I want to look first at the passage from Isaiah because I think today we may have trouble relating to how extremely joyful this prophecy would have been to the people who originally heard it.
When we think of wilderness, where do our minds go? Do we see dense forest, dark shadows beneath interlaced bows of towering trees? Does your imagination make each crackling branch or call of an unknown creature into a threat?
The wilderness Isaiah referred to was almost the opposite of what we know as wilderness. It was vast expanses of desert … sand … limited vegetation … rocky outcroppings … very few sources of water. Traveling such a wilderness would have been done mostly on foot. Weapons for self-defense would have been limited to maybe a sword, a knife, or even just a sturdy walking stick. You would have had to know your way across the wilderness or at least how to follow the signs left by other travelers or follow the stars which meant traveling by night.
Isaiah’s prophecy that not only would the wilderness be made lush and green with plenty of water, but there would be a special highway called the Holy Way going through it and no one who was unclean … no bandits, no robbers, no thugs … would be allowed on it. And not only that, but you couldn’t be taken off the Holy Way. And there would be no reason to fear predatory animals … no wonder Isaiah said the lame would leap like deer and the speechless would sing out with joy! A safe, worry-free trip through the wilderness would be unheard of in those days.
His prophecy goes on. Anyone who walked on the Holy Way would be redeemed. They’d know everlasting joy … no more sorrow, no more sighing.
When John the Baptist sent his men to talk to Jesus, he was in prison. Even though he’d already met Jesus and knew who he was … remember the story of Jesus going to John to be baptized? John was beginning to question … everything … maybe even to doubt … so he sent those men to find out for certain if Jesus was the one whose coming was promised … to ask Jesus if he was the one promised or if they should wait for another … and Jesus told them to tell John what they saw … that the blind were now seeing, the lame were now walking, the lepers were healed, the deaf could hear, the dead were raised up, and the poor were hearing the good news.
Imagine, if you will, the joy those men must have felt to hear firsthand confirmation that the one that John had spoken of and that had been promised long, long ago by Isaiah was finally here. Standing right here … in front of them. God’s promise of the Messiah kept.
How many here know that song, “Mary did you know?” … It’s sung a lot at this time of year … Mary did you know that your baby boy would one day walk on water … Mary, did you know that your baby boy would save our sons and daughters? Did you know that your baby boy has come to make you new? This child that you’ve delivered, will soon deliver you …
It’s a beautiful song by Mark Lowery that used to sing with the Gaithers. But here’s the thing. He got it all wrong. Mary did know. She knew all along. She not only knew; she spoke it in song.
Mary’s song is recorded for us in that passage for Luke and it’s clear that she not only knew who her child was going to be, but she was also filled with joy …
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
“His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
“He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
Recently Jennifer Henry wrote a more truthful version of the song, “Mary did you know?”. It goes like this …
Mary, did you know that your ancient words would still leap off of our pages? Mary did you know, that your spirit song would echo through the ages? Did you know that your holy cry would be subversive word, that the tyrants would be trembling when they know your truth is heard?
Mary, did you know that your lullaby would stir your own Child’s passion? Mary, did you know that your song inspires the work of liberation? Did you know that your Jubilee is hope within the heart of all who dream of justice, who yearn for it to start?
The truth will teach, the drum will sound, healing for the pain. The poor will rise, the rich will fall. Hope will live again.
Mary, did you know that we hear your voice for the healing of the nations? Mary, did you know your unsettling cry can help renew creation? Do you know that we need your faith, the confidence of you? May the God that you believe in be so true.
Mary’s song carries all the hopes and prayers of all the world then and now … The incarnation of God into human flesh coming to set his people on the Holy Way … to deliver us from the wilderness.
James’ passage came later … sometime after Jesus’ death on the cross and resurrection as the Christ when once again the people were fearful of Rome, of the Temple priests, of persecution. James wrote his message to the church then and the church now … Be patient like the farmer waiting for his crops to ripen for harvest. Stay strong. Keep your hearts pure. Don’t argue with or speak ill of one another. The coming of the Lord is near.
Henri Nouwen wrote, “Joyful persons do not necessarily make jokes, laugh, or even smile. They are not people with an optimistic outlook on life who always relativize the seriousness of a moment or an event. No, joyful persons see with open eyes the hard reality of human existence and at the same time are not imprisoned by it. They have no illusion about the evil powers that roam around, “looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8), but they also know that death has no final power. They suffer with those who suffer, yet they do not hold on to suffering; they point beyond it to an everlasting peace.”
This is what Advent is all about. These weeks of preparation and anticipation of the one who is coming … who came and gave all for us. Talk about joy unspeakable.
God of joy, we thank you. Thank you for the gift of your son. Thank you for the incarnation, for walking among us, for everything you’ve done. Be with us, Lord, in all our faults and with all our iniquities, in all our weakness and worry. Remind us every moment of the joy that Mary knew. In Jesus’ name, we pray. Amen.
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.
Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near.
Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged. See, the Judge is standing at the doors! As an example of suffering and patience, beloved, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.
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 John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
One: The word of God for the people of God.
Many: Thanks be to God.