Advent and the desert

The desert is a land of extremes: extreme heat and extreme dryness; sudden flash floods and cold nights. Because deserts are such a harsh environment, deserts often have names likes “Death Valley,” “the empty quarter,” and “the place from where there is no return.”

Deserts are usually very, very dry. Even the wettest deserts get less than ten inches of precipitation a year.

In most places, rain falls steadily throughout the year. But in the desert, there may be only a few periods of rains per year with a lot of time between rains.

When it does rain, there may be quite a downpour! After the rain, desert flowers bloom.

Everyone knows that during the day many deserts are hot, very hot. Temperatures in excess of 100 degrees fahrenheit are not uncommon. Yet at night, the same deserts can have temperatures fall into the 40s or 50s.

Think of a desert – hot, dry, barren, unproductive. No life to speak of. Not an inviting place. No one would want to go there. Even passing through would be difficult. Picture the films you have seen: people crawling, their minds affected, their bodies weak; unable to function effectively.

Isaiah 35 describes a life without God as a desert, a wasteland or wilderness.
Then God acts, and the desert blossoms and bursts into singing and joy, dangerous beasts are banished amd the land reflects the glory of the Lord.

What is the difference? You almost need to read the Psalm backwards: what are the people like when they have to exist in a desert – a place empty of God’s blessing?

  • Feeble hands, weak knees
  • Fearful
  • Worried for their lives

What are their surroundings like?

  • Barren
  • A wilderness
  • Burning sand
  • Dangerous – something nasty around every corner

Do you know people who live like that? Do you live like that?
What will life be like in the coming era of the Messiah? Isaiah offers a few images:

  • A desert in bloom — like a crocus! (verse 1)

A topsy-turvy kingdom where:

  • Blind shall see
  • Deaf shall hear
  • Lame shall leap
  • Mute shall sing
  • A route to God shall appear and the people of God shall return.

There is a parallel for us. Our separation from God makes us unwhole. Like the barren land, we are not what God intended. And we are unable to improve our situation on our own. We cannot restore ourselves to right relationship with God.
But as God transforms the desert into productive land, so God can change our lives.

American writer Rolf Potts has an account of driving down the stunning desert coast of Peru for nearly a day and wondering what the locals call this parched stretch of land that skirts the Pacific (http://sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2004/03/28/CMGS25C6D723.DTL&type=news). When they stop at a petrol station he asks the attendant what the desert is called.

“It is not a desert.”

“What do you mean? Does it rain here often?”

The attendant grins. “It almost never rains here. It is like a desert.”

“But you just said this isn’t a desert.”

“That’s right,” he says. “This is not a desert.”

The same question to a handful of Peruvians in the petrol station snack shop gets the same answer: This dry and dusty coastal strip of Peru – even with its jagged moonscape and curving sand dunes – is not a desert. It is something else. Something that, for whatever reason, does not have a name.

At the end of the day, as they have supper, he talks to people about the confusion.

“The people you talked to before were very stupid,” one man declares grandly. “This place is definitely a desert.”

“Does it have a name?” I ask.

“This desert does not have a name.”

“Why doesn’t it have a name?”

A shrug. “I think because it is not a very good desert.”

“And why isn’t it a good desert?”

The old Peruvian waves his free hand in a vague gesture of frustration. “This place is like a desert, but it is not a desert.”

“But what’s the difference? Why is it like a desert, but not a desert at the same time?”

“Because,” Jose declares confidently, “it does not have a name.”

People like things to have names. It helps understand them; it helps them to make sense. In Isaiah 35 what God does to bring life has a name: “it will be called the Way of Holiness … it will be for those who walk in that Way … only the redeemed will walk there”. (vv8-9)

What will happen on it? v10 “and the ransomed of the LORD will return. They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads. Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away.”

God provides us a way of holiness – following Christ. We could not build this road. Jesus is the Way. On this Way provided by God, we have security. Journeying with others who are redeemed, we share gladness and singing.

Because of God’s action, our lives are transformed now, and we have joy and life everlasting.

And interestingly, what is the first sign of it in the story of the Nativity? Luke 1: 80 And the child grew and became strong in spirit; and he lived in the desert until he appeared publicly to Israel.

The Good News comes out of the desert to transform the deserts of our own lives and bring flesh life – in the name of Jesus.

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