Oh, if ever there was ever verses for those feeling their years, then it’s this joyous passage from Isaiah. If you’re suffering with your eyes or your heart or your hearing; or maybe not as nimble as you once were – which pretty much captures most of us here – then listen on. Our chapter today comes just after one which is all about destruction. That chapter is full of despair and devastation. Our chapter is full of hope, vision and joy. It’s like a community garden full of colour and scent suddenly springing up in a rundown part of town.
Some think it appears too early in Isaiah. That it doesn’t quite fit with the chapters around it. It should be too soon to be talking about returning from exile, which comes much later in the book.
So, I wonder if the Spirit of God took the scribes and compilers of Isaiah to one side and said: “Hey, put these verses about joy here. Before anyone is quite ready. Put them here amidst the despair.” And so, here we are. With a word that couldn’t quite wait until it made more sense. A word full of hope and optimism.
Hebrew poetry quite often uses a concentric structure. Think of it as rings round a centre point. And we have just that in the first seven verses of our reading. The ones which start with the wilderness and dry land being glad and end with the grass becoming reeds and rushes.
Round the outside, in our beginning and ending, is creation. The wilderness and desert are transformed. Just a touch of water and the parched land is carpeted in flowers. A dry wasteland becomes a colourful paradise.
You may have seen pictures or documentaries on TV of desert blooms in places like California, Chile and the Middle East. Perhaps just once every ten, twenty or thirty years some rain falls on parched land and all these wildflowers magically appear. The seeds of those flowers had remained dormant for many years and in the harshest of conditions, only to be all woken up at the same time.
Isaiah is speaking to a people in exile, far from home. People who are like dormant seeds, in the harshest conditions, ready to be woken. Sometimes, I think, we can be like that too.
In the next layer in from creation, it’s exactly those same human beings that are transformed. Hands, knees and hearts made strong. Eyes, ears and tongue are healed. Just as the desert is transformed, so are we. Everything that gets in the way of song and dance and joy is removed.
And at the centre of the circle, in the middle verse, is God. “Here is your God” says the prophet. God coming with power to overcome disease & wickedness & disorder. A God who comes to “save”. And we learn something of what it means to be saved. It’s not something that’s just reserved for individual souls but a transformation of creation and community which enables us all to sing together in eternal joy.
And in the verses at the end there’s the sense of salvation being a journey too. A vision of returning from exile. And this time it doesn’t need a Moses to strike a rock to get water. This time there’ll be an abundance of it the length of the route.
And it’s a shortcut as well. The normal way from Babylon to Jerusalem was northwest along the Euphrates and then turn left where the garage used to be and down through Syria avoiding the vast area of desert in between. Through 3 sets of traffic lights and Jerusalem is dead ahead. Can’t miss it. But the road that Isaiah is talking about cuts straight across, right through the wilderness.
Our journey of faith is often described as a steep, narrow and rocky path. But this one is a highway which is safe and secure, where even the foolish can’t get lost, even those who ignore their satnav.
Advent is about the coming of God to us. Is it also about us coming home to God? It should make us think about the journey that we are on, that’s if we’re moving at all. And whether we’re going straight home along the new motorway that God’s built specially for us or whether we’re going via the longer scenic route.
And the prophet says: “Look. Here God is”. It’s an announcement for now. God is showing up now. Eyes get to see and ears get to hear. God is in the middle, in the midst, and amazing transformative things are happening all around.
But we know our reality isn’t quite like that yet. We wonder how we can see better and hear better in the desert/wilderness reality in which we often live. And the people in Jesus’ day were no different to us. In our Gospel reading the disciples of John come to Jesus to find out if he was the one “who is to come.” Was he the one who Isaiah was speaking of? The one of whom the prophet said: “Here is your God.”
In response, Jesus says well, look around you. People are being transformed and creation obeys my voice. God is at work. So, draw your own conclusions.
Do we believe it? Do we believe that God has shown up in Jesus and is here now? That’s what Advent is about.
Out of place
Isaiah spoke a word of hope and joy that was out of place with the rest of the narrative. A word that wouldn’t wait, couldn’t wait, until things improved. Don’t we need such a word now? With all the news that we see on TV and in the papers. With all the wars and strikes and rising prices. All that we have going on in our own lives.
O come now, living water, pour your grace,
And bring new life to ev’ry withered place;
Speak comfort to each trembling heart:
“Be strong! Fear not, for I will ne’er depart.”
Rejoice, rejoice! Take heart and do not fear,
God’s chosen one, Immanuel, draws near.
Eyes to see
So, I think we need to pray for 2 things. First, we need to ask for eyes to see and ears to hear what God is already up to in the world around us. To recognise where God is already at work. Second, we need to pray that we ourselves become signs of that coming kingdom to all those others who are watching and waiting. In Christ, God is in our midst. And if Christ is in us, then God shows up in us. How much joy do people see in us?
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the world was transformed when we pass through it? Wouldn’t it be lovely if the wilderness in people’s lives was changed into a desert bloom when we show up, with God in us?
Fanciful? Maybe. But I think that’s what God intends. As Teresa D’Avila said:
“Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours.
Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world.
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good.
And yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.” Amen
- For the desert bloom go to https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/california-desert-anza-borrego-super-bloom#close