Sermon for Third Sunday in Advent
December 15, 2013, St. Paul Lutheran Church, Wallis, Texas
Sermon Text: Isaiah 35:1-10
Sermon Theme: “The Desert Shall Rejoice”
(Sources: Anderson, Cycle A, preaching workbook; Concordia Journal, Fall 2013, Vol. 39, No 4; Emphasis Online Commentary; Emphasis Online Illustrations; Believer’s Commentary; original ideas and examples)
Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ.
If anyone had taken a walking tour of the United State during World War II, one of the things they would have noticed was the absence of young men between the ages of 18 and 30. The young men of America had either been drafted or had enlisted, with even 16 year olds lying about their age and volunteering to serve. It was a period during which our land was barren of young men.
In the huge window of one of the stores in Dime Box where I grew up in the forties, there were pictures of the sons of the community who had died in the War or were missing in action; they were sorely missed.
Because of the War, many things were scarce, — you couldn’t buy coffee, chocolate, car tires, among many other items. And numerous products were rationed, — you could buy them only with rationing stamps which were very limited. At the height of the War, there were several empty chairs at my grandparents’ dining table on Christmas Day; my uncles were soldiers and away on the front lines of the War. My aunts sobbed during Christmas dinner.
So our little country town, and our lives, were bleak and barren, like a desert void of much of its life. Each week there was fear of which loved one might be killed in the War and fear of how many American troops were destroyed, fear of the War getting bigger and bigger. But in 1945, when I was 9 years old, World War II came to an end.
One of the most amazing ironies of nature is the blooming desert. The desert is a dry and barren land with little or no annual rainfall. When it does rain, the evaporation rate is so high that the rain can evaporate before it hits the ground, and that which does reach the ground is quickly absorbed.
It’s a miracle that anything grows in the desert. But the desert is filled with plants, many of which grow only when the conditions are right. Thee plants produce seeds that lay dormant in the soil for many years awaiting proper growing conditions. When those conditions arrive, the plants spring up over night and the desert is awash with color. In fact, the most arid and harsh places can be the most colorful after a rainfall.
Our sermon text from Isaiah opens with these words: “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad; the desert shall rejoice and blossom like the crocus; it shall blossom abundantly and rejoice with joy and singing.”
Isaiah’s picture language shows the people of Israel living in a desert wilderness, no doubt during their Assyrian captivity, when the land is bleak and barren and there is much sorrow and hopelessness. Then the welcome rains come, and the parched land, overtaken by death and destruction, is transformed into a beautiful paradise of blooming flowers of all kinds.
It’s like a double metaphor. At the same time that Isaiah’s prophesy is about release from the anguish and misery of Assyrian captivity, it also suggest the coming of the Messiah, when God will rehabilitate His people, when He will strengthen weak hands and feeble knees and punish evil doers, when He will open the eyes of the blind, and open a highway back home, and the beasts and creatures of destruction will be absent.
Our text says, “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy. For waters break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand will become a pool. . . .”
This is the promise we see in the coming of the Messiah.
So much of the Biblical landscape was desert or semi-desert, from the Arabian peninsula to the Dead Sea, to Galilee, to Assyria; thus the people in Isaiah’s time would have view these passages from Isaiah with much more emotion and excitement than we do. Water is a precious commodity in the desert, and even in the semi-desert. For the Israelites, this would have been a very uplifting text, one of great joy, and thus very appropriate for “Joy Sunday,” the Sunday we light the JOY candle on our Advent Wreath, and proclaim the joy of Christ’s coming.
In Holy Scripture, “the desert” often refers to spiritual desolation. Just as the desert will burst forth into great beauty after the rains, God will redeem His people and bring joy in place of despair and a way out of desolation. Maybe some of you are suffering from depression for one reason or another. In some cases, there is no reason, which can make it even worse because seemingly there is nothing to fix. But, you know something, God can send help to strengthen and heal all the physical and mental and spiritual suffering, even if we don’t know what it is or where it’s coming from.
If you are sick or out of a job or in debt, you may feel hopeless, but Isaiah is telling us that God is sending a solution to all our problems. Our Lord can overcome evil for us. He can turn obstacles into opportunities. He can turn the burning ground into a bubbling spring! And He doesn’t do it by flying out of the sky like Superman. No, most of the time, God prefers to work His blessings and even His miracles through His people, even through the lowliest of people. Just as most of the healing He does is through the doctors and nurses He has given us.
Craig Kelly tells a true story about a village in an arid part of Africa, — people have to walk great distances just to be able to find water to drink, even if that water may be polluted and filled with disease. All of the villagers are either thirsty for lack of water or sick from the water they drink, and most of the time their crops won’t grow.
Then an organization, Water Wells for Africa, comes to their village and drills a well. The drilling goes on for some time, with people giving up hope; then, suddenly, clear, clean water begins gushing up from the ground! The villagers dance around the driller, overjoyed that they can now have clean water to drink, that their crops can begin flourishing again, and that their village now has a future. A perfect example of how God works through human beings to achieve His great works, and cause, as Isaiah prophesies, “sorrow and sighing to flee away.”
None of our communities in America will have to experience the anguishes and fears of that African village, but we do have communities who have been wounded with conflict, loss, or natural disasters. Those hit by tornadoes or earthquakes or ice storms, those who have to fight the government to be able to buy water to irrigate their rice fields, or those suffering from racial unrest. Isaiah’s promise is that God will strengthen such people, and reversals are always possible with God. So the sorrow and the sighing shall eventually flee away.
Often this season, as it is promoted by the secular world, can be a trigger for depression, desperation, and intrusion for many folks. How many people I meet don’t actually dread the holidays, seeing Christmas as an endless spending spree, a time of violating personal boundaries, a time of loneliness and heart-breaking memories.
Isaiah 35 speaks to those folks, too, assuring them that God can overcome for us. Sometimes God uses the church and its members as an avenue of healing and restoration. If we interpret the ravenous beasts in the picture language of Isaiah’s text, a crucial doctor’s report, or an order to go to court, or loss of job and income, or serious family problems, those things could plunge us into a deep state of depression and despair. The warm smiles of our brothers and sisters in the congregation, the songs of faith we sing together, the Word of God the pastor reads, the power felt in corporate prayer, the hugs, the soothing voices of empathy and sympathy, the willingness to sit and listen and help one another, — Oh, yes, yes, indeed, that is how God works through His church. When the love of God can be seen in the love and compassion shown by God’s people, then the desert blossoms bloom in wondrous profusion!
The conclusion is joyous: “And the ransomed of the Lord shall return and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain gladness and joy; and sorrow and sighing shall flee away!” Amen.
The peace of God which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.