3rd Sunday in Advent – 12/11/2022
Here it is beginning to look a lot like Christmas, and almost everywhere we turn we are made to experience and see, not only the Yuletide decorations hung with care, but also the ever-increasing, ominous signs of world nuclear war, staggering national debt, frightening chaos on our southern border, as well as encroaching government regulations and public demands that threaten traditional Christian values and our freedom as a church to preach the biblical truths about marriage, human sexuality, the origins of creation, and even the truth about sin and salvation. On top of all this, many of us are experiencing anguish within our families, painful illnesses or ailments, and gut-wrenching grief over the recent deaths of loved ones. It's enough to snuff out any sense of holiday joy we might have.
It is no wonder, then, that it has been well-documented that some of the highest incidences of clinical depression and suicide occur during the joyous days of Christmas! Pain and suffering never take a holiday. In fact, for many, from Christmas through the New Year, their problems, anxieties, disappointments, and pain escalate, if anything. All the greetings of "Merry Christmas" and "Happy Holidays"... all the hype about giving and receiving gifts... all the fairytale talk of a jolly fat man in a red suit and sugar plums dancing in one's head... for many, all this does is aggravate their already painful existence.
But we protest, "This should not be!" Christmas is the season of peace and joy! "People should be happy!" Indeed, didn't the angels announce to the shepherds, who were keeping watch over the flocks by night, "I bring you good news of great joy?" Didn't the multitude of angels joyously sing in the skies above Judea, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace?"
Yes, they did. But it is also true that the birth of the Holy Child in Bethlehem did not remove all the harsh realities of life in this world. The Son of God came right in such worldly sadness. He experienced for himself what it meant to be born of poor parents and have to be born far from home with no soft and cozy bed chamber to sleep in but only that of a smelly, old cattle stall.
On top of this, before He was even weaned, He and His parents had to flee for their lives from the murderous rampages of King Herod and reside for several years in the foreign and ungodly land of Egypt.
And all this was small potatoes considering what this child was destined to endure in his adulthood: the humiliation, degradation, and torture of being rejected by his people, tried and convicted of crimes he never committed, and then stripped naked and crucified before the whole world! "Merry Christmas," right?
And so it is still two millennia later! Life in this world remains a not-so-joyous holiday, especially for followers of Jesus, regardless of the calendar date! Oh, yes, we can maybe take a brief respite from the daily grind by diverting our attention away to Christmas parties and enjoying times with our family and friends, but the harsh realities will get our attention soon enough. Persecutions of Christians and defamation of the Gospel by our increasingly secular society are everywhere, not to mention sickness, disease, financial woes, family stress, and turmoil, none of which conveniently take a holiday simply so you and I can enjoy the joyous season. No amount of Christmas cheer will change the fact that this world is a harsh and dreary place.
Our text from Isaiah portrays it as a desert, not a dessert! Four different expressions are used, each with a different twist on the unpleasantness of our worldly existence.
The first could be translated as "wilderness," a place empty and void of the comforts we enjoy and the things we need. In a later verse, it is referred to as "a haunt of jackals!" Then the term "Arabah" is used. This word refers to a desert plain, a place void of green and growing vegetation. And finally, Isaiah refers to it as a parched land, a land as dry as a bone with no water, and accordingly, void of life that depends on water.
God's Old Covenant The people of Israel could certainly relate to this imagery. Much of their beloved Palestine was just such a dreary and dusty place. For the most part, it was uninhabitable land. Only the most intrepid scavengers, whether men or beasts, could traverse its arid bareness. Truly, it was a land cursed by God.
That is why such a wilderness is an apt picture of life in this world. For all of humanity, there is also a curse: the curse of God's righteous judgment against sin. The world is void of God's life-giving and refreshing presence because mankind chose to rebel against God and go its own way. All of creation now suffers from the bond of decay (Rom. 8:21). Instead of the prevalence of life and the lushness of the Garden of Eden, now the world has become the barren landscape of death. It's permeated by the aridness of the ramifications of the curse: disease, loneliness, despair, anxieties of all sorts, man's inhumanity to man, injustice, perversions, hatreds, cruelties, and most of all, a lack of hope. It's no accident that your life and mine are sometimes miserable. The sins of others and our own have made our worldly existence a real, hot, scorching, lifeless, joyless desert!
The upshot of all this is that even as Christians, we can be left feeling weak of hand, wobbly in our knees, and full of anxiety and fear in our hearts. After all, what in this world can embolden us to carry forward, strive to overcome our problems, or be at peace with things as they are and not be afraid of what the future holds in store for us?
Oh, sure, we can get temporary shots of courage, strength, and happiness from some artificial, drug-induced highs in the form of material and physical pleasures. However, before you can say, "Merry Christmas!" we no longer reside in the artificial oasis of happiness they offer us; we are right back in the haunt of jackals, trying to survive again!
But the real message and hope of Advent and Christmas is that God has not abandoned you and me to live under the curse. Through His prophets like Isaiah, God had already long ago given us the promise that we would see the glory of God in our midst and that He would make our desert blossom forth with eternal joy. Isaiah proclaims, "The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom." "Like the crocus, it will burst into bloom; it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy." The desert bursting into bloom represents the promised joy in our wilderness. Now, this is not merely a few isolated flowers popping up here and there in our lives. The Hebrew text compounds one word upon another, implying that the desert floor will blossom profusely (NASB). We are talking about a whole desert floor carpeted with flowers.
To reinforce this glorious transformation of the desert, Isaiah prophesies that the glory of Lebanon, as well as the splendor of Carmel and Sharon, will be given to it. Lebanon was an area of heavy green forests, and Carmel and Sharon were the lushest areas in all of Palestine. Almost all year, they were well watered and clothed in the lushness of abundant grasses, crops, and flowers.
Flowers are truly wonderful creations. I'm convinced that they have been designed by our Creator to bring joy to the heart of man like no other of His creatures can. Their brilliant colors and often trumpet-like shapes exude and announce the message of new life and hope. That's why they make such wonderful gifts to the sick, lonely, and despairing.
Flowers are gifts of hope from our Almighty Creator's hand: that He will bring forth a new day for us; that He will bring healing to our wounds; that He will bring real beauty from the ugliness that surrounds us—glory and splendor where there is otherwise only drabness and bleakness.
God has gifted even one flower to proclaim that message of hope and joy. But imagine what a whole desert floor covered with flowers can do for one's attitude and outlook! The desert blossoming profusely is a true sermon of joyous hope!
The whole scene is reminiscent of spring scenes my family and I would often see when we lived in Texas many years ago. Due to the excessive heat, many of the native pasture lands around us were brown for much of the year. However, with the arrival of the rains in February and March, those desolate lands were gloriously transformed into the most brilliant display of wildflowers you can imagine. Almost overnight, the fields became a beautiful sea of deep blues and reds from thousands of bluebonnets and Indian blankets. I remember setting our youngest son, who was probably no more than two or three at the time, right amid that carpet of flowers and seeing him disappear in the color. All that was visible was the very top of his blonde head. And all that we could hear were his squeals of joy and laughter as the wind caused the color to dance all around him.
What will bring about this blossoming of joy in our lives and the lives of all of God's people? Isaiah says that what will strengthen our weak knees and drive away our anxieties and fears is God's advent, that is, God's coming. Isaiah adds that God will come with vengeance and with divine retribution, which will save us.
In the previous chapter, Isaiah spoke quite forthrightly about God visiting the nation of Edom, Israel's perpetual enemy, with His divine judgment to avenge all the hurt and harm they had savagely reaped upon God's people. He proclaimed, "For the LORD has a day of vengeance and a year of retribution to uphold Zion's cause."
Here we are also reassured that God is not blind to the problems we see or the injustices we may face in this desert we call the world. Instead, in His love and compassion for us, just like Israel of old, God comes to avenge us.
In the meantime, by His grace, He turns our present sufferings into opportunities to enjoy His recompense, that is, His blessings. With His coming in this way, we are saved, and like a beautiful cactus flower or rose, God brings forth joy even from the midst of all our thorns.
The good news that brings joy to our hearts and lives is that God has kept this promise and has already come among us. We have already been made to see the glory of the LORD, the splendor of our God, who comes in vengeance and recompense for us.
This occurred when, as the apostle, John wrote, "the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us." "We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth" (Jn. 1:14). This, dear friends, is why Christmas is such a joyous celebration. Christmas is the celebration of God's greatest glory and our world's greatest joy: the incarnation of the Son of God.
For you see, in the flesh He received from Mary, God has come in the person of Jesus to undo the curse that has made your world a desolate wasteland. As the apostle, Paul wrote, "Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us" (Gal. 3:13).
The cross of Jesus became the place where God's vengeance against your sins was poured out, as well as the place from which God's blessings would flow to you. There, the curse was removed. He was executed for your sins so that you could be forgiven. He died there so that you might live. All the consequences of sin, such as disease and pain, were also put to death. There, "by His wounds, you are healed" (Is. 53:5).
No, all the aftereffects of the curse of sin have not been fully removed as of yet, but they have been defeated. That is why, in His Word, God has assured us that at Jesus' second advent, "the dwelling place of God will be (eternally) with men, and He will live with them." They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. "There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away" (Rev. 21:3, 4). Then the desert itself will be transformed into a land flowing with water and bubbling with springs—a land always lush with green and a whole rainbow of glorious color. Everlasting joy will crown our heads.
But we can also rightly say that God's eternal kingdom, free of the curse, has already broken into the presence of Christ's redeemed. That can be seen in Jesus' miracles. During His earthly ministry as God among us, Jesus set right what sin had damaged by healing the lepers, giving sight back to the blind, opening the ears of the deaf, raising the dead, and proclaiming God's good news to the poor. All these glorious miracles were but a preview of the final restoration to come.
During Jesus' earthly ministry, the entire world witnessed the desert being restored to the beautiful garden God intended for His people, which will be fully manifested in His second coming.
In the flesh of Jesus, God has given you a highway of holiness through the desert of your lives. You walk this highway through faith in Jesus Christ. He is the way, the truth, and the life. He leads you, as the ransomed and redeemed children of God, to your return to God. He is the way that leads you to lie down in those green pastures and quiet waters of eternal rest and joy. He leads you to the residence of His Father in glory.
God has placed you on this path by cleansing you of your sins in holy baptism. Jesus keeps you on the way by coming to you in His Word and in, with, and under the bread and wine of His Holy Supper to feed you the benefits of His curse-destroying work through His body and blood. On this highway, no enemies can devour you.
Truly, then, Isaiah's message says to all of us weak-kneed and slack-handed inhabitants of this sin-wrecked, parched, and the dreary world: our God has come, is coming, and will come again! The incarnation of the Son of God initiated and substantiated the fulfillment of God's promised final advent. The Incarnate One has established The Way that leads us through the barren wilderness to the lush, promised land of everlasting joy. The flowers of this promise can deck our halls! The curse has been removed from him. Even now we can sing in faith, "No more let sin and sorrow grow or thorns infest the ground; He comes to make His blessings flow." "As far as the curse is found... rejoice, the Lord has come!" Amen!