The Third Sunday in Advent, December 15, 2019

Old Testament Isaiah 35:1-10

When the Messiah Comes

When the Messiah comes “the wilderness and the dry land shall be glad; the desert shall rejoice and blossom.”1 Today we have a view of wilderness as an important natural resource, something to be preserved in national parks and wildlife refuges, where birds and fish and mammals and the natural ecosystems they inhabit are made off-limits to the encroachments of industrialized societies. But in the Bible wilderness has a much different connotation. Wilderness was a sterile, sandy country, not fit for human habitation and home to all manner of things that could seriously harm or even kill you. In the lead-up to our hearing of Isaiah’s prophecy in this morning’s Old Testament reading, the third part of our look into Isaiah’s Messianic prophecies in this season of Advent, he writes of the total devastation of the earth, of the sword that is filled with blood, and the destruction of mankind. Now what we hear in chapter 35 is of God’s miraculous transformation of this desolate and dry earth, this wilderness, into a fertile and green land, lush with life and overflowing with springs of water.

When the Messiah comes these desolate and dry places “shall blossom abundantly and rejoice with joy and singing.”2 When God comes to save, creation will change, everything will be restored. Grass will grow, the ground will be carpeted with flowers.  Sorry to be the bearer of bad news but we are just entering into winter and the browns and greys of this season will be with us for at least another four months. But this image from Isaiah reminds me of those first warm days of spring when the birds are singing and things are green and growing again. Isaiah gives us this picture of God’s saving mercy as the restoration and relief which comes to the dry desert.

Then he talks about the people when the Messiah comes. People with weak hands, and feeble knees, and anxious hearts. Sound familiar?  That hits pretty close to home for me.  The people who inhabit this dry and barren wilderness are dismayed and discouraged, disheartened, depressed, and despaired. Others are blind and deaf. Some can’t speak, and can’t walk.  When God comes to save, the weak, the discouraged, and the disheartened are suddenly strong and courageous once again. And people see and hear and shout for joy and even dance once again. It reminds me of those medical stories in which a young child hears for the first time. He has been deaf all his life. Then doctors do surgery. Perhaps they put an implant in the ear. Suddenly, the child hears his mom’s voice. And you see his face just light up in joy. Or imagine a woman who has been colour blind all her life. She puts on special glasses, and suddenly she can see a rainbow of colours. Tears flow down her cheeks.  I don’t know if something like that exists. But when God comes to save, everything changes in a person’s life. “Be strong; fear not! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you.”3

For when the Messiah comes “waters [will] break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert.”4 Jesus says, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink.”5 These are words for the thirsty, for those who long to have parched souls refreshed and renewed.  We are talking about a spiritual thirst. Those who thirst for righteousness long to know: what terms am I on with God? The thirst of the soul comes from the burden of sin and conscience. The hollowed-out space of uncertainty that people carry with them today is just that kind of thirst.  Luther knew all about this burden of the soul, the anguish of standing before a righteous and holy God with no leg to stand on; the feeling of being so spiritually parched. He says the thirsty soul “is aware of a menacing God; it fears God and sees His Law, wrath, judgment, death, and other penalties. Such anxiety marks the proper thirst…How much more will our soul grow thirsty from spiritual temptation, when sin and God’s wrath stare us in the face!”6

So we long to hear the words of forgiveness from our Saviour, only Words that He can bring us. Because only Jesus says, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”7 The Messiah comes to bring the living water of life. “Be strong; fear not! He will come and save you.” He brought that water to you in the baptismal font.  In that moment you were brought into the promises of God, the forgiveness of sins and eternal life. In that moment the redemption bought with the precious blood of our Lord and Saviour, by His innocent suffering and death, was appropriated to you by faith “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” This is how an event that happened 2,000 years ago is given to you today. This is how you were brought up out of the parched and dry place of sin and death and made a new creation, born again of water and word for eternal life. This is the moment of transformation, and everyday we should rejoice, for we have obtained gladness and joy.

And when the Messiah comes the redeemed will walk on a highway, “called the Way of Holiness”8 Not a little path, not a secondary road full of potholes and crumbling asphalt, but a great smooth highway – a royal road shall be there. Everything that can harm the people of God is removed on this road. Only holy people will walk on it. Fools who walk in ways contrary to God’s way are not there either. A holy road for holy people. He puts us there. When the Messiah comes the path will be made known. Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”9 The way He shows us is walked in faith. This is the way that leads us from this life to life eternal. And on this highway He gives holy things for holy people. He gives us His very Body and Blood. Today we come up to the altar, we kneel, we get a little bit of bread. We get a sip of wine. And in this eating and drinking we have life, forgiveness, and salvation. In this supper we walk together in communion with each other on this Way of Holiness, in unity of faith. Here we are forgiven. Here we have life eternal. The Messiah comes to save us, and we rejoice.

The prophetic words of Isaiah that we hear today are book-ended with rejoicing and joy and singing. This is appropriate for today, the third Sunday of Advent, which is also known as Gaudete Sunday, which comes from the Latin word for rejoice. The candle in our Advent wreath is pink, or more traditionally rose coloured, and represents our rejoicing in the Lord and all He has done for us. The rejoicing we have today is because of what our heavenly Father has done for us in the sending of His only begotten Son, the birth of the Christ-child which we will celebrate in just 10 more days. The message of Advent is none other than this: that Jesus of Nazareth, born of the Virgin Mary, who was executed on a bloody cross outside of Jerusalem during the reign of the Cesar Tiberius, is the Christ, the Redeemer of the world, who comes to bring streams of living water to the deserted wasteland of sin and despair. Everything we associate with Advent, the banners, the wreaths, the lights and candles and singing, all get their meaning from this message of Advent. 

The church which is nourished with the springs of the Gospel has only this message to proclaim, and it is a message for all people for all time. The world changes, the culture changes, people are born and people die. The spiritual lives of people change with the latest fads, the desert seems to be getting bigger with every passing year. Sometimes the desert seems to grow in our own lives as well. In today’s Epistle reading St. James brings us a message that can be very difficult to hear: “Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and the late rains. You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand.”10 Advent is a time of relentless hope. For in the coming of the Messiah we behold the purpose of the Lord, “how the Lord is compassionate and merciful.”11 Like St. John the Baptist, whatever your own kind of prison or suffering may be, call upon Jesus and receive the strength of His Word from those He sends to you.  Today the prophet Isaiah points us to the evergreen promises of our Lord, who is coming again. Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and walk upon His royal highway, the Way of Holiness.

1 Is 35:1.

2 Is 35:2.

3 Is 35:4.

4 Is 35:6.

5 Jn 7:37.

6 Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 23: Sermons on the Gospel of St. John: Chapters 6-8, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 23 (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999), 267.

7 Jn 4:13–14.

8 Is 35:8.

9 Jn 14:6.

10 Jas 5:7–8.

11 Jas 5:11.

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