Third Sunday of Advent
October 29, 2019 by Rev. Dr. Neal Presa
December 15: Isaiah 35:1-10; Matthew 11:2-11
I’ve been to many places considered “deserts and wildernesses” during my nearly two decades of pastoral ministry. From the dry sands in Egypt to the sub-zero temperatures of Barrow, Alaska where no vegetation grows, to the difficult plight of hundreds of Syrian refugees in Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley, to the solitary state of prisoners at a federal penitentiary, to the pitiable sight of rows of bed-ridden older adults confined to their convalescent dwelling-places yellowing from not having enjoyed the fresh outdoors for months and even years.
Parched. Forsaken. Lifeless.
But those descriptors apply also to places considered “wealthy and abundant.” I’ve been to those places too: the cocktail parties of finely dressed women and men who engage in schmoozing, seemingly interested in you and your life, to the silent auction dinners of bejeweled attendees raising their cards with such ease to raise the ante another $50,000 for the prize of a one-week vacation with friends, to even a high-level gathering of healthy, smart, theologically-minded religious leaders worshipping in an ostentatious church with crowds of homeless and visibly diseased persons barred from entering the sanctuary but kept outside the church fence.
You get it? Deserts and wildernesses come in many forms. And that’s what Isaiah 35 and Matthew 11 are doing: upending expectations because the Lord works that way, surprising us at every turn to demonstrate the power and possibility of God to make the world as it should be, not what we see.
In Isaiah 35, the prophet gives the image of a flourishing, verdant desert, the creation is responding in symphonic welcome as God’s people, the redeemed of the Lord, will return to Zion. Vegetation will return, waters will spring forth where they shouldn’t (or where it seemed like water can’t possibly be found). The text is clear: where the desert and wilderness have a way of convincing the mind and heart that there’s no future, that death is there, that it’s just the same old same old, Isaiah says, “Be strong and do not fear! Here is your God.” (35:4b) and, “Joy and gladness will result and all sorrow and sighing will flee.” (35:10c)
Matthew 11 does a similar move in turning human expectations on its head, with John the Baptist as the case study. Through John’s friends, Jesus sends the imprisoned prophet a message in response to John’s question about whether Jesus is the One, the Messiah they were all waiting for. Jesus’ message was this: let John know and anyone else who wonders that those who were considered the “desert and wilderness” of this world – the blind, the poor, the oppressed, the dead, the diseased, the deaf – tell John, and, indirectly, through him, let everyone else know that the desert wilderness is flourishing, the human condition is being lifted up; the Lord’s got this.
But Jesus isn’t finished yet; He never is. He addressed the crowds and their own expectations about John the Baptist. Jesus spoke directly to the heart – what kind of grand messenger were they expecting? Someone with an Armani suit, or someone who would bend to the whims and wind of people’s desires? John is a servant of the Lord, whose purpose was to pave the way for Jesus, to point to the Lord, to prep the deserts and wildernesses for what the Lord is doing.
Stewardship is bringing our prayers, our energies, our resources, our lives, our networks…all those things we associate with the word “blessing” to not only bear upon the deserts and wildernesses of our lives and of this world, but to also tell the stories of the abundance that is in those deserts and wildernesses.
Use your stewardship to tell the story of the Utqiagvik Presbyterian Church in Barrow, Alaska, ministering to a community where alcoholism and troubled families are the norm. Listen to the confessions of faith of inmates with life sentences at Mule Creek State Prison or Sing Sing Federal Penitentiary. Clasp the hand of the convalescing grandmother as she utters the Lord’s Prayer and sings “Amazing Grace” with what strength she has. Thank and encourage the affluent businesswoman and her husband as they win that silent auction item for $75,000 and connect them to the Christian philanthropists who hosted the fancy dinner to benefit a local hospital. Work and pray hard for visible unity among religious leaders so that internal theological discussions with result in external ecumenical engagement and collaboration in the streets where real human lives are impacted.
You see what the Lord is doing in the “deserts and wildernesses” of the world around us, in you and in me? Stewardship is God working in and through our parched expectations, hearts, and attitudes and upending them so that lives are transformed, people are healed, and joy and gladness abounds.