Isaiah 35:1-10 ~ Advent III, December 15, 2013
I pray that your Advent journey this year has been blessed thus far, and that despite the busy-ness of the season you have found some time to sit a while and catch your breath, appreciating an oasis of calm amidst the frenetic activity of your days. I hope that you’ve found time away from all that shopping, decorating, cooking, or planning of menus and cleaning, interspersed among the normal everyday activities, work, schedules and appointments of our lives, which can make us all just a little bit crazy come mid-December. Throw in a snow day here or a nasty virus there, and this season of joy can quickly turn into one we just wish were over already.
I hope as you prepared to come to church this morning, that you felt a stirring of anticipation at what God’s Word would have to say to you today.
This Advent season, we have been looking at the Isaiah texts that this year’s lectionary cycle of readings has brought us. In the past couple of weeks, Isaiah has led us to imagine what transformed lives and a transformed world might look like, if peace and hope were to reign. We were invited into these texts to see what Isaiah saw in the visions God gave him of the creation that will one day be restored through divine love. And we were invited to imagine with him, what our transformed lives and world might look like, when God’s promises are fulfilled and God’s creation is brought to its fullness as the glory of the Lord breaks upon us. And we were surprised to see that there are signs of God’s in-breaking transformation all around us already – signs of God-like love spun as a silky web in the most unlikely of places.
Today our turn to Isaiah’s texts continues, in this truly beautiful passage that we heard just a short while ago, when (our lector) read these words, “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.” Words like these just make me want to dance. The sense of joy that leaps off the page is just that vibrant. Isaiah is describing bursting-at-the-seams joy in this passage. He is describing not just a reversal, but a transformation that will come when God comes to reign, and with God’s coming the health and wholeness of the creation will be restored. It’s hard to imagine, isn’t it?
This passage seems to flow naturally, following the texts that we have contemplated the past two weeks which lifted up peace and hope. But if you pick up your bible and read through Isaiah you’ll find that quite a lot has transpired between chapter 11, where we left off last week, and chapter 35, where we find ourselves this morning. And if you were to have read through those chapters, you will have found that in these words before us this morning, Isaiah speaks what Barbara Lundblad refers to as “a word out of place,” because they follow an indictment against the nations that have brought devastation to Israel and have taken her people off into exile and destroyed the temple and caused the people of God such despair and heartache and desolation. Now, in these verses, the text moves, without any real transition, from describing the judgment against Edom and the ecological disaster that follows, to these verses, where the wilderness and dry land are filled with gladness and rejoicing and rejuvenation.
Lundblad writes, “Isaiah speaks a word out of place. Amid chaos and destruction, against despair and apathy, Isaiah speaks a word of restoration. Against a deep, dark, soul-grating thirst, Isaiah describes water – not a trickle appearing in the midst of a lush forest, either, but water appearing as if a dam had burst, sending water gushing into a parched, dry, cracked, desolate landscape of our souls. Perhaps it was, at first, a trickle. Then a stream. Then a full-on gushing flood of life-changing water.”
I wonder if you can think of a time when you were really, truly thirsty. For most of us I imagine that we can conjure up a time when we really wanted a drink – maybe we had been sick, running a fever; maybe you found yourself on an outing and no one and thought to pack enough beverages to take along; maybe you went for an unexpected hike and realized too late that you hadn’t thought of that little necessity. A few of us might have experienced serious thirst or been caught in situations a little more dangerous, without sufficient water.
I know that in times when I have been really truly thirsty, finding water became an obsession. Our physical need for water is so great and constant. Imagine that you were in the middle of the desert or in the wilderness and you had no access to clean water-it wouldn’t take long for thirst to overwhelm.
I read a book, Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand earlier this year. It’s is the true story of Louis Zamperini, a WWII bombardier whose plane crashed into the Pacific Ocean in 1943. The three survivors of the crash spent weeks on a raft in the middle of the ocean. Thirst was indescribable and brutal and even the slightest, briefest relief of it brought unimaginable joy. Parched, at times delirious, the men longed for, ached for and even dreamed of refreshing life-giving water to replace the death-dealing water that surrounded them day after day.
Imagine being in that raft in the middle of the ocean or on your hike or in your sickbed in a state of real, dire thirst and suddenly, receiving that first trickle of relief – that first trickle of water. And then the water flows more freely and you go from sipping to slurping to gulping it down, great torrents of cool refreshment and relief from the agony of thirst. What does it feel like to go from suffering real thirst to sudden refreshment and relief of cool, fresh, flowing water?
When our kids were little, they loved getting a quarter from us to use in vending machines – like old fashioned bubblegum machines, but when you cranked the handle on these machines, a prize would fall out below. I don’t even know if they make them anymore, but I remember that one of the prizes that might be delivered would be a tiny compressed piece of material, so small that it fit into a vitamin-sized capsule.
You would put this capsule in water and instantly the plastic covering would melt away, and the piece of material inside would begin to swell. It would absorb more and more water until it would double and then triple and quadruple in size until it became I don’t know how many times the size of the original piece. It was often the shape of a dinosaur or some other animal. This little blob of – whatever – was totally transformed by the water into something the kids could then enjoy.
I think of God’s promised restoration and transformation in this way.
God’s coming transforms that which is dried and shriveled and shrunken in on itself in utter lifelessness, and suddenly it comes to life, it will swells and grows and takes on shape and form.
Isaiah provides assurance that God’s coming will result not in the people’s destruction but in their salvation and renewal, health and wholeness – in their swelling and taking on the shape and form of the creator. What’s more, like the parched and dry land, like the burning sand, the weakest and most vulnerable will be not only restored but utterly transformed; “eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy”. They will go from being nearly invisible, shapeless, worthless scraps of material to being completely refreshed, rejuvenated, and transformed into the beautiful, ransomed people of God’s redeeming love.
God’s work among humanity is nothing short of radical, transformative, and restorative. When the LORD appears, strange and marvelous things happen, and like a word out of place, it instantly changes the world into which it h as come. The wilderness becomes a flourishing path with streams of water flowing abundantly. Dangerous highways become holy paths upon which the redeemed can walk with assurance. The blind see, the deaf hear, and the lame not only walk but leap for joy. The exiles return home. And there is unbridled rejoicing from the ransomed people of God.
This word is good news today for all those who languish in exile in this in-between time of waiting and watching. It is good news for those who wait in cancer wards and prisons; good news for the homeless and the voiceless. God’s bubbling, streaming, flowing word is good news for those who truly thirst in our world, for those who hunger in ways that we cannot even fathom, for those who find themselves with feeble knees and weak hands and fearful hearts. God’s refreshing word is good news for the depressed, for those who long for love and acceptance, those who hear voices that set them apart, those who, in their isolation hear no voices at all; for those who suffer addictions that control and destroy their lives, and for anyone who feels disillusioned and disenfranchised.
When the fullness of God comes among us, all of us, all of creation, and all of humanity will be transformed. In the meantime, God is already at work, and God’s word out of place is a balm for those who hear this word and seek to follow God’s mission, faithful to God’s command to love, and to build faith along the Way of peace and joy and hope.
God’s word out of place comes in the form of the outpouring of generosity from individuals, churches and organizations who come together to provide Christmas joy for families who would otherwise “have no” Christmas. God’s word out of place comes when we give to organizations that help provide clean sustainable water supply for a village in Columbia or Central America. God’s word out of place comes from food drives and blood drives and strangers helping strangers in their hour of need.
As we continue our Advent journey, may we be blessed by the images that God sends all around us to guide our way, to speak a word out of place and to prepare our hearts to receive the Lord Jesus Christ on Christmas. May we find trickles of God’s life-giving water turning to streams, washing and refreshing the people of God, reminding us of the great cleansing and new birth of our baptism. And may we be reminded of the words of the prophet, “And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.” May such joy accompany you on your journey to Bethlehem.