Why Rejoice This Advent?
Today, all around the world, Christians are lighting the third of four Advent candles. And although we don’t see it here, in many Advent wreaths, that candle stands out. It’s the perfect example of that classic Sesame Street jingle: “One of these things is not like the other.” That third Advent candle is often pink or rose colored instead of blue or purple. Some have called it the Shepherd’s Candle. The color changes from blue or purple to pink or rose to show how the shepherds’ fear was changed to joy. And that fits in well with the overall theme for this Third Sunday in Advent: rejoicing! As we continue to look at theses gospel promises found in Isaiah, it’s not hard to understand why these words of chapter 35 fall on this day. Eight times in these ten verses Isaiah talks about rejoicing or joy or gladness. Just look at the last verse. “They will obtain happiness and joy, and sorrow and sighing will flee away.” It all sounds well and good, doesn’t it? The Church Year tells us to rejoice. Isaiah agrees. Even the world wants us to be happy! “It’s the most wonderful time of the year!” they claim. But what if you just can’t seem to find happiness? Maybe instead of being happy, this time of year is always depressing for you. This is the time of year for families to get together, when life-long memories are created. But for some of us, this time of year is when the loss of those family members hits home the most. Perhaps for some, there’s a genuine feeling of “Bah humbug!” when the calendar flips to December. But, perhaps there’s only a few of us who have a reason to feel that way. At least a reason that comes to mind. But other than “everyone else is doing it…” have you ever really thought why we should rejoice during Advent? It’s certainly not because of where we live! Thanks to our not-so-great-grandparents, we don’t live in the perfection of the Garden of Eden. Because Adam and Eve decided to disobey God’s will and do their own thing, they were banished to the wilderness. Compared to Eden, the hymn writer nailed it when he wrote, “Earth is a desert drear.” Some may say there’s a peculiar, mysterious beauty to the desert. However, most folks agree it doesn’t have much going for it. There’s a reason people call such places, godforsaken wildernesses. Fiery sands, killer snakes, and vegetation bristling with thorns certainly do give the appearance that God has forsaken the desert. But, the planet that we live on isn’t as much of a desert as we are the desert. We are the desert. By nature, our souls are those dead, parched lands completely absent of water. We try and make it nice. We try to irrigate it and air-condition it. We act like the sand of earthly wealth is just as good as the fertile soil of paradise. We convince ourselves that chewing on catcti is just as good as the ole tree of life once was, in fact, even tastier! But it’s all one big fat mirage. The truth is our hands are weak from scratching and clawing; weak from digging our own grave in this desert wasteland. Our knees are feeble from kneeling before the gods of money, pleasure, and power; feeble from the weight of the Law, the guilt strapped to our backs. Our hearts are anxious about everything from what to wear to where to retire; from finding work to work that never ends. But, that’s the way of life out here in the desert. Doesn’t sound like much of a reason to rejoice, now does it? So why rejoice this Advent? Listen to Isaiah: “The wilderness and the dry land will be glad. The desert will rejoice and blossom like a rose. It will blossom abundantly, and there will be great joy and singing. Lebanon’s glory will be given to it, it will be excellent like Carmel and Sharon. They will see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God. Strengthen the weak hands, and make feeble knees firm. Tell those who have a fearful heart,“Be strong. Do not be afraid. Look! Your God will come with vengeance, with God’s own retribution he will come and save you.” Out of paradise and into the desert! Just like our not-so-great-grandparents, our God left paradise to come to the desert. It turns out that God has not forsaken the desert at all! God has not forsaken us! Instead, God sent his Son into the desert. He sent Immanuel. And how does the desert respond? It rejoices; it blooms! The pictures Isaiah uses here are pictures you don’t normally find in the desert. The rose is not a desert flower. It needs plenty of shade and water to bloom—but when Christ comes, we find it in the desert! You don’t find cedars like the ones in Lebanon. Your don’t find oaks like in Carmel. You don’t find rich pasture land like in Sharon. You don’t find any of those things in the desert. But that’s what happens when Christ comes! Wherever he goes, life springs forth. Bountiful life! The wilderness blooms with unnatural beauty! The desert is changed into an oasis! It’s almost too good to be true! And maybe that’s what we think. Maybe living in this desert drear for so long has made us cynical. Because, when I look at the church, I don’t see much of an oasis. Neither did John. John was a leader in his church. From an early age, John gave his life to the work of the church. He denied himself the pleasures of this world. He didn’t have the luxuries that most folks enjoy. He lived on the basics so that he could give everything else to the work of the church. And he was zealous for that work. He wasn’t afraid to wear his faith on his sleeve. He never shied away from sharing the good news and pointing people to their Savior. John was a model church member, one that we could all stand to emulate. But then John got into some trouble. Not that he did anything sinful, but he was too bold for some people’s taste. They trumped up a charge to get him thrown into prison. And as he sat in that prison cell, he wondered if it was all worth it. He wondered if it was real. He wondered if this church that he had been working for and fighting for was really an oasis. He was starting to think it was just a mirage. So he did what every good Christian would do. He went to his Savior with his problems. “While John was in prison, he heard about the things Christ was doing. He sent two of his disciples to ask him, “Are you the Coming One or should we wait for someone else?” Jesus answered them, “Go, report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the gospel is preached to the poor.” John shared the doubts that we all share sometimes when we look at our own outward appearance or the outward appearance of the church. But notice what Jesus did. He pointed John right to these words of Isaiah. Isaiah wrote: “Then the eyes of the blind will be opened, and the ears of the deaf will be cleared. The lame will leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute will sing for joy. Waters will flow in the wilderness, and streams in the desert. The burning sand will become a pool, and in the thirsty ground there will be springs of water. Grass, reeds, and rushes will be in the haunts where the jackals once lay.” The very things Isaiah said would be happening in the desert were the very things that Jesus was doing. This is no mirage! This is a spiritual reality! When Christ came to the desert of this world, the dead became alive, the blind saw, the deaf heard, the lame walked, the mute talked—just by the sound of his voice! He pointed John to those signs so that John would recognize him anew, so John could once again be strong and courageous! And Jesus points us to those signs again today so that you also can recognize that he came for you! Your God, your Savior, your Christ has come to save you! The only place that life is found in the desert is where there is water. My dear friends, your God, your Savior, your Christ has come into the desert of your lives. He’s come with water and his Word. And in a place of death, he’s brought forth life everlasting. It’s not a mirage—a mirage only happens in the absence of water. No, this is a spiritual reality. Waters break forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert when Jesus is born. All is reversed. He who turns water into wine, sickness into health, and death into life comes to change you! And once he comes with water and the Word, he places you on the path to heaven, the Holt Way. “A highway will be there, a road, and it will be called The Holy Way. The unclean will not walk there. It will be for those who walk in that Way. Wicked fools will not wander onto it. No lion will be there, nor will any ravenous animal go up on it. They will not be found there, but the redeemed will walk there. Then those ransomed by the Lord will return, they will come singing to Zion, and everlasting joy will be on their heads. They will obtain happiness and joy, and sorrow and sighing will flee away.” The Holy Way is the way of the Church. It’s a path constructed, not with brick and cement or asphalt and tar, but from the raw materials of Christ’s true body and blood. And you, the one redeemed by God, travel on it. There is only one way back to Paradise, only one pathway that leads out of this desert and back to life. It is upon him who is the way, the truth, and the life; the only road to Heaven. The Israelites wandered forty years in the wilderness, leaving behind corpse after corpse littering the desert sands. There are many who are still wandering out there today. They wander on the path of death. But the Holy Way is not a way of death, but life. In this Church, in this Christ, on this highway, you have already passed from death to life. You have been baptized into Jesus. You have found the life-giving waters—or better yet, they have found you! You have streamed into his death and have been washed back out of the grave into the newness of life. There’s nothing we need to do to get to heaven. It’s all been done for us! And this Holy Way is safe! “No lion will be there, nor will any ravenous animal go up on it. They will not be found there,” Even though, “the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour,” that’s all he can do. When we’re on the Way, trusting in the forgiveness Jesus won for us on the cross, he can harm us none. He’s judged, the deed is done. This is why we rejoice in Advent, even though we’re still travelling through the desert. Because we know that in spite of the problems, one day soon we will arrive at our eternal oasis. We will “come singing to Zion, and everlasting joy will be on their heads. They will obtain happiness and joy, and sorrow and sighing will flee away.” Let this gospel promise from Isaiah give you strength and courage as we continue to look for Christ to come again! Amen