainted with sorrow and with grief, and what his art has contributed to others who have experienced the same.
“Hard Times” by John Lee Hooker
Lord you know hard times
Can’t you see hard times are here to stay
You know hard times, hard times
It seems like they here to stay
Hard times, hard times
Oh boy, don’t you know it worry me
I ain’t got no shoes on my feet
You know my clothes are very thin
I ain’t got no shoes on my feet
You know my clothes are wearin’ very thin
If I don’t get a job pretty soon
I don’t know what I’m going to do
Hard times, hard times
Oh boy, it’s getting me down
He goes on to talk about “no food on my table… no shoes to go on my feet… and my little children cry for mercy… crying for bread.” The blues is naming and identifying with human suffering, and in itself, that is a powerful thing.
The Blues Prophet
Listen to the list of people and situations Isaiah spoke to in our text today:
the exhausted and feeble (v.3)
those with anxious heart (v.4)
the blind and deaf (v.5)
the lame and mute (v.6)
the scorched land and thirsty ground (v.7)
sorrow and sighing (v.10)
And Isaiah said that God had promised to help. Many years later, John the Baptist sent some of his followers to ask Jesus, “Are you the Expected One?” And Jesus answered with a similar list of people and situations which we heard in Matthew 11:5 today: the blind, the lame, the lepers, the deaf, the poor… and even the dead!
Why do I call Isaiah (and Jesus) the “blues prophet”? It is because Isaiah demonstrated that God knows and sees the human condition. And Jesus, all the more, demonstrated that God has entered INTO the human condition through Emmanuel, God with us.
Your human experience may not be that of John Lee Hooker, born a black man to a sharecropper in early 20th century Mississippi. But you have your own human experience to grieve and grapple with. It may be that you relate to the hunger or need of John Lee Hooker’s song. Or perhaps you identify with one or more of the experiences into which Isaiah spoke. And maybe, if you look closely at Jesus’ human experience, you’ll see that he knows of your sorrow, your struggle, your grief. Each one – from the blues singer, to the blues prophet, to Jesus – pointed to something more, something beyond the blues.
More than Blues
John Lee Hooker lived in the hardest parts of the human condition. He lived it and he sang about it. But also was stuck in it, as we all are without God’s intervention.
Isaiah saw and lived among those who were exhausted, feeble, anxious, blind, deaf, lame, and mute. He saw and lived among the scorched land and thirsty ground. He knew the sorrow and the sighing. And in addition to knowing and living the blues, he had a message from God that there was more, that help would one day come. For each of those people and situations, he had a message from God of something more:
Jesus saw and lived the hardest parts of the human condition as well. He would know hunger, imprisonment, physical torment, sorrow, and even death. But he WAS God’s “more” – he was the help that would one day come.
ENCOURAGE the exhausted and STRENGTHEN the feeble (v.3)
COURAGE and SALVATION to those with anxious heart (v.4)
OPEN EYES for the blind and UNSTOPPED EARS for the deaf (v.5)
the lame WILL LEAP (LIKE A DEER!) and the mute WILL SHOUT FOR JOY (v.6)
the scorched land WILL BECOME A POOL and
the thirsty ground SPRINGS OF WATER (v.7)
GLADNESS AND JOY instead of sorrow and sighing (v.10)
Likewise, Jesus spoke of the healing, good news, and even resurrection. But in his case, it wasn’t help “one day” but what he was doing. He told John’s followers to report back to John what they were hearing and seeing him do. Jesus was the “more” of which Isaiah spoke.
And of course, this raises the question: Why do these things still exist then? Why is there still hunger and sickness and cancer and grief and loss?
And this is what Advent is about. Jesus has come and is God’s “more” but there is more “more” yet to come. Jesus entered into the world and into the human condition to demonstrate God’s understanding of and identification with the human condition. Jesus entered into the world and into the human condition to demonstrate God’s power and the beginning of the setting right of all things. We still wait for the kind of scene described at the end of Revelation, where there is no more crying or sorrow and all things have been set right. But we also live after the Resurrection, where Jesus has bridged the divide between us and God. He has straightened the crooked path between us and God and welcomed us into God’s Kingdom and God’s family. We can live in hope of a future with God and without pain.
So what for now? I believe the Gospel is a kind of modified blues. It tells us of a God and a Savior who knows every bit of what it’s like to be us: from the pain to the loss to the sorrow to the grief… even to death itself. But rather than being subject to and stuck in that situation, Jesus has risen out of it and sings to us from beyond it: there is more, there is life, there is hope.
That is what we wait for in this Advent season and it’s what keeps us moving forward in faith though we still live in the midst of the pain. Amen.
Music Used in the Service
- CALL TO WORSHIP: O Come, O Come Emmanuel (kids on Orff instruments + flute)
- It Came Upon the Midnight Clear (minor key + flute)
- CHOIR: Cries in the Darkness (Mounger, Austell) (link to audio)
- O Come, O Come Emmanuel
- CHOIR: O Day of Peace that Dimly Shines (arr. Black)
- SOLO: He is Ever Over Me (Stromberg)
- Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus (STUTTGART)