Isaiah 35:1-10; Matthew 11:2-11
Come, O Christ. Be present in our hearts and make us your faithful servants. Amen.
We’re in the wilderness again.
If you were in church last week, you heard the story of John the Baptist - preparing the way of the Lord in the wilderness. We explored the ways that we are called to enter into the wilderness of our hearts to prepare a way for Christ in Advent.
And this week we’re back.
If you’re following along in your Bible, you’ll notice that the readings from last week and for this week are separated by some eight chapters. But they are together in the wilderness. This time it’s not John in the wilderness, but Jesus. John is, instead, in prison - but hearing the stories of Jesus. He’s heard that Jesus is doing great things. He’s heard that Jesus is in his wilderness.
John sends word to Jesus. He asks, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
You have to imagine that this question of John’s was more existential than philosophical. He was in prison. He had to have known that his life was in danger. If there ever had been a time in his life when a Messiah could have come in handy for John, it would have been just then.
But alas, as is so often the case, Jesus’ response must have seemed to John to be a bit less than he’d hoped: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
There was a shadow of a “yes”. But only a shadow.
John was probably hoping it would be a kind of full-throated yes. “Yes, I am he. I have come to overthrow the powers that oppress us, and soon you - and all my people - will be free.”
That would have been nice.
But instead we get this shadow of a yes. It’s there, but we’ve got to work for it a little. It like it’s a little less “Yes!” and a little more “looks that way…”
Throughout most of our lives as Christians, we spend a lot of time marveling at the reality we know of Christ’s divinity. We look with wonder at the miracles. We glory in the Resurrection.
We hear the doctrine: “fully God and fully human” but we tend to be a little more impressed with the “fully God” part of the equation.
In Advent, and indeed throughout Christmas, our focus intentionally shifts. Rather than standing in awe of the divinity of Christ, we are called to embrace the wonder of the humanity of Jesus.
It really is quite a miracle. Miraculous in its simplicity, even.
No matter how untrue it might be, it’s easy for us to become consumed by what we perceive as a cavernous divide between humanity and God. We feel so small when juxtaposed against such greatness. We feel so utterly different that it’s hard to recognize any common ground.
Throughout the story of our faith, we hear examples of God bridging that divide: loving the created humanity in the Garden; meeting Abraham in the wilderness time and time again; meeting Moses in the wilderness to call him to save God’s people; sending the kings and the prophets to a people in disarray. Nearly all of the stories of our faith are stories of God reaching out. Sometimes we get it. Sometimes we see past our predisposition to distance and see the nearness of God. But it’s so easy to forget. It’s easy to let our own humanity cloud our judgment.
And if Christ was fully human in the person of Jesus - fully human - you have to wonder what human baggage that came with. Was there doubt? Did he sometimes perceive distance between himself and God as well? Did he have wildernesses of his own?
One of the dangers we face as Christians reading the Hebrew scriptures - particularly at this time of year - is that it can be tempting sometimes to convert them to Christianity. I don’t want to do that. The writer of Isaiah wasn’t a Christian. But the Book of Isaiah does point to the hope of a Messiah - even if it wasn’t with the person of Jesus in mind.
“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!”
When we enter our wilderness, we find Christ. What we initially perceive to be those desolate and dangerous places - those places that feel like they are most separate from God - those are the places where we encounter Christ. Those are the places where we realize just how close God is. And our wilderness rejoices and blossoms.
Like John, when we call out to Christ in our time of need, we may not find the answers we had hoped to find. We may not find that full-throated “yes” that we had prayed would save us from our wilderness. But we will find that through Christ the wilderness will bloom. It will rejoice with joy and singing.
At the end of his time in prison, John the Baptist was executed. He wasn’t saved by a messiah who would overthrow his persecutors. But he died - not a victim, but one redeemed by the closeness of God.
May God be so close for us. May we see, this Advent and always, that those divides which we had perceived are not the truth. Only God is truth, through Christ our Lord. Amen.