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Isaiah 35:1-10

On this third week of Advent, the theme of reversals continues to scream in our collective faces. In previous weeks, the Psalms and the prophets have testified to the righteous king to come who will turn the ways of war itself on its ugly head. The weapons designed for violence will be turned into tools of cultivation. The coming king will be an altogether different sort of king – he will not destroy his enemies with the sword but with the utterance of his breath. He will rule in a way that no other monarch has it will be characterized by wisdom, righteousness, and faithfulness.

All these reversals find culmination this week, where the most succinct and profound words of reversals come from the lips of Mary. The proud are made low. The lowly are lifted. The hungry are filled with good things. The rich are sent away empty-handed. Mary’s Magnificat speaks powerfully about how God has wrought reversal through her as God-bearer.

Alongside Mary’s telling of the reversal of power in Luke’s gospel, Isaiah 35 prophetically imagines a reversal of the landscape. Isaiah takes that landscape that plagued Israel for so long and envisions something so radically different that it is almost too good to be true. The desert will be transformed into a lush paradise.

The desert was the place to escape from something, and it was something to escape from. Israel makes their way to the desert to evade Egypt. It is only by the gracious provision of God that Israel can survive for forty years. They are caught between their pots being full of meat in Egypt with all the leeks they wanted in the rearview mirror and the elusive land flowing with milk and honey. Elijah follows a similar pattern; he flees to the wilderness to elude Jezebel. The supernatural provision of God only sustains him through ravens and a destitute widow. Deserts mean danger—predators, no food or water, the threat of thieves, and no bearings if one loses their way. Deserts are death.

Admittedly, I found the transformation of the desert more jarring in my first reading of Isaiah 35 than any other Scripture readings this Advent season. If I were Isaiah, I’d be tempted to imagine the desert just going away, much like John does with the sea in Revelation 21. But the image is even more powerful—the desert is transformed. What a vision! The highway through this lush oasis is as good as the destination. There is abundance, life, and songs of gladness.

It is because the passage transforms instead of escapes that I find it so provocative. The great temptation during the Advent season is to escape. We do this by rushing to the celebration of Christmas without waiting in the darkness. The consumerism and materialism around us give empty promises of escape from meaninglessness.

Escape can be an internal issue for the people of God as well. It’s not just “out there” in culture. We are tempted to escape peril at any cost. Our deeper trouble can begin when we take inventory of our ecclesiology and how our practices can be forms of escape rather than transformation. We can circle the wagons, create our holy huddles, and wait this out until the Lord’s return.

But this is not the gospel, of course. Though the God of Israel provides the way from temptation and sin, through Jesus, God enters into this world to transform it rather than escape it. God brings healing to the world through the arrival of Emmanuel in a manger. Jesus would go, led by the Spirit, to all the barren and broken places, touching death in his ministry and overcoming death in his resurrection.

Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. Yes, and amen. Christ will come again. And in the meantime, our waiting doesn’t mean we escape from the world's pain. As Christ has joined us in our plight, we join Christ as his Spirit moves us to the margins. This is our commission and the church's work – not to isolate ourselves but to join in solidarity with those who are dying, thirsty, hopeless, and lost and announce that Jesus is Lord. Through his Lordship, all things are being made new.

I invite you to wrestle with these homiletical questions through the upcoming week:

  • How are people in our congregations trying to escape? Instead of running from the pain, how can the church join it to lament it and pray for renewal?

  • Do we want our problems to go away, or do we want to deal with them?

  • Where are people around us dying in barrenness and wilderness? How can our churches organize so that we can listen, discern Christ’s presence, and seek the transformation of the places we live?