Third Sunday of Advent: The Desert
Old Testament: Isaiah 35
Psalter: Psalm 146:5-10
Epistle: James 5:7-10
Gospel: Matthew 11:2-ll
A merry Christmas in the Mojave Desert seemed to be a contradiction in terms to me! My favorite aunt repeatedly assured me of the beauties and the positive benefits that could be gained from hving in the desert. But I left the desert decidedly unconvinced.
For one thing, all the symbols I associated with Christmas—snow, shopping, carolers, and people bustling about— were missing. In their place were solitude, deafening quiet, searing heat by day, arctic cold by night, movable colors and dancing sunlight, scurrying Gila monsters, scraggly scrub, and monotonous sandy expanses. At best, the wilderness spoke to me of ambivalence. There was beauty of a sort, but it was beauty laced with the beast!
Isaiah remembered the desert and what it meant in the lore of God's people (10:24-27; 11:16). The people of Israel knew the desert to be a double-edged encounter. On the one hand, the wilderness symbolized the exodus, the time when Moses liberated the Hebrew slaves and plunged into the desert in search of a land "flowing with milk and honey." The wilderness spoke to them of freedom, of new chances, of God being uniquely present to their growing discoveries. The wilderness symbolized the presence of God in all-protecting and all-providing ways. It was God who led the motley crew with a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. It was God who gave water to the parched, quail to the hungry, and manna to the starving.
On the other hand, the wilderness spoke to the Israelites of constant insecurity, of approaching danger, of a fight against the unforgiving elements of heat and cold, of flagging morale and sagging vision. It reminded them of a time when there was never enough food, no good road maps, no freedom from the fear of galloping Egyptians coming to reclaim their runaway labor union. The wilderness brought to mind portable Hving and going in circles for forty years.
So for Israel the desert brought forth a variety of conflicting emotions. Though unchosen and uncomfortable, the desert was also the place of self-discovery and self-actualization for Israel.
For Isaiah the desert was the way to go home. Just as God had used the desert as a thoroughfare to a new home when Israel was released from captivity so long ago in Egypt, so now, Isaiah believed, God would again bring the exiles into the desert for a new beginning. This time the wilderness would literally be transformed into the suburbs of Eden to welcome home the exiles. What looked like boring sand would glisten in the sun like sparkling diamonds; cactus, palm and mesquite would be christened lilies, roses, and crocus. Swimming pools would replace arid wastes; swamps would form over dry ditches; reeds and rushes would sprout up through stunted brown grass.
People would come alive in this wilderness too. Crutches would be discarded, hearing aids removed, seeing-eye dogs left at home. Arid this time God's people would not get lost, for there would be an interstate highway running all the way from slavery to freedom. That freeway would be known as "The Holy Way" and on this highway not one of God's chosen would ever get lost. No beast, human or animal would savage the traveler; "and the ransomed of the LORD will return. They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads. Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away" (35:10).
In Isaiah's vision the forbidding desert has become the inviting highway home where God waits to welcome the weary exiles. That's possible because God is our home wherever we are. Whether we sojourn in Egypt, Jerusalem, Babylon, or even out in the wilderness, God is there.
There once was a Man who more than anything else wanted to be totally open to God's leading. All his life he had known the security of home, but the time came for him to discover his identity, to probe his vocation, and to respond to his calling. "Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert…" (Matt. 4:1). God beckoned Jesus to meet him in the desert, the place where God's people had once discovered who they were. God was there in the wilderness, in the testing, in the questions, in the options.
The lonely silhouette of the Son of Man moves toward the setting sun. He is alone, but God is there. He is hungry, but angels come and prepare him dinner. He is uncertain, but he emerges from the desert with a clear and certain awareness of who he is and what he is to become.
The wilderness is the place where we meet God, confront self, and make our choices. "Do it again, Lord—do it again!" Let the desert blossom, let the lostness become a highway by the "new and living way" that Jesus opened for us (Heb. 10:20).
"Comfort Ye My People" (solo), Handel
[from Messiah (Schirmer)]
"Go Tell John"
"He Watching Over Israel," Mendelssohn
"In God, My Faithful God," Buxtehude
"O Zion, that Bringest Good Tidings," Stainer
[Hall & McCreary Co.]
"Patiently, Patiently I have Waited for the Lord" Saint-Saens
[from Christmas Oratorio (Schirmer)]
"Rejoice Greatly" Woodward
"The Lord Is My Light," Allitsen
"The Only Son from Heaven," Bach
"The Path of the Just," Harker
[from Messiah (Schirmer)]
"Then Shall the Eyes of the Blind" / "He Shall Feed His Flock," Handel
[b:om Messiah (Schirmer)]
"Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones," seventeenth-century German
(Note: Many other suggestions for congregational and choral music based on the Scripture lessons for this Sunday are included on page 31.)
For the Children
Preparation: Make several new symbols for your Jesse tree, symbols that will help the children remember that God took care of the Israelites everywhere—even in the desert. Suggestions: Manna, Quail
Gather the children around your Jesse tree. Point to several of the ornaments they hung on the tree last week and invite them to tell you what they remember about those pictures and the people and/or promises they remind us of.
Then show them your new ornaments. Explain what each of them is and invite the children to tell you how God showed love for the people by providing manna and quail. Conclude by reminding them that even in the hot, dusty, dry desert, where people have trouble finding food and water to stay alive, God was with the people. God sent them food and kept them safe. God promised to be with the people—and God was! God is with each of us today too—no matter where we are or what we do. God keeps that promise—always!