The image of the desert or wilderness is a powerful image in the divine drama of the Bible. The desert is dry and barren, lifeless and unknown, bleak and dangerous. It is a place of trial and testing.
I have seen the Judean wilderness that begins just south of Jerusalem and Bethlehem - and let me tell you - it's even bleaker and more barren than you can imagine. It would take a miracle just to survive out there.
Moses led the children of Israel as they wandered for 40 years in the wilderness after coming out of Egypt and across the Red Sea before entering the Promised Land. John the Baptist came as a "voice in the wilderness" preaching and baptizing in the desert to prepare the way for the Messiah. And Jesus at the beginning of His ministry, right after His baptism in the river Jordan, went out into the wilderness, to be tempted and tried by Satan for 40 days and 40 nights in the desert.
700 years before this, at the time of the prophet Isaiah, life had become like a desert for the nation of Israel. The people were in captivity, their capital city had been incinerated, their temple had been destroyed, their sons had been killed, their cities and farms had been burned, they had been in captivity for nearly fifty years. The people were feeling burned out and broken down.
Life can be like that sometimes. Life can be like a desert where everything is withered and dried up, burnt, bent, and brown. Your heart becomes cracked, your soul parched, and your dreams brittle. It is the dark night of the soul, and sometimes it seems daybreak will never come.
After a death of a husband, a wife or a child. During an illness like cancer or heart disease. After an accident that leaves people crippled or paralyzed. When someone loses a job and loss of income and they don’t know where to turn. In periods of loneliness and depression, when you begin to lose your energy and strength. Like the Psalmist says, this is a dry and desolate place where there is no water.
Like how John the Baptist must have felt in prison in Matthew 11. When John about Jesus' deeds, He sent word by His disciples and said to Him - "Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?" To paraphrase - "Because I'm sittin' here in prison about to get my head chopped off, and uh, this isn't exactly how I thought this whole thing was going to go when you showed up. Are you really the one who is to come, or shall we look for someone else?"
How about for us? This time of year, this "happy" season, often the worst time of year for people who feel that life is like a desert or a wilderness. When the Christmas season starts the day after Halloween the people who already feel like they are in the desert can easily wilt under all the pressure to be happy.
The prophet Isaiah comes to those of us in the wilderness with these words -“The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom. It shall blossom abundantly and rejoice with joy and singing ... Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, the ears of the deaf unstopped, the lame man shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy. For waters break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert."
Jesus uses the same words to reassure John when He tells his disciples - "Go and tell John what you hear and see. The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the deaf hear, the lepers are cleansed, the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is he who is not offended by me."
Jesus the Messiah has come to bring hope, joy, peace, comfort, nourishment, new life. Jesus comes to bring new life to the world. And not only to the whole world, but to individual people as well. He came to bring life to Matthew, Mary Magdalene, Zacchaeus, the Roman centurion, the woman at the well, to Jairus, the widow of Nain, and on and on.
Again and again, when Jesus comes into the lives of individual people, their deserts begin to bloom once again. Jesus comes to you this Advent season to give you new life as well. When Jesus the Messiah comes into your life, He brings new life to your wilderness and makes it bloom again.
But here’s something important to remember about the hope and healing Jesus brings:
There is no way to get to the promised land except through the wilderness.
The beauty of Bethlehem is always connected to the cross of Calvary.
The joy of Easter always comes after the pain and death of Good Friday.
The cross always comes before the crown.
It is in the wilderness wanderings and the times in the desert that the genuineness of our faith is tested. Genuine faith does not simply believe in God ... it actually believes God! We might say we believe in God, but it takes faith a step further to say that we believe God when He says, "I will never leave you nor forsake you" and "I will be with you always, to the very end of the age".
It is that faith of the prophet Isaiah which cries out in the midst of Israel’s desert experience in Babylon - "The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom."
We rejoice this Advent Season that the kingdom of God has come, that Jesus the Messiah has come to us and still comes among us, during this time in between His first and second coming, the time of the now and not yet, the time in which we now live. We rejoice in the fact that out in the middle of a dry and barren desert, way out in the boonies, in the middle of the wilderness, a desert rose began to bloom.
"Lo, how a rose is blooming
from tender stem hath sprung
Of Jesse's lineage coming
as prophets long have sung
It came a flower bright
amid the cold of winter
when half spent was the night"