Luke 1:46b-55 (call to worship)
Matthew 11:2-11 (children)
Isaiah 35:1-10 (message)
James 5:7-10 (benediction)
The greatest desert in the world is the Sahara, ranging over most of the area of northern and western Africa. Every year, it continues its advance into the semi-arid Sahel region, home to nomadic herders and riverside agriculture for hundreds of years. Rivers are drying up, the fabric of life that holds native cultures unravels as young people move to cities.
Tony Campolo tells a story about his meeting with an African chief. The chief told him that the river had spoken to the chief and told him that it was dying [How to rescue the earth... p17].
No, the wilderness is not bursting into bloom or gushing forth with water. Why is that? Why is it that the Sahel faces famine and encroaching desert? The rain for the Sahel comes from the rain forests of Central and South America. Rain forest loss in Brazil alone, from 2000 through 2006, covers an area as large as the nation of Greece (http://www.mongabay.com/brazil.html ... the smallest estimate I found online, though others were focused on world-wide rain forest loss). Much of the rain forest loss in Brazil is to cattle pasture for the international beef industry.
But in Isaiah’s vision, it is the desert that is shrinking! It is full of blossoming flowers and freshwater springs. Isaiah compares the desert to the regions of Carmel and Sharon, mountain valleys with rich vegetation, and declares that “the glory of Lebanon shall be given to it”. Lebanon, in the ancient world, was the center of a temperate rain forest like the great rain forests of the US and Canadian Pacific coast. The desert will become like a rain forest? That can only be a God thing. And, Isaiah moves directly from this transformation of desert to physical healing – of the blind, deaf, lame, speechless – and then back to the desert.
Isaiah 35 is another message of post-judgment hope and promise to Israel. We don’t hear, directly, the judgment in this passage. But the assumption here is that God’s people will go into exile – this hasn’t happened yet in the history – and this word is a word of return. Two metaphors dominate the passage. The first is very familiar to us reading these passages in Advent: the transformation of creation, particularly the transformation of desert to rainforest. It is one more reminder that God loves the WORLD, that what we do as stewards of creation matters. So, “strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees” to welcome the salvation of God, to participate in the salvation of God. The second metaphor is a new one for our Advent reading, though not new in Isaiah (see 11:16 and 19:23): a Highway, a highway of return from exile in a foreign land. Elsewhere in Isaiah, the highway is a highway on which God comes to save (40:3). Here, however, the highway is for exiles to return to God. Both highways are salvation metaphors, just viewed in the opposite direction.
This highway is the “Holy Way”, a way that is not traveled by the unclean. This use of holiness language sounds exclusive. Holy is what God is, holy is what is devoted to God, the Holy Way is for God and God’s people, plain and simple. It is exclusive, as “members only” at a warehouse club, not exclusive in the sense of keeping people out ... even at a warehouse club just about anyone can get a membership. Holiness as a “way” is quite different from holiness as a “rule”. Way is about process, rule is about perfection. Way is about progress, rule is about limit. Way is about flexibility, rule is about standardization. On a way, we walk together, but we do not walk in step.
This highway has no “lostness”. It is hard to get lost on our interstate highways, except if you take the wrong exit or entrance. Otherwise, once you’ve gotten on safely there is almost no chance that you will be headed in the wrong direction. “No traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.” This is better than a GPS system – it’s just not possible to get lost on this highway. This aspect of the metaphor fits the postmodern expression, “the destination is the journey”. Once you’ve gotten on the highway, exile is in the rearview, desert is in the rearview, lostness is in the rearview. So, though we look forward to our arrival, we don’t anticipate it with any worry about whether or not we’ll get there, or how quickly. Because even on the journey, once we are on the Holy Way, we are in the Holy Land.
And, finally, this highway has no danger. No lion, no ravenous beast. We journey in safety and joy. Often, we think about following Jesus in terms of risk. Jesus said that we need to “count the cost”. Jesus said that we need to “take up the cross”. There’s another side to risk analysis, and that is benefit analysis. It is a step of faith to get on this highway, but it puts us in God’s keeping. Please note that I am not saying that life has no danger. This highway is a metaphor for return to God. Isaiah is telling us that once we get on board, once we step out on the journey, we begin to find ourselves at home.
God’s heart is for the desert and the deserted. God loves the creation and the creature.
No more let sin and sorrow grow,Are you in a desert, a barren and lifeless land? Are you exiled in a far country? Today you can come home to rainforest, travel on the Holy Way.
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow,
Far as the curse is found . . . .
(“Joy to the World”, my favorite verse)