What a great passage we discover when we read Isaiah 35. It is so full of joy. It often seems that we live in a world that is packed with negativity. Things so often seem to go wrong. Of course, we need to take that seriously, and we need to recognise that lots of people are hurting. We can’t and shouldn’t ignore that fact. We certainly see more than enough on the news that gives us cause for deep concern and points us in the direction of despair and sorrow. How can it be that so many bad things happen? And we sometimes find ourselves asking that question on every level from the global to the personal. I am not, of course, going to try and answer it. Too often it is unanswerable. But there is another side to life - and neither should we forget that Christians are called to be people of joy. That is a note that we hear sounded in many places in the Bible, and not just in the New Testament. And here is one of the great Old Testament examples.
This poetic passage is overflowing with joy. The desert will rejoice. Flowers will bloom in the wilderness. Tell everyone who is discouraged, ‘Be strong and don’t be afraid!’ The lame will leap and dance, and those who cannot speak will shout for joy. They will reach Jerusalem with gladness, singing and shouting for joy. Just some of the great statements of joy contained in these ten verses.
How do we approach life? How do we approach our faith? Is that note of joy there as it should be – or are we amongst those who don’t ‘do’ joy?
I have never been in a desert, but it doesn’t strike me as the sort of place that is particularly likely to inspire rejoicing. It rather, I suspect, gives you a sense of endless similarity as the sand stretches out in front of you. I have been in the wilderness, quite possibly the wilderness that Isaiah is thinking about, certainly the wilderness that was the scene of Jesus’ experience of the temptations. It lies between Jericho and Jerusalem. And I remember stopping there five years ago this month as we drove between those two cities. We were only there very briefly. But I remember it as a bleak place, a kind of nowhere place, certainly not a place where I saw, or expected to see, flowers blooming. As I stood in the wilderness, I saw sands and rocks stretching in front of me, but very few signs of vegetation. It had that feeling of loneliness, and even being abandoned. But Isaiah here urges a different view. He sees the possibilities of God’s transforming presence and so, for him, the wilderness becomes a place of joy. I reflected on the loneliness and abandonment of Jesus’ experience in the wilderness. By contrast, Isaiah points to abundant potential. The power of death and dysfunction will be broken. Things will be different.
The good news of Advent is that God is coming. In theological terms the celebration of the incarnation is just round the corner. We are caught up in all sorts of preparation for Christmas, and so we should be, but we must not forget that the central message of Christmas is that God came to this earth to bring the love and joy and peace that we can find only with him. As one commentator puts it: “The good news at Advent is that God has not taken off on a retreat but that the God who cares for the dry and barren places cares for each and all of us.”
Isaiah’s vision is of the restoration of what is broken. Advent is a time of preparation, a time of waiting. We are waiting for Christmas. As we wait, we should be filled with hope. Of course, as we have said, there are things that dent our hope. But the promise, made so clear in the birth of Jesus at Bethlehem, is that God comes to be with us.