Sermon preached for the Third Sunday of Advent at Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church.
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. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the LORD, the majesty of our God.
Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.”
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes.
A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God’s people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray. No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there. And the ransomed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
Two springs ago, I toured the Holy Land with a group from my seminary. Towards the end of the trip, we visited the fortress of Masada in the Judaean desert. I had never been in a desert before, and while I had seen the sand and dust in photos, I had not predicted how dangerous it felt. I knew it was foolish to feel anxious, but I did. Somewhere deep in my bones I knew it was not a place I could survive on my own. The air conditioned visitor’s center notwithstanding, there’s something primal about walking around in a place that doesn’t support life—or at least, life as greedy for water as human life is.
It was late May, and by 10AM already over 100 degrees. I remember clutching my water bottle like a magic charm against the desert, against the miles and miles of nothingness on every side. There were two options to get from the desert floor to the fortress at the top of the mountain: you could climb 1000 feet up on a twisting trail known as the Snake Path, or you could take the tram.
I took the tram.
But about twenty of our group wanted to hike, including one doctor who really should have known better. He didn’t drink enough water, and he didn’t let himself rest, and about halfway up, he fainted. He came to almost immediately, and there were EMTs to carry him back down the mountain, but it was still a sobering reminder that even in 2014 with a cooler full of Dasanis, there are dangers in the desert. Our human bodies are not designed for that environment.
I remember looking out at the yellow cliffs with the distinct feeling that the desert did not want us there. I felt dislocated, somehow, as if I didn’t belong. There is a beauty to the wilderness, but not a safe one.
If I take the longer view, I can recognize that feeling at distinct points throughout my life, times when the wilderness has been spiritual rather than physical, but produced the same effect. Times when I have felt lost; when all the familiar landmarks have disappeared and I’m not sure how to find my way out, or how to survive where I am. I imagine most of us have visited the wilderness at one point or another; very few of us get through life without taking a detour there on occasion. Even Jesus ended up in the desert, and met the tempter there.
When I worked as a hospital chaplain, I learned how quickly people got lost in the wilderness during a crisis. I often found I had to physically guide patient’s families through the hallways. It was as if they lost the ability to understand my verbal directions, or at least the ability to tell right from left. I remember one man, whose fiancé had just had a heart attack two days before their wedding, barreling down the wrong hallway despite my attempts to turn him towards the waiting room. I actually had to chase him down and grab him before he could understand where he needed to go. That is one response to the wilderness: to barrel full-speed ahead in the hopes that we can get to the other side as fast as possible.
For those who find themselves in the wilderness during the holiday season, the full-speed ahead option is attractive. It looks a lot like the hustle and bustle we all go through this time of year. It feels productive. Keep busy, and everything will be fine. Don’t pay attention to your sense that all is not right. Just make sure you look as busy and jolly as everyone else, and no one will notice how lost you are.
Another response when we find ourselves lost in the wilderness is to stop entirely, to be so overwhelmed by the seeming nothingness stretching out for miles around us that we find ourselves unable to do anything at all. Fear and grief can be paralyzing. We simply hunker down and pray for a miracle. Or perhaps we don’t pray at all. We just find ourselves frozen in place.
The thing I know to be most true of the wilderness, for myself at least, is that I want out. I do not want to feel lost. I want to be back in the suburbs, back on the familiar roads, back with the street signs and my trusty GPS. I want to be somewhere safe and comfortable. When I have been lost in the wilderness, my prayers go something like this: God, get me out of here!
But I wonder, as I read Isaiah again, what I might miss by scrambling my way out of the wilderness. I am enthralled by Isaiah’s vision of what God can do, even—or perhaps especially—in the desert.
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. … Waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes.
New life springing up in every direction—green shoots bursting through the sands and water bubbling up from the rocks. Eden again.
And the only ones who will see it will be the ones brave enough to stay in the wilderness to watch.
It takes a stunning amount of courage and strength to walk in the wilderness, to keep going despite fear and uncertainty and danger. Isaiah encourages us to strengthen our weak hands, and firm up our feeble knees—to stand as tall and strong as we can, and to press on, even while we strain our eyes to see signs of new life in the desert.
“ Say to those who are of a fearful heart,” Isaiah pleads, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.”
It is a message the angels will echo some thousand years later: Be not afraid! God is here, Emmanuel.
Isaiah promises God will come with vengeance to save us, and I have to admit, I get a little nervous around that language. I do not like the idea that one of the dangerous things about the wilderness could be God Godself. But the language of vengeance and recompense here is not as disturbing as it first seems; it could also be translated “put things right.” God will come to set things right, with powerful love and justice, the kind of love and justice that can save us, lift us out of sin and sorrow. Be not afraid, for God’s power is not the kind of power to be afraid of—God’s power is the kind that coaxes flowers from the desert, and fresh water from the rocks. God’s power is the power that saves.
That’s worth walking the wilderness to see.
If you are in the wilderness this morning, or this month, or this year, I pray you can hear Isaiah’s message: Be strong, do not fear! You are in the right place to witness God’s most powerful miracles.
But in the meantime, what to do while we wander in the wilderness, waiting for all those shalls and wills to come to pass? What to do while we are still lost and afraid? That’s the trick, isn’t it, getting through that endless meantime. Finding a way to survive the desert when it isn’t blossoming, when the burning sands hide no oasis and the lions and jackals are on every side. How do we wait for God’s salvation well?
First, hydrate. I’m not kidding. Whether you are in a physical or spiritual desert, hydrate. Care for your body. Rest those hands and knees. Get enough sleep. Say no when you need to.
Second, let someone know where you are. If you decide to go hiking out in the desert, call a buddy first. If you find yourself in a more spiritual wilderness, call a buddy. Let them know how you are—do not try to navigate the wilderness alone. It took four EMTs to carry my fellow traveler down the mountain. If he had told one person he was feeling overheated, we might have avoided that.
Third, let go of any guilt you may have for being in the wilderness when others seem to have neatly avoided it. We’ll all be there some time or another, and if you can serve as a guide, all the better. There is no shame in being in the wilderness. After all, God hangs out there too.
Isaiah makes one last promise: the promise of a highway in the desert. At first glance, that seems less exciting than the gardens and rivers. But anyone who has ever been lost in the wilderness will tell you just how much they would have given for a clearly-marked road, for safe passage through the wilderness.
It shall be called the Holy Way, Isaiah writes; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God’s people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray. No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there. And the ransomed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
Foolproof passage through the wilderness. If that is not good news, I don’t know what is.
God loves to bring joy in unexpected places. Flowers in the desert, paths in the wilderness, a baby in a barn.
So if you are in the wilderness this season, take heart, and be not afraid: you might be right where you need to be. Take care of yourself, and wait for the Lord. Joy is on the way.