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Advent 3A Sermon
Isaiah 35: 1-10,
Matthew 11: 2-11

December 11, 2016

 

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May the grace, mercy and peace of God our Father be with us in the name of his son, our risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ; Amen.

I find the poetic language of our reading from Isaiah quite striking this morning, especially the first verse. The desert is personified, given human characteristics such as being glad, rejoicing and singing. It struck me that this might be a stretch to understand unless you have actually been to one. Have you ever visited a desert? We have been out to see Lucy’s Uncle Chuck in Apache Junction, Arizona on a few occasions. Chuck lives in the outermost part of the metro-plex of Phoenix, Mesa and Scottsdale, at the base of the Superstition Mountains. It is located at the entry to the desert. In his job as a landscaper, Chuck regularly deals with rattlesnakes, and once I arrived at the airport to come home after a visit, and a TSA agent found a scorpion in the carry-on bag that had been laying open on the floor of the bedroom in which I was sleeping at Chuck’s house. And when I say, “landscaper” I mostly mean that he moves around sand and rocks and cacti! When you look out from his back yard to the mountains, all seems to be lifeless and stark, as if nothing would survive there for long.

But on a couple of occasions, we have been there immediately after a rain, and it was amazing! The smell is like a spring rain here in Ohio smells if you magnified it ten times. The senses just burst to life there, and suddenly, you understand how people can find it so beautiful and interesting, and how life can sing and rejoice in such a place.

The people of God from Judah and Jerusalem had been in exile in Babylon for 50 or more years. Because of the short lifespan of people living at that time, most of those who are there either never lived in their homeland, or they cannot remember anything about it personally. The only connection they had was stories passed down from their families. On top of that, many of these folks had assimilated into the culture of Babylon. Certainly, they were not first class citizens, but they were able to live their lives, especially as they were able to contribute to the Babylonian society. Now, King Cyrus and the Persians have defeated the Babylonians, and has decreed that all exiles can return to their homeland. In light of this, you can understand why part of Isaiah’s message in chapter 35 is to convince God’s people in Babylon that it is not only okay to return to the homeland of their ancestors, but it is where God wants them to be. They knew the potentially treacherous journey which travelling from Babylon – located in modern-day Iraq – to Jerusalem would mean. They knew the danger in beasts and getting lost, in lacking food and water, especially for those who were not 100% healthy. So, Isaiah proclaims a promise that God will accompany them on their journey, bringing new life to the wilderness, making this desert sing, rejoice and be glad. It is the promise of a highway through the desert – a holy way, set aside for the ransomed of the Lord. To be ransomed means to be bought back from captivity and slavery, much like someone who is kidnapped is ransomed by a loved one. God has bought back the people, and has established this highway especially for them to return home to their land, especially to Jerusalem – Zion, the mountain of the Lord.

Let’s fast forward a few hundred years to the time of Jesus. Out in the desert wilderness of Judah outside of Jerusalem is a community of men who call themselves, “Essenes.” They believed that the final battle between the sons of darkness and the sons of light was fast approaching, and their task in preparation for this was to preserve the writings of the Torah and the prophets. Members of this group would sit for hours each day making new manuscripts of the writings of the Jewish faith, sealing them in jars and having them stored in caves high above the desert floor. Centuries later, in 1948, a shepherd boy would accidentally discover them when he throws a rock into a cave in search of his wandering sheep and hears a loud crash. These are the Dead Sea Scrolls, and these Essenes are responsible for them.

Another important part of this community was ritual bathing. Every day the members of the group prayed and immersed themselves into the baths which they built and maintained. Washing was not only a way to physically remain clean and healthy, but it was a spiritual exercise as well. It was a way to remind themselves of their need for God’s spiritual healing as well. It is believed that from this community came Jesus’ cousin John. It was his training with the Essenes where John caught his emphasis on baptism, the ritual, spiritual washing that he was practicing when Jesus came to him in the Jordan, as we heard in last week’s lesson.

This morning, we read further on in Matthew’s gospel when John has been arrested by Herod and sends some of his followers to Jesus. Evidently, he has heard about Jesus’ life and ministry, and it isn’t exactly what he pictures it would be. So, he sends these people to Jesus, asking if he is the one who is to come or if they should wait for another. It is a good question … it is probably akin to questions you and I have had in our lives about Jesus. Who are you, Jesus? Are you really God’s son? I am not seeing evidence of who I expect you to be!

Jesus’ answer to John not only confirms that he is the one to come, but he reminds him what the one to come (the messiah) is supposed to be doing – Isaiah and other prophets in the Old Testament promise that he will heal people, raise the dead and proclaim good news to the poor. This is the response that John’s disciples take back to him. This is probably the last he hears about Jesus before Herod has him killed.

What happens next in this scripture passage is what brings this all home to us. Jesus turns to the people. He asks them why they all came out into the wilderness – was it to see a reed shaken in the wind? Or to see people in palaces wearing soft robes? Jesus says this because one of Herod’s symbols was the reed, and he cooperated with the Romans in their occupation of the land. In addition, some of the rich folks who also cooperated would build palaces out in the wilderness to get away to. They did not come out to visit these symbols of oppression, slavery and death. They came out to see the prophet; and more than a prophet, the final prophet whose presence signals the coming of the messiah and the kingdom of heaven.

The presence of Herod and the wealthy palaces is a manufactured, false life which symbolizes a partnership with the worldly power which will soon fall apart. It reminds them of their history including their exile to Babylon during which time Isaiah lived and wrote. John proclaims the coming of the one who redeems slaves and makes life pop forth in the wilderness so much that it sings with joy. The presence of John in the wilderness reminds us of the promise of God to prepare a royal highway, so that nothing can keep God from getting to us, or us from getting to God. He takes us back to Isaiah in this, reminding us that the conditions around us, the beasts that threaten us, not even our own foolishness can get in the way of God’s saving presence through Jesus Christ. And that is nothing short of the experience you have when you are in the desert after a rain and the life bursts out for your senses all around you.

As we being this second half of Advent, we continue to patiently wait for these promises to be fulfilled. We have symbols of occupation, slavery, evil and death all around us. And so, we gather in worship and patience, lighting the rose-colored candle, confident that in God, darkness is dispelled and the lifelessness of our world is preparing to sing with joy over the coming of Emmanuel. Amen.