Sunday, December 15, 2013

the desert shall rejoice

Advent 3, Year A, Dec. 15, 2013
All Saints’ Church

May the words I speak and the words you hear be God’s alone. Amen. 

What comes to mind when you think about deserts? Probably the first thing you picture is sand and dirt--lots and lots and lots of it, everywhere you look. Maybe you see a few shrubs and cacti here and there. The hot sun beats down as a vulture circles lazily in the sky, waiting for its next meal. Lizards watch you warily from the rocks and somewhere nearby you hear a faint rattling sound, warning you to keep away. In the distance you can hear the mournful howl of a jackal.

Deserts are dangerous places. But in today’s reading from Isaiah, the deserts are getting a makeover. Instead of dry, thirsty ground, the deserts will be a place of blooming flowers. There will be so much water that it will form pools and streams, and grass will grow along the banks. In the middle of this newly-formed oasis, a path will spring up, out of harm’s way. On this path, called the “Holy Way,” God’s people will travel in safety, knowing that not one of them will be lost, “not even fools” (v. 8). 

This makeover transforms the deserts into rich havens, places of sanctuary in a formerly dangerous environment. The vision of sanctuary, of safety from threatening forces, is written just before the people of Israel are exiled. Things are getting tense, and their enemies are approaching them on several sides. As things escalate and the Israelites are conquered, Isaiah’s vision is a source of hope that the exile will not last forever. “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God...He will come and save you” (v. 4). 

In Isaiah’s vision, deserts are not the only things being restored. God’s people are being restored as well. Weak hands are made strong. Feeble knees (like mine) are made firm [pause]. Sight is restored to the blind, hearing to the deaf, mobility to the lame, and speech to the mute. The lame not only walk, they “leap like a deer!” (v. 6) The speechless not only talk, they “sing for joy!” (v. 6). And finally, when the “ransomed of the Lord...return...with singing... sorrow and sighing shall flee away” (v. 10). 

Some 700 or so years later, during the time of the Roman occupation, Isaiah’s vision of restoration is continued by Mary. In her vision, rulers are overthrown; the system is overturned so that those on top are “cast down” and the humbled are “lifted up” (Luke 1: 52). The rich will no longer take advantage of the poor, and the poor will no longer go hungry. Mary proclaims that God “has come to the help of his servant Israel...and remembers his promise of mercy” (v. 54). She waits expectantly for the birth of this hope in the form of her son.

Thirty or so years after Mary’s proclamation, Isaiah’s vision is echoed by Jesus himself. When John the Baptist, sitting in a jail cell awaiting his death, asks Jesus if he is “the one who is to come,” Jesus replies, “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them” (Matt 11:3, 5). In Jesus Christ, the vision of Isaiah, is being realized through the restoration of God’s people. In Jesus Christ, the vision of Mary, his mother, is being realized through his teaching the reordering of societal structure and the miracles like the ones of the fishes and loaves. 

At times it may feel as if we are still living in a desert. Most of us can’t remember a time when there wasn’t a war going on somewhere around the world. The gap between the rich and the poor in this country is rapidly increasing. Yesterday marked the one year anniversary of the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut. Since then, over 32,000 people* have died in gun-related deaths in this country. Jesus has come and gone, but where is the relief? Where are the refreshing springs in the flowery desert? Where is the path that will lead us away from all of this?  

Jesus has already shown us this path. In his life on earth he advocated for peace: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9). Jesus taught us how we should treat those on the margins of society: for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me...just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’” (Matthew 25: 35-36). He showed us how to act toward people with whom we do not agree: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you” (Luke 6:27-28). Jesus has shown us the path; we are called to take his message to heart and follow Him. “Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph. 5:1-2).

These past 3 weeks we’ve heard John’s voice calling to us from the wilderness, piercing the darkness and urging us to repent, to makeover our hearts. We know we all have fallen short in many ways; it’s part of being human. We acknowledge our shortcomings every Sunday when we confess our sins together. When we say it together today, pay attention to what we’re confessing. Take it slowly and say it like we really mean it. Listen to the words of God’s forgiveness that follow. Then be strengthened for the journey in the sharing of Eucharist, Christ’s body and blood shed for us “for the forgiveness of sins” (BCP 363). 

Today, the third Sunday in Advent, is often referred to as Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete means “rejoice” and comes from verses from Paul’s letter to the Philippians: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near” (Phil 4:4-5). “But Mother Lara,” you might say, “you were just talking about deserts and our sins...that’s not exactly joyful stuff.” 

In Advent we are not just preparing to celebrate the historical event of the birth of Christ. We are also preparing our hearts for Christ’s presence today and looking to the future, when Christ will come again. We find joy in the fact that God loved us so dearly that God came to us in human form, to walk the earth in our shoes and help us to reconnect with the God with whom we had lost touch. We find joy in the many ways we see God at work in the world and in us today. And we find joy in the hope of what God will do in the future. We, like “[t]he desert[,] shall rejoice and blossom” (Isaiah 35:1). Thanks be to God!

Sound bite: "The Desert Shall Rejoice" by the Schola Cantorum of St. Peter's in the Loop, Chicago

Artwork found here


*gun deaths since the shootings in Newtown:

Gaudete Sunday:

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