Advent III: Is. 35:1-10, Js. 5:7-11, Mt. 11:2-11
What are you waiting for? What do you long for? Advent is an annual reminder that Christians are a waiting people, and this in turn reminds us that there is a profound blessing to be found in learning to wait on the Lord.
Isaiah promises that the desert will rejoice and blossom (Is. 35:1-2). For that reason Isaiah calls on the people of Israel to strengthen the weak and encourage those who have a feeble heart with the promise of God’s coming (Is. 35:3-4). When God comes He will bring justice and healing: that’s what is meant by streams in the desert (Is. 35:5-7). When God comes He will make a way that is safe and secure for His people, so that they may come home to Zion with everlasting joy (Is. 35:10). This vision was what John announced was being fulfilled as he preached in the wilderness by the Jordan: prepare the way of the Lord, make straight a highway for our God (Mt. 3:1-3). John announced that God was coming, and He would “clear his threshing floor” in judgment (Mt. 3:12). But then John was thrown into prison, and the enemies of God didn’t seem to be getting thrown into the unquenchable fire. So John sent messengers to Jesus to ask if He was the coming one or whether they should wait for another (Mt. 11:2-3). Jesus points to the fulfillment of Isaiah’s vision in His healing ministry (Mt. 11:4-5), and says that God’s blessing rests on anyone who isn’t offended by Him (Mt. 11:6). Jesus recognizes that His way of fulfilling God’s promises to redeem His people and bring them home might be offensive to some, since He isn’t making everything right immediately. Yet, as great as John’s ministry was (Mt. 11:7-10), the least in the Kingdom will be greater than he (Mt. 11:11).
By the time of James many more Christians were in prison, had lost family, lands, jobs, livelihoods, and were suffering for the sake of Christ, and they too were wondering ‘Are you the One who was coming? Or do we wait for another?’ James says, be patient while waiting for the coming of the Lord (Js. 5:7). The coming of the Lord refers to an immediate relieving of their suffering, but it ultimately points to Isaiah’s promise: sorrow and sighing will flee away (Is. 35:10). James says Christians must establish their hearts like patient farmers waiting for their “precious fruit,” waiting for the early and late rains (Js. 5:7-8). The temptation is to be offended at God’s timing and begin grumbling (Js. 5:9). This is what God’s people have frequently been tempted to do in their wilderness wanderings. James points to the prophets as examples of suffering and patience: think of Abraham, Moses, Elijah, and John (Js. 5:10). James points to the patience of Job as a particularly striking example of the blessing of patience and steadfastness (Js. 5:11).
Wandering in the Wilderness
Biblically, the wilderness is any experience that feels like fruitless, aimless waiting. It feels disorienting, monotonous, like you aren’t making any progress. You aren’t sure if what you’re doing is what you’re supposed to be doing or whether it matters in the grand scheme. These seasons of life can be particularly depressing for God’s people because you may feel abandoned, like God is distant from you. You may be tempted to be offended by Jesus. Often we feel it the hardest following particularly exciting times or seasons of hope. Maybe high school was amazing but college has become a burden. Maybe college was amazing but life after college has come to feel bewildering. Maybe you started a career with high expectations but now years later you wonder if it’s all been a waste. Or maybe you got married with lots of excitement but now you wonder if this is what it’s really supposed to be like. Or maybe you had visions of a particular kind of family, but it hasn’t turned out the way you hoped. Or maybe you face particular health trials or family tensions or personal failures. Perhaps this is what John felt to some extent, having faithfully announced the coming Messiah and then landing in prison. Was this really the Kingdom of God?
The common denominator in all of these things is hope deferred. “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life” (Prov. 13:12). When God says ‘wait’ to things we long for (e.g. a sense of purpose, a spouse, joy, healing, love, children, progress), it can make us feel sick. But God has done this since the very beginning: right next to the original tree of life was a tree that was forbidden to Adam and Eve. Amidst all of the perfection and blessing, God gave them a command to wait. Their sin was a refusal to wait. Fundamentally, they grumbled against God’s command and were offended by His timing. They seized the fruit and ate. Many, like Adam and Eve, are quick to rebel and seize whatever they want, but many others remain faithful to God waiting, but after a while, it starts to seem pointless, especially while everyone else seems to be having a good time doing whatever they please. And there you are trying to be faithful, waiting for God to bless you, and nothing is happening. Why does God do this? James says, “count it all joy” when you endure trials of various kinds, “for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing” (Js. 1:2-4).
Job was a man who walked through a particularly horrific wilderness of waiting, but his story is a powerful testimony to the purposes of God. God took everything from Job so that nothing would keep Job from God. In other words, the insidiousness of evil reaches far deeper into our hearts than we ever imagine, and God will stop at nothing to redeem us from its power. God is determined to bring us safely home from every form of slavery, every form of exile, but unless He teaches us to completely trust Him, we will only bring our evil with us.
Farming in the wilderness takes faith because it seems pointless. It seems utterly barren and fruitless. But it was in the impossibly “barren” womb of a virgin that our Savior was conceived, and it was from the wilderness of the cross and grave that He arose. Advent is the announcement that God has come and entered into the wilderness of this world so that it blossoms, so all His children come safely home to His everlasting joy. And God is teaching us that the safest way home is by faith.