2022-12-11 Advent 3
Grace, mercy and peace be to you from God our Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen!
My very first parish I served out of Seminary was in the south Okanagan. We never had so many friends in our lives! Everyone wanted to come and visit us when we lived in the heart of fruit and wine country! Funny thing was that when we moved to Oxbow, all of our ‘friends’ never really wanted to visit us anymore! But in Oliver, BC we got our first real taste of “desert living.” Often, when you think of the Okanagan valley, you immediately think of fruit: apples, pears, apricots, plums and cherries. Or, if you’ve been through that way, you might also think of grapes: pinot blanc, merlot, cabernet-sauvignon, malbec and kerner! These are the hallmarks of the region. But if you spend a bit more time there, you quickly realize that the place is actually a full blown desert. Without massive amounts of irrigation, there would be no orchards, there would be no vineyards. Without water, nothing can grow – you know this as prairie people too. But in a desert, the absolute necessity of water becomes very clear.
We took a walking tour in the Nk’Mip Desert center once and got to see the desert up close and personal. From rattlesnakes to rats, we saw it all. At one point in the walk, our tour guide got us all to stoop down and look closely at the desert ground. There was sand, a few remnant pieces of dead grass and dried up sage leaves. Then, she reached into her backpack and pulled out a small plastic bottle of water. She popped off the lid and slowly poured it out. The desert ground suddenly became alive! Green mosses were hidden there, grasses, and tiny flowering plants emerged! There was abundant life right beneath our feet and we weren’t even aware of it. The old phrase from the Aunt Jemima pancake box was never more true! “Just add water!”
These memories dominated my mind as I read through the Prophet Isaiah’s scripture text for the third Sunday in Advent. “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” (IS 35:1-2). The whole desert rejoiced and sang when it was blessed with a few drops of precious moisture! Here Isaiah is personifying the desert, giving it people-like qualities to illustrate how the people of God will rejoice and sing with the Advent of the Messiah. “Say to those who have an anxious heart,”Be strong; fear not! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you” (35:4).
This idea that God will come and save His people was a very strong theme of Old Testament theology. It was even stronger when life wasn’t going very well for people, like say, when under harsh slavery in Egypt or exile and captivity by Babylonians. The same thing, the same concept, can be said for us today. When life is going well and God blesses us beyond measure, we tend to forget about Him. We tend to not remember all of His love and benefits for us. But, when things start going crazy and life gets out of hand, suddenly we start to wake up. We come to our senses, repent of our sins even! It is in repentance that our sorrows turn into joy and we wait for the Lord to come and save us.
This is how we ought to understand Isaiah’s words “Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God.” Often we jump onto the vengeance part. Our sinful side of us likes revenge instead of forgiveness. We tend to justify such thoughts by thinking, “God takes vengeance, so can we!” And we begin to walk the road of being little Lutheran vigilantes. But this isn’t the way of forgiveness. It isn’t the way of mercy. If anything, we ought to understand these words as the ancients did, that God would come and “ransom captive Israel.” The Babylonians, Satan, sin, death, calamity, anxiety, stress - all these are like a strong man who has taken God’s people hostage. But God will come for His captives. He will overpower the strong man and free His people from captivity!
Just think about Moses and Pharaoh. God gave sufficient warning to Pharaoh to repent and let the people go. God used plagues that started out light and got increasingly heavier, hoping that such an approach would be enough to convince him. But, ultimately, God came with might and power and set the people free from slavery in Egypt. The words of the prophet are true. “He will come and save you.” Like an elite commando, God bursts down the door and rescues and redeems His people! The hero has come! The people rejoice as they are led to safety!
Isaiah the prophet connects God’s Salvation with water in the desert. “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 shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water.” This shows us how entirely needful we are of God’s salvation. It is exactly like water in the desert wilderness. Without it, there is only death and destruction. But with water comes life and strength. And this is not only our “some day” salvation, referring to living with God in heaven when we die. This is “right now” salvation. It is God’s might and power to save us in day to day life.
God’s salvation for us is just like a farmer watching his crops grow. Ultimately, they will grow to maturity and be safe in the bin, ready for sale. But even as they are seeded and begin to germinate, you can tell things are happening. The crops are growing and changing with the rising and setting of the sun each new day. As such, God’s presence in our run of the mill, day to day life is our Salvation. He is truly Emmanuel, God with us, through thick and thin. With every passing day, God’s commitment to us never changes. His power to overcome the tricky situations we face is likewise always present for us. The ultimate tricky situation - that of death itself - has been dealt with. Little baby Jesus was born and grew up for that purpose. And His promise remains true. If God has dealt with the “big problems” of death and sin, then He can and will deal with our little problems too.
And so, this third Sunday of Advent has us lighting the Pepto Bismol Pink candle on the Advent wreath. The third candle is deliberately lighter in colour than the other candles. It’s not as if they simply ran out of the same colour at the candle store! The light pink reminds us of the joy that comes from belonging to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. It reminds us that the Lord has come to save us. And, that He will come again. It reminds us that as we make our way through life as God’s people, we have been given the gift of joy in God’s Kingdom, the hope of glory and peace in His presence. These gifts, many people today do not have - not because God doesn’t give them freely, but because people will not to receive them. But you have received them by faith.
Finally, Isaiah tells us what life is like for those who do have the hope, peace and joy that God gives. He writes: “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” (IS 35:10) This is the life of the Baptized Christian, the one for whom the water of God’s font has brought forth forgiveness, life and salvation. This grace of our Messiah is what strengthens us when we are weak or going through “the desert” - trials of various kinds. It fills us with the utmost hope and perseverance to know that no matter what life can throw at us, God is greater than them all. When our little problems seem like big ones, and we have become parched with despair and worry, God provides streams of living water for us in the desert. All of life is transformed and rejoices because the Lord has come and by faith, we shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God. Amen! Come Lord Jesus!