REFLECTION ADVENT 3
I really like Advent. It always comes as a challenge, breaking into the routine, interrupting what otherwise can seem like the customary journey of faith: the struggling through the ups and downs, trying to make sense of things, seeking for more understanding. Of course these are all part of the particular journey of Advent. But, in this time, we are given much more prophetic imagery, and that can be both confronting and hopeful. It needs to be if we are preparing the Way.
So today in Isaiah we are still linked to the desert, that place where last Sunday we met with John the Baptist as he called people to repentance and baptised them, preparing the way for the Lord, making a straight path for him. And last week I also talked about how John’s expectations were different from who Jesus apparently was. Today we heard Jesus’ response to John’s questions about whether he really was the One for whom John had been preparing the way. Look around, he says. This is the way I do things. This is the way of God’s purpose. Matthew, though, is also saying something more. These statements Jesus makes about the blind receiving their sight, the lame walking and so on are all quotations from different parts of Isaiah. Matthew is telling us that John was not wrong, that Jesus is indeed the fulfilment of prophesy and the action of God at work. There isn’t really such a division between John and Jesus. We might also note that while last week we heard John’s voice talking about the Messiah coming with unquenchable fire, Matthew also tells of Jesus speaking words warning of judgement. In other words, there is a bigger picture to all of this.
We see something of this also in the context of the reading from Isaiah we heard this morning. Chapter 35 gives us this wonderful imagery of the desert blooming. It is the counter to the preceding chapter whose dire prophetic words about judgement and imagery of a hostile and harsh desert were made before the people were driven off into exile in Babylon. Today’s verses show a God who restores and brings life back into everything. That is what we want to hear in Advent.
I have never been in a desert. Some of you probably have. Some of you may well have experienced the amazing blooming, the bursting into life that happens after rain. It is, I think, one of the great miracles that life can lie dormant, somehow surviving through heat and total dryness, waiting, waiting for the right time. I think another miracle we see here in Australia is how birds set off, well before any rain, to fly towards Lake Eyre and, some time later, the rain comes and the water flows down the rivers into that parched lake bed to fill it. The birds arrive to find their food source is swelling, life is growing and they are safe.
The desert, of course, has for millennia been both a spiritual symbol and an actual place of retreat and confrontation for those on a spiritual journey. In the third century particularly, the Desert Fathers and Mothers took themselves away from the upheavals and day to day negotiations of Christian life. They lived in extraordinary circumstances, stripped of anything that might distract them, apart from hunger and thirst as they confronted the physical, mental and spiritual struggle head on. Out of those battles they left much wisdom. Simple statements such as “Sit in thy cell and thy cell will teach thee all.” That call to the desert and to explore silence has never gone away. Charles de Foucauld in the first part of the last century left his well-to-do life in France after a conversion experience. He spent time in the Sahara desert as a hermit. He wrote “We must cross the desert and spend some time in it to receive the grace of God as we should.”
What, I think, such people are showing us is that the desert is both a reality and a symbol in our lives. We may not choose to go there, but sometimes the desert find us. We probably all go through times when life seems barren, dry, dusty and lifeless, where a way out keeps disappearing like a mirage over the horizon. But out of these times, beyond the fear and isolation when we just survive, new things break through. This is what Isaiah was telling us about this morning. “The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom.”
What helps us through? Let’s look to Isaiah again. He writes “A highway will be there; it will be called the Way of Holiness”. Now Matthew: “A voice calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him’. “The Way” is more than a mere phrase. The early Christians, before they were given that name, were called “People of The Way”. They were following the way of Christ. We can’t walk along the way without getting lost, getting side-tracked unless we know who and what it is we are following, and that is Christ. That is the core of what we are doing here as we meet as a community of faith, as part of the church. Some of you may have been aware of the furore following the Daily Telegraph’s front page headline 10 days ago, “Jesus wiped”, which they built out of comments following Uniting’s decision to remove the word “Care” and to rebrand themselves. It was made to appear that that part of the Uniting Church had given up on offering Christ and the cross as part of what it was doing. It was a badly handled episode to which both the President and the Moderator responded strongly. But it saddened me, and many others. The Way of Christ is the way we follow. For Jesus it led to the cross. For all of us it leads through desert places and places of blossoming, of creativity and new life. If we are to walk the way of holiness that Isaiah describes, then we are in it for the long haul and, as John knew and Jesus showed, we are being led by the One who exemplifies life in all its fullness and all its pain.
Back here, we are on our Advent journey, preparing the way for the one who will become The Way for us. And today we lit the third candle, the candle that represents joy. That word has barely had a look in, apart from what Isaiah himself gave us as the desert bloomed. True rejoicing, real experiences of joy do burst out most wonderfully when they follow on from experiences of suffering and deprivation, from loss and struggles to survive. That is the symbolism of the desert and what we know about in our lives and in what we see around us in the world. Into this cycle of life, the incarnation breaks through, with the promise of God’s inseparable presence on the Way. We are preparing for it. So may our preparations be made in hope and in peace for the present and for the future, in Jesus’ name.