The desert way

12 December 2010
Third Sunday of Advent
Advent 3A (RCL)

Isaiah 35:1-10
Psalm 146:4-9
James 5:7-10
Matthew 11:2-11

Isaiah paints a lovely image of the people’s return from Exile. Unlike the forty years spent wandering in the desert on the way from Egypt to the promised land, this time, on the return from Babylon, not even a fool could get lost. And the desert will blossom, with water aplenty — no more striking rocks to get water. If that was a spectacular thing (the Exodus), wait until you see this, the prophet is saying.

Metaphorically, there are times when every person and every congregation wanders in the desert. Things just don’t seem to go right. Our deep desire seem to go unfulfilled. We are left spiritually parched. Isaiah is saying, this state of affairs is not the last word. God will lead us through a resplendent desert.

Jesus tells John’s disciples to go and tell John what they see and hear: the deaf hear, the blind see, the lame walk, the dead are raised, the lepers cleansed, and the poor have good news preached to them. Exacty what Isaiah says will happen on the desert way. John, of course, had preached in the desert. He invited people to step outside of all the culturual categories that defined them. Like the Qumran community and others, he saw the Jerusalem complex as corrupt. Unlike others, he did not set up his own community, with its own sacrifices and rituals. He ate locusts and wild honey, foods that could not be sacrificed. He becomes the complete outsider.

And along comes Jesus, who preaches in synagogue, although he does appear to be cleaning things up. Are you the coming one, wonders John, or should we epxect another. It puts Jesus (or his followers) in an impossible spot. He isn’t going to fulfill anyone’s expectations. He is neither the kingly Messiah nor the priestly Messiah of the Qumran people, neither a general nor a priest. But, he is established a new definition of community, eating with outcasts, and thereby rendering them insiders. Go and tell John, he says, what you see and hear.

How much of the Kingdom is happening around us, but we just don’t have eyes to see it or ears to hear it. Perhaps we need those desert times to focus our attention on what’s really important, to set aside things that distract us, however dear they might be, and however much we might think they are essential.

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