‘Let the wilderness and dry lands exult, let the wasteland rejoice and bloom, let it rejoice and bring forth flowers like the jonquil, let it rejoice and sing for joy.” The Prophet Isaiah’s poetry accurately describes the transformation of the Judean wilderness as the spring rains bring abundant life to what had once seemed a dead and barren landscape. We who live in more temperate climates can scarcely imagine the wonder that this season brings. It is indeed as if a landscape, once dead, begins to sing with the joy of a life that cannot be contained.
Beautiful though this poetry is, it was not intended to describe a landscape. The wilderness was the heart of a people, a people who had once rejoiced in their God, but who now experienced life as a dry weary land without water.
We also have experienced what Isaiah described so beautifully. Beneath the superficiality that can so often hide our deepest feelings, we too can know an emptiness, a spiritual desert that cries out for God’s presence.
Such was the experience of those to whom the prophet’s words were addressed. At the very point when they felt that everything had died within them, he promised the new life of salvation. “Strengthen all weary hands, steady all trembling knees, and say to all faint hearts: ‘Courage! Do not be afraid. Look, your God is coming, he is coming to save you.’”
This invitation summoned the people from their malaise, awakening faint hearts to a joyful expectation of God’s presence. Today, possibly more than ever, we live in a world that has become desensitised to any meaningful sense of God’s presence. It is a strange paradox that a commercial world, in its preparations for Christmas, concentrates our minds on the transient, on that which fails to fulfil its promise.
Isaiah’s promise went to heart of broken lives. “Look, your God is coming. Then the eyes of blind shall be opened, the ears of the deaf unsealed, then the lame shall leap like a deer and the tongues of the dumb sing for joy.”
Surely we all long for the inner healing that opens our eyes to the wonder of Christ’s presence amongst us. We long for listening hearts, hearts that rest in God. We long to be alive with a joy that cannot be contained, that leaps like a deer, singing God’s praise.
In his response to the envoys from John the Baptist, Jesus reminds us that this was no empty promise: “Go back and tell John what you see and hear; the blind see again, and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised to life, and happy is the man who does not lose faith in me.”
During Advent let us acknowledge the many signs of Christ’s presence in our midst. Side by side with the many depressing aspects of our world, we see the generosity that organises food banks and that shows unprecedented giving for the victims of generosity. We see a compassion that is willing to seek out the lonely and forgotten. This by no means universal in a sinful world, but it is most certainly the presence of a kingdom born at Bethlehem. These are the signs of God’s presence among us, and Advent calls us to a renewed hope in what that presence will bring.