Sunday 11th December 2016, Advent 3, morning

Isaiah 35:1-10

by Revd Chris Palmer

Today is Gaudete Sunday – which means Rejoice! And we’ve already talked about the rose candle – and lack of rose vestments! But more than this, the rejoicing theme is strong in the first reading today.

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.

This chapter is one of the great songs of salvation in the Old Testament. God’s salvation embraces all creation. The people of Israel will be restored to their land. The blind and the lame shall be healed. And the creation will join in the celebration: the desert will blossom; where the land is barren, there will be living waters and wonderful growth.

And the real question for us is, will we also rejoice? Because, I suspect, that lots of us find rejoicing difficult. Life feels rather weighed down by stresses and pressures. It may also feel weighed down by feelings of shame or guilt – sometimes justified, sometimes unjustified. And lightness of heart and a spirit which spontaneously wants to sing feels distant.

And the main thing I want to say is that it’s no use waiting until our problems are solved, our anxieties dissipated, and our shame dissolved in order to rejoice. Joy isn’t merely the end point of the spiritual journey; it is the path to get there.

This is beautifully expressed in the reading in the idea that the wilderness road becomes a place of fertility and singing. The road through the desert was, of course, a seminal motif for Israel. For forty years they had journeyed around and around in the wilderness after they escaped from Egypt before they entered the Promised Land, the longed for land of milk and honey. But even their desert journey turned out to be a place of rich provision. Here God brought water from the rock; here God fed them with manna. These were a means of grace. And although the people of Israel made an industry out of complaining and forsaking God to worship idols, at moments they were open to receive God’s grace. Late they sometimes looked back on those desert days as the times when they had been closest and most receptive to God – before the pressures of running kingdoms and defending cities and farming the land took over.

And at the time of Isaiah chapter 35, they looked for a new Exodus. This chapter is rather strange, because it seems to reflect the situation of a later part of Isaiah. It’s usually thought that the first 39 chapters of Isaiah reflect a time in around the 8th century BC, whilst Israel still lived in its own land. By contrast chapters 40-55 were written in the 6th century BC, when Israel – or at least its leading lights – had been transported off to Babylon, following the conquest of Jerusalem. And a theme in those later chapters is that God will create a new way through the wilderness – ‘Make straight in the desert a highway for our God’ – so that the people may return to Jerusalem again: a second Exodus, the saving God again leading his own people back to their land.

But this chapter 35 seems to tell of that same hope.

A highway shall be there,
and it shall be called the Holy Way;
it shall be for God’s people;
the redeemed shall walk there.
The ransomed of the Lord shall return,
and come to Zion with singing.

The point is, they – and we – don’t need to wait till we get to the promised land in order to rejoice. We can sing on the road. If only we will open our eyes, we will see that what feels like wilderness in our eyes, is blossoming with God’s life. As I say, ‘it’s no use waiting until our problems are solved, our anxieties dissipated, and our shame dissolved in order to rejoice. Joy isn’t merely the end point of the spiritual journey; it is the path to get there.’

And in order to feel this joy, I suggest we need two things – quite closely related things actually; they merge into one another.

The first is a radical commitment to live in the present, in the world as it is, in the life we have.  I remember clearly – I think I’ve told you this before – someone saying to me in my last parish, ‘It would be really easy to be a good Christian if I didn’t have to do it with these people’! This idea that our work colleagues, family members, or other acquaintances are holding us back from being the people God called us to be, is really an abdication of responsibility. It is amongst the people we encounter each day that God calls us to live his life and be his people. They are not the problem, they are the opportunity to grow and mature in Christian discipleship.

Of course, sometimes, that means having the courage to end relationships which are destructive. But even here, engaging with the real situation is key: the courage to end a relationship is completely different from the wishful hope that the relation will vanish without us having to do anything.

But for the most part, learning to make relationships work is the stuff of our vocation and calling. This involves a radical commitment to reality – to deal people as they are, rather than as we would have them be. We are able to choose our behaviour, to reform our attitudes and approach to others – this is the stuff of self-examination and repentance – but we cannot change other people.

And so alongside the commitment to reality, the second commitment we need is to the truth. And above all to the truth about ourselves. For most of us, there is a vast unconscious part of ourselves. We are operating out of motives and controlled by attitudes of which we are only dimly aware, or indeed completely unaware. The slow work of spiritual growth in which the unconscious come to light and we become ready to own and embrace who we are is key to growing in love of God and other people. This is the key task of prayer and daily self-examination; for some it may be a task we undertake in spiritual direction; for others in psychotherapy. But it is journey we should all earnestly desire to engage with.

And it means facing hard truths about ourselves. We fear it will destroy us if we own present compulsions or past, when really it will destroy only our false self, the person we like to present to others, the person we like to present to ourselves.

We are frightened that if we destroy this false self, there will be nothing left. But the amazing truth of the Gospel is that lurking behind our false selves, is a person of beauty and value – a child of God, beloved and precious in God’s sight.

The hope of Isaiah, and the promise of the ministry of Jesus, is that God desires to reveal and love our true selves. ‘Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God… he will come and save you.’ But God will only save the real me, the real you – he’s not into mending the mask we want to wear before the world; touching up our make up so that we looks pretty.

Will we accept the invitation to own our true selves – like John the Baptist, or Mary, or Jesus – to take off the mask, to wash off the makeup, and show our faces to God? It feels fearful, it fills us with foreboding – but actually it is the desert road of rejoicing, and will blossom with gladness if we walk it.