We are deep in the season of Advent, preparing spiritually for the coming of Jesus and also physically preparing- making cookies, wrapping gifts, making plans to visit family and friends. There’s a lot of excitement that comes with the anticipation of Christmas. In our house, decorating is when it really starts to feel real. Especially our Christmas tree. If it were up to Gary, we would leave our tree up all year long. Gary really loves Christmas. There have been times in the middle of the summer where Gary will say to me, “I started thinking about Christmas today and I got excited for it to come; I can’t wait.”
For most people its the best time of year, or at least they can say it’s a fun time of the year despite the hecticness. For some, the holidays are not met with happiness or anticipation. They are met with dread and the weight of sadness. For me, the holidays have not always brought excitement. There have been a number of years where I wanted to bypass those days of the year all together. It was those times of the year that I was fully reminded of my family’s complicated dynamics and the broken relationships that I had with others. Events that were meant to be joyful and bring happiness made me feel anxious and worn down for many years.
There are many of us who struggle during this time of year. Sometimes the grief- or anger, or despair- runs so deep that finding joy feels utterly impossible. Isaiah 35 is considered a pre-exile text. The preceding chapters talk about the judgement of the nations and the coming oppressive rule of foreign powers. Hundreds of years after the Israelites were freed from slavery, the people are still fumbling; still searching for their identity and struggling to maintain their devotion to God. The dream and call of being their own nation set apart for the Almighty God is slipping away. I wonder if their hearts were worn down too. If those people struggled to find purpose and joy.
We read in the gospel of Luke about a young girl named Mary receiving word that she would give birth to a child who would be “the Son of the Most High.” The Israelites were once again under the rule of an oppressive power. The people were burdened by heavy taxation, violence and fear. Mary was a young girl living in a patriarchal society. To be pregnant and unmarried was not just socially unacceptable, it was dangerous for her. She would be punished for this sin.
Sometimes we find ourselves in the desert. We find ourselves in a life that feels barren and empty; and we can’t even begin to know how to find our way out. Its ok if you are struggling to find joy this season. Its ok if you have been struggling for a long time. You are not alone in that. What I have come to learn is that we can experience joy while we experience our pain. We can rejoice even while we are in that desert place.
Isaiah 35 speaks of a time when the people will be restored to themselves and to God; he speaks of a time when the land itself will be restored to its fullness. “The desert shall rejoice and blossom”. There will be streams in the desert and the reeds and Papyrus will grow. “The eyes of the blind will be opened and the ears of the deaf will be unstopped.” Even in the midst of a lot of uncertainty, Mary sings praise to God for his goodness and his provision.
“My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
She is joyful for this new life that will be born, and she feels sure that God guides her steps and watches over her.
When we find ourselves in the desert, the only way out is to walk through it. Sometimes we have to go into the wilderness to reach what is on the other side.
A couple of years back, I read the book entitled “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail.” The book was written by a woman named Cheryl Strayed, a woman who hiked 1,100 miles of the Pacific Crest trail from Mojave, CA to the Bridge of the Gods at the Washington state border. She was in her mid 20’s when she did this hike- alone by the way. She chose to do it after years of pain and personal chaos. Her mother had died during her senior year of college, which led to her life spiraling out of control. She chose to go on this hike so that she could hit the reset button. She hiked alone, so she had no travel companion to talk to. She didn’t have a cell phone or an Ipod as this trip happened in the mid 90’s. She had nothing to distract her from her thoughts or feelings. She had to walk through the wilderness and just be with herself. She knew that suffering would be a part of it. Physical suffering and emotional suffering. She talks about all of the life events that had led her to that point; the anger she felt, the shame she felt about her failed marriage; the pain of going through life without her mother. She also shares that she knew her spirit did not walk alone. She felt the presence of her mother along the way; Seeing signs that her mother’s spirit was watching over her.
On page 143 she says, “uncertain as I was as I pushed forward, I felt right in my pushing as if the effort itself meant something. That perhaps being amidst the undesecrated beauty of the wilderness meant that maybe I could be undesecrated. Regardless of what I had lost or what had been taken from me. Regardless of the regrettable things I had done to others or myself, or the regrettable things that had been done to me. Of all the things I have been skeptical about, I didn’t feel skeptical about this: The wilderness had a clarity that included me.”
At the end of her hike, Cheryl expresses her gratitude for what she had experienced and what she had learned from this experience. She stood in awe of the joy that she received from the beauty of the wilderness and for the healing that had taken place.
In the gospel reading for today, we read about some of John the Baptist’s followers coming to Jesus and asking him if he was the Messiah. When the disciples of John left, Jesus turns to the crowd and says to them, “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swayed by the wind? 8 If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces. 9 Then what did you go out to see?” I think what Jesus is really asking the crowd is, “What is it that you are really looking for? Are you willing to endure the roughness of the wilderness and face what it is, so that you can see what God has to show you on the other side?”
Our spiritual journey through Advent is one of waiting and reflecting. We examine our hearts and clear out the things that crowd out the peace and joy that Christ’s birth can bring. It can be challenging and painful. It can lead us to examine things we didn’t know were crowding our hearts. But we go into the desert and we make room for the fulfillment of life that God wants us to possess. There are possibilities for joy even in the desert, because we know that we do not walk through it alone. God is present with us just as he was present with the Israelites in exile; the same way he was present with Mary. And God has put people in our lives to hold us up and care for us, Just as he did for the Israelites and Mary and Cheryl. Moments of joy are what keep us walking. We do not need to shut those moments out. Maybe that joy is putting up Christmas lights; maybe it’s going out with a friend; maybe it’s the solitude of being in nature. Maybe it is seeking healing even though it may be scary. Whatever it is, I encourage you to reflect on what things bring you joy. Because it is in those moments that we remember the deeper joy that sustains us. The joy that brings us hope.
If you find yourself in the desert, reach out for joy. Joy will see you through to the other side.
Old Testament Lesson: Isaiah 35:1-10
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.
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.
Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees.
Say 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.”
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then 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;
the 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.
A 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.
No 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.
And 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.
Gospel Lesson: Matthew 11:2-11
When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him,
“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “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.”
As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John:
“What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written,
‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way before you.’
Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than
Meditations For Your Week
Sunday, December 15 ~ Saturday, December 21
Sunday: “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad; the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus” Isaiah 35: 1. God tells us of a day when we will know rejoicing and gladness. Where have you seen hope bloom in the desert?
Monday: “it 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.” Isaiah 35: 2. Pray for hope amid darkness to come to those who are experiencing grief this holiday season.
Tuesday: “Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God.” Isaiah 35: 4a. Fear is a gripping emotion. Consider that even when we are sure we would have chosen a different path, fear sometimes paralyzes us. Our strength in God overcomes even paralyzing fear.
Wednesday: “Then 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;” Isaiah 35:6. Consider that streams in the desert are unexpected. Where are you making room for the unexpected this season?
Thursday: “Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see:” Matthew 11: 4. Consider that the preparations for the coming of Jesus the Christ involve going and telling others where we have seen and heard glimpses of God’s glory and presence here.
Friday: “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.” Matthew 11:5. Thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. Pray and act for the coming of the kingdom of heaven.
Saturday: “Truly I tell you, among those born of women, no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist, yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” Matthew 11:11. Pray for those who are deep in debt and under financial strain this holiday season. May their way of seeking God find them peace in God’s ways.