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Third Sunday in Advent, 12/11/2016

Sermon on Isaiah 35:1-10, by Pari R. Bailey

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus 2it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God. 3Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. 4Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.” 5Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; 6then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; 7the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes. 8A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God’s people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray. 9No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there. 10And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away. Isaiah 35: 1-10, NRSV.

Much of the language of Advent is foreign to our world, our culture, even our lives. Many churches find it the hardest season of the church year to observe. I think it has something to do with how alien Advent themes are. For example, take the message of the prophet Isaiah, later echoed by John the Baptist: “prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” What does that even mean? What do you think of when you hear it? What does Isaiah mean?

Perhaps it would help you understand if I told you that in olden days, kings would spend the summer going around to the towns and villages in their kingdom. The whole court would go with the king and spend the good-weather months traveling from place to place in a royal progress. If the king came to your village, you would want to make sure everything was ready for him. The main way to do that was to repair his road.

In ancient times, the roads belonged to the king; the king built all the roads, but the people who lived near them were responsible for keeping them in good condition for the king to use as he came around on his summer travels. Think how embarrassing it would be if the king, his family, and the whole royal court got stuck in a hole on a muddy road coming into your town! Think how awful it would be, and how angry the king would be that you had not kept up the road!

But it's still hard for us to understand what kind of labor went in to “preparing the royal highway,” what sort of constant vigilance there had to be to make sure that the road was not washed out, or made impassible by huge potholes. For us, today, preparing a road means awarding a contract and waiting for someone else to do it with their specialized heavy equipment. Sure, we pay for it with taxes, but someone else gets dirty doing it.

That’s not at all what Isaiah means when he tells us to prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. And it’s also not what he means when he talks about the Highway in the desert. This is another difficult thing for us to understand. To most of us living here in the north, a desert is something you take a trip to visit, or only see on TV. Deserts are interesting, pretty. To understand what Isaiah means in this 35th chapter, I want you to pretend you are living thousands of years ago. You are part of a mostly nomadic people, pasturing your flocks and herds wherever there is good grazing. Some of you have settled into small towns and villages. Water is very precious. There is no plumbing, no aqueducts, and few rivers. It does not rain a lot, and what water you have comes from deep wells or oases. It is not possible to do a lot of farming because there is no real way to irrigate, so a large portion of the land is desert—wilderness growing mostly nothing.

You do not go into the desert for a variety of reasons. The first is that there is no water. It is very hot and dry--no way for average people to survive. Second, you do not go into the desert because bandits and robbers live there, preying on travelers. The regular roads were bad enough, without thieves and murders lying in wait on them! Also, it was dangerous to go into the desert, because wild animals often attacked people. And finally, you do not go into the desert because you believe that evil spirits live in the desert, and you have no desire to tangle with them.

Can you imagine that? All of that was exactly true for the people to whom Isaiah spoke the words just read today. Imagine what the people must have thought when Isaiah started telling them that the “wilderness and the dry land shall be glad; the desert shall rejoice and blossom…waters shall break forth in the wilderness…the burning sand shall become a pool.”

And THEN, Isaiah says that there will be a highway in the middle of the desert. A highway named The Holy Way. No robbers or bandits will be on it, or anyone unclean, but only God’s people. No one will get lost on this road, not even fools. There will be no wild animals to worry about, no evil spirits around it. Just the road for the redeemed. Just the King’s road, in which he will bring home his beloved people.

The people must have wondered who in the world would go to all the trouble of making a road in the desert. And how could the desert grow things? How could thirsty ground become springs of water? And how do you get rid of the evil spirits, robbers and wild animals?

There’s only one King who could possibly do all that. Only one King who has power to change burning sand to cool water, water into wine, death into life. Only one King can make a royal highway called the Holy Way, because only one king is Holy: King Jesus.

John the Baptist prepared the way before King Jesus, and we are also called to prepare his way through repentance of our sin, through watching for him and keeping alert for his coming. But you and I both know that we fail miserably; no matter how hard we try we cannot seem to keep up the King’s road into our heart. All sorts of sin and doubt get in the way. We mean to pray and read our Bible and do our Advent devotions but we forget, or get too busy. We mean to do good things, but somehow keep doing the bad things that we know we’re not supposed to. We mean to try to keep watch for the Lord, but we get sleepy and nod off. We mean to try to prepare the royal highway, make sure our hearts are ready for God, but we just never get around to it, or give up after a while.

Jesus is coming anyway. Whether or not the road is prepared, he is coming. That might seem like terrible news, especially if you’re not ready, and who of us is? The news that Jesus is coming is terrifying to those who are unrepentant and revel in their sin. But it is also wonderful news, news full of hope and promise—Jesus is coming, and he’s building his own road to us. A holy road. He is coming to save us, to have mercy on us, to forgive us.

Like kings of old, Jesus is traveling to us, and along the way he is giving sight to the blind, and hearing to the deaf. He is healing the lame and the lepers. He is raising the dead. He is strengthening weak hands, making firm feeble knees. To those who are afraid, he brings the message, “Be strong, do not fear.”

Our God comes to us on his own road--not a road built of gravel and tar, but a road built with his own flesh and blood, a road that first took shape in the womb of a virgin, a road which hung on the cross, which descended into hell. A road which now leads into heaven.

This is the Highway that is literally a person. The Holy Way. Jesus born in our flesh, taking our sin and dying our death. This royal highway is the road that God used to get to us, and it is also the way we will get to him. He will bring us home on it. Our king knows that despite our best efforts, we cannot prepare his way well enough, sin is always in the way. We fail and fall again and again, our devotional life is in shambles, our sins threaten to overwhelm us, and somehow all the joy of the holidays doesn’t seem very joyful. Into the midst of all this darkness comes the light.

Into the gaps and holes and broken down places in our heart’s road comes the Messiah to build us up and remake us. Into despair comes hope: 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 Reverend Pari R. Bailey
Belview, Minnesota
E-Mail: revsbailey @ redred.com