Advent 3    Isaiah 35 1-10

A Sermon by Revd Chris Williams  15 December 2013

The 3rd Sunday in Advent is Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete means ‘rejoice’ and so traditionally the emphasis of today is on Joy – that is what the rose-coloured candle represents today.

And if you were listening to the OT reading today, you couldn’t help but be aware of the overwhelming joy in the text – starting with the restoration and renewal of creation and continuing to the redemption of the people of God.

The reason for such joy is clear: ‘Your God will come!’ No matter how dark the hopelessness or dry and dusty the feelings of despair – there is joy and confidence knowing that God will not leave his people abandoned. He will come and rescue and redeem them.

Advent is often compared with Lent because it is a time of preparation. What differentiates them is that in Lent we are preparing for Good Friday and the cross. Yes, Easter day comes – but not until after the cross.

The whole tone of Advent is different – we’re not preparing for a death – but a birth. The coming of God into our world to identify fully with the human condition – a coming that was announced to the shepherd with the words, ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.”

As I suggested at the advent reflection last Sunday night, it is rather like preparing for a party. I was at the Holly Ball last Saturday night. This is the annual Christmas ball at the Royal School in Haslemere.

The girls arrived in their ball gowns and the boys in their DJs. I know for a fact that considerable time and effort had gone into the preparations for that event – dresses and clothes were chosen, the decorations and food for the hall were prepared, bodies were washed and teeth were cleaned and arrangements were made to get there. Although I wasn’t privy to all the preparations – I can guarantee that there was a sense of anticipation, expectation and excitement. That is like Advent – which is why, as we prepare ourselves and make ourselves ready for the coming of God – we do so with Joy.

But is this simply joy because we like a party or two – or enjoy the carols or the Christmas dinner – or we simply love the atmosphere at that time of the year? No. the angel didn’t announce a party, which would be over in a day or two only to return to the normal drudge. No, the good news that caused such joy then – is still good news today. They looked forward to the work of the messiah in hope we look back to his work and also, like the shepherds – still look forward to a time when all that was begun in that smelly stable in Bethlehem will be completed in final day of judgement and salvation. So we remember to comings if you like – the first in the stable and the second when Jesus returns as king.

You may have noticed that Jesus in our NT reading – when asked by John the Baptist whether he was the Messiah they had all been waiting for – in reply, quotes part of this OT passage from Isaiah and dramatically, shockingly, identifies himself with the God who would cause this most amazing change in fortune.

It’s wonderful language: 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. And a few verses on: 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.

These things are not normal – water doesn’t appear out of a burning desert, wildernesses don’t sing – but these metaphors sum up exactly what God does – this is his speciality: bringing life out of death, hope out of despair, even joy out of mourning.

In the arrival of God that first Christmas, A process was begun that will lead to a sure and certain denouement. In fact that process is likened to a road in this passage – a road along which God’s people walk. The idea of a road is progressed in Isaiah a few chapters later – words which  are picked up in the gospels and applied to John the Baptist: In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea  This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah:

‘A voice of one calling in the wilderness (note the context), “Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.” An Advent call if ever there was one.

Have you ever seen those American films where you are in the middle of a desert and there is one long straight road heading as far as the eye can see. Without the road, people simply wouldn’t survive. Without the road they would never get to their destination. When you are on it – you just follow the road – knowing it will take you to where you need to be. To step of the road would be foolish and deadly.  Isaiah says the journey’s destination is Zion – the city of God – the journey’s end is God. There, we are told, everlasting joy shall be upon our heads; we shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away. Sounds good to me!

OK, this is all exciting and encouraging imagery (well, I think it is!) – but is it more than that? Does this affect our lives when we are at home watching TV or speaking to family or friends? When we are at work and school? Places where talk of deserts and water and Zion may seem like images and words from aparallel universe – but not one in which we live?

While we may struggle to relate all the images from Isaiah’s prophecy to our 21C lives – I suspect many of us have areas in our lives that may seem like deserts – dry, unproductive, lifeless, useless, unfruitful, dead. Areas where we would love to see, metaphorically, water gushing, flowers growing  – even singing and joy. It may be something external to us (a situation or some circumstance around us), or it may be something deeply personal to us. But this is the sort of thing a creative and life-giving God specialises in.

And what about the jackals? The jackals Isaiah mentions – that threaten– where, perhaps, your life seems controlled by others – people or institutions who don’t care about you – except to use you or exploit you for their own ends. What might jackals represent in your life? And would you like to see the solid ground on which they stand and which gives them their power, turn to swamp? Sometimes God deals directly with Jackals – sometimes he gives us the resources to deal with them or simply endure them. However it happens, true power rests with God – and nothing and no one else.

What I like about the charge of John the Baptist to prepare a way for the lord – is that it seems we are invited to get involved in our own road building. Repentance is the first step – says Isaiah and John. Repentance means turn around. Simply, if you want to get on the road and get to the destination – you need to be facing the right direction. We can’t expect to get close to God if we are facing away from him. And also, maybe there are things that we could do to help raise some valleys, lower some mountains and make rough places smooth – maybe the way we treat others, the way we act or speak. The things we say about others or even of ourselves – do they build up or are they negative and destructive. The way we spend our money (and I refer to Geoffrey’s sermon last week) and use our leisure time. We can join God in building a road.

However, while I think God invites us to be part of the solution – it is, fundamentally, his job. When a path appears in the middle of nowhere, it is notreally our doing. When water gushes out of bone-dry land we can take no credit. And that’s what God wants to do. If there’s a road – let’s step on to it. If there’s water, let’s drink it.

This ancient passage offers us hope – a pathway of hope that goes back in fact to God’s plan before creation – that threads through the prophets and in particular John the Baptist and ultimately and crucially, with Jesus. The Jesus who came that first Christmas to make this all possible – and Jesus whose coming again will be the end of the road – because then, we will have arrived.

The end will be one of joy – let’s try and make the journey a joyful one too.