+ A sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent (Year A) at Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Bellevue, WA on December 15, 2019 +
Text: Isaiah 35:1-10; James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11
It was said to be the most spectacular one in years, possibly in living memory.
Hundreds of thousands of visitors streamed to see it.
Interstates were turned to parking lots, small towns were overrun, and people even got physically injured trying to see this spectacular sight—or perhaps snap the perfect picture for Instagram.
It was this past spring’s “super bloom” in the Californian deserts east of Los Angeles when the typically barren landscapes burst forth in colors as millions of poppies and primroses and lilies all bloom at once.
And while this event isn’t the most rare occurrence, it happens every decade or so, this year’s was particularly impressive.
These super blooms happen after a long period of dormancy for the flowers and after an eight-year drought finally ended this spring with abundant rains and cooler temperatures, the desert seemed to heed the prophesy of Isaiah and rejoiced and blossomed in dazzling colors.
It’s a sign of brilliance that can only happen after the most difficult of circumstances.
And despite our planet teetering on the edge of climate catastrophe, despite changes in weather patterns, despite a multi-year draught that brought fire and destruction, it was as if the creation burst forth to remind us of its resilience, to show us its brilliance, to surprise us with hope.
The hopeful and poetic words we heard from the Prophet Isaiah this morning remind me of the super bloom, not just because he speaks of the desert bursting forth in abundant blossom, but because of the context in which he proclaims these words.
This chapter is sandwiched between messages of absolute woe.
Just before this prophesy, Isaiah goes on about how the people’s distrust of God will lead to their complete destruction.
That they will be conquered and taken captive in a foreign land.
I mean, just look at some of the words in chapter 34—really, look in your pew Bibles: it’s on page 621-622.
And just after our reading for today, in chapter 36, the author tells us of the Assyrian army rampaging through the land and setting up camp at the gates of Jerusalem.
It’s a grim read, for sure, and the prophet is clear to lay the blame squarely in the laps of his people and their leaders.
But then, without preamble or explanation, we have these wonderful words of hope in chapter 35: “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.”
In the middle of woe and destruction and conquest, we have this beautiful and poetic message of salvation as Isaiah speaks of the day when the Lord shall save the people and build a highway, grander than any interstate and surely without any traffic, to bring the people home again.
This is such a sudden, even startling, message of hope that some believe it’s here by mistake, that some scribe accidentally misplaced this chapter from a more hopeful section of Isaiah.
But rather than an editing error, I hear an intentional message of resilience.
I hear a message of God’s brilliance in our gloomiest times.
I hear a message of surprising hope in the face of a completely self-inflicted tragedy.
That even in the most challenging times, even when we feel the most distraught and abandoned, that God will find away to come and save us.
That God is going to do something spectacular in a land that seemed desolate.
That God is preparing a way in the wilderness to bring all people to be with God.
In the most desperate times, Isaiah dares to preach a word of hope that cannot wait and reminds us that we are not alone.
In this Advent season of waiting, we are yearning for that day which Isaiah has foretold.
In a world facing ecological disaster, in a country with political division and corruption, in a society bent on violence and destruction, in a city that allows people to live in mega-mansions and others to live on the streets, we crave the fulfillment of this hopeful message.
In the shock of a doctor’s test results, in the grief of losing a loved one, in preparing for the next round of layoffs, in the uncertainty of the future, and in just watching the evening news, we long for our God to finally come and save us.
Perhaps we even hear ourselves quietly echoing John’s question in our gospel reading, desperately asking this Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
And if you are the one, why haven’t you fixed everything?
If you are the one, why is our world still in peril?
Why is our country still in crisis?
Why are our communities still divided?
Why haven’t you saved us?
John the Baptizer, John the Forerunner, who we just saw last week on Jordan’s banks preparing the way of the Lord now finds himself in prison for resisting that tyrant King Herod.
He can likely tell that his time is now short and desperately wonders if his life’s work was worth it—if the promised Messiah had finally come or if his people must continue to wait.
Perhaps John is wondering if this Jesus can really make a difference, if things will really change with his coming.
Perhaps he was expecting something different, something grander, something immediate.
Perhaps he was expecting a mighty leader that would liberate his people.
So Jesus tells the crowds that John is the greatest prophet that has ever been—that in John we see the culmination of all the prophets who have been pointing to the coming Messiah that we have seen in Jesus.
And perhaps Jesus is not the Messiah he had expected, but we can know that he is the one for whom we have been waiting through the deeds of power he has done.
We can know that he is the Messiah through what we hear and what we see.
That we can see the inbreaking of God’s kingdom into our world in Jesus’ ministry of healing, in his proclamation of God’s good news for all people, and in his bringing new life to a weary and barren world.
In a surprising new hope that is blooming for all people.
And what does this mean for those of us who have not seen Jesus’ deeds of power?
Those of us who must rely on what we have heard and was passed on to us.
I think Jesus would urge us to see where we can see the kingdom breaking into our world today.
That we don’t need to look for great signs in the skies or the coming of a heavenly army, but to look around us and see those who are working for the wellbeing of humanity, for the establishment of God’s justice, and for the wholeness of creation.
We need only look at the places where those first followers saw Jesus among them: with the poorest among us.
With the brokenhearted and hopeless.
With those who had been rejected or despised.
With those who were most in need bringing love and life and hope.
Where can we see Jesus? Where can we hear of his deeds of power? Where can we see his salvation?
By following where he has led us.
Like in communities like this one that work to share our abundance with our neighbors through Backpack Meals for Kids, Congregations for the Homeless, HopeLink, and more.
Or through advocacy of our elected officials urging that peace, equity, and justice be our guiding principles.
Or by giving comfort to someone who is grieving or in recovery.
Or by bringing a message of love to those who have been kicked out of their churches and families because of their sexuality or gender identity.
Or by working for the restoration and wholeness of our environment like in a news story that was sent to me this week about a few ancient churches in the Ethiopian highlands.
When these churches were constructed centuries ago, they were built in forests allowing a deep connection to the beauty and wonder of God’s creation.
One of their priests describes their relationship with the forests as symbiotic—the trees built the church building and the church finds itself in the trees.
“If the church loses its forests, it will lose itself,” he said.
And so as the lands around the churches have gone from forests to farmlands, the churches have made it their mission to preserve these forests, little islands of biodiversity in large swaths of monocultural barrenness.
Little signs of hope of creation’s resilience and promise of new life in a swath of commercial development.
My friends, I am sure that many of us join with John in wondering, even deep within ourselves, if this Jesus really is the one or if we have to wait for another.
Today our Lord has invited us to trust in what we have seen and heard, to recognize that Jesus is the Messiah, the promised one who has come to save us.
Especially in this season of Advent, we just desperately want God’s kingdom to be realized on earth as it is in heaven.
And in our waiting, we hear the Apostle James’ message to us today urging patience until the coming of our Lord.
Like the farmer who waits for the rains, he says, we should wait for Christ whose coming is sure.
Like that farmer who trusts the rain will come, we should put our trust in God’s faithfulness to the promise, to trust that Christ is coming soon.
But while I admit that this message of patience may leave us unsatisfied, James is urging us to be active in our wait.
He does not want us to sit idly by until Christ comes, but to keep working to prepare his way.
To care for each other; to strengthen our community and in doing so strengthen our own hearts.
To plant the seeds that our God has promised to water: the seeds of God’s justice, the seeds of God’s peace, the seeds of God’s kingdom that has come near.
Seeds that will take root in even the most difficult circumstances, that will blossom with dazzling color, and that will instill a resiliency until the coming of our Lord whose rains will make the desolate lands bloom with hope, whose advent will cause the deserts to rejoice with life, and whose Holy Way will lead all people to live with God in everlasting joy and gladness.