(Isaiah 35: 1-10)
The wilderness. What do you think the wilderness looks like?
If you’re Amanda Eller, it looks like seventeen days wandering in a dense rugged forest on the Hawaiian island of Maui back in May of this year. You remember this story. She’d gone on her usual morning walk that day but lost her bearings and could not find her way home. During those seventeen days she lived off berries and guava and plants. She encountered everything from a broken leg falling off a twenty-foot cliff, to seeking shelter from a torrential rain storm in a cave that happened to be the home of a wild boar. The massive search party eventually found her, well-worn for the journey but grateful to be alive.
If you’re one of the boys on the 12-year old Thai soccer team, the wilderness looks like a cave you’re trapped in for nearly three weeks. In a case of rotten timing, the boys were exploring a surface cave right as an unexpected flash flood hit that pushed them further underground – two and a half miles, to be exact. Once located, divers brought them food and medical supplies, including technology to connect with the outside world. Eventually each of the boys was brought out one-by-one, tethered between two divers, winding through the rocky passages in a journey that took hours for each to make.
And if you’re one of the Robertson family kids back in 1971, well, the wilderness looks like what happens when your Mom and Dad decide to take your family of six on a deep-sea boating excursion; an educational, family-bonding experience your parents proudly call “the university of life.” Everything was going as planned until a group of killer whales attacked their schooner off the Galapagos Islands – cause, as we all know, everything is always going well until the killer whales show up. Their boat severely damaged, the six-member family had to huddle on a small life raft for 38 days straight, surviving off rainwater and six days worth of food. Eventually they were discovered by Japanese fisherman and brought back home. One presumes the following year they elected to do a staycation instead.
Lost. Absence. Danger. A void. This is what the wilderness looks like. And while it is true that, at some point, the wilderness time usually comes to an end; that what was once lost, as the old hymn goes, is often found; the thing is, when you are in the wilderness, lost in the forest or stuck in a cave or floating on the vast sea, there eventually comes a time when you begin wondering, really wondering, if you will ever get out of there.
And when you cross that threshold and start really doubting if you’ll ever make it home, hope begins to fade, like air slowly let out of a balloon through the tiniest of holes. Optimism and promise disintegrate into defeat and resignation.
And at that point, you have a choice to make. You read stories of wilderness survivors like the three I read earlier, and almost to a person they speak of this. You reach a point where you have to make a conscious decision: are you going to live or not? Which will you choose? And the choice you make in that moment, quite literally, can wind up making all the difference.
I wonder this morning, my friends, what your wilderness might look like. What deserts you’ve found yourself in – or are in. When have you been lost, in a literal or metaphorical sense? Are you still searching and trying to find your way out?
The Bible talks an awful lot about wilderness, and it can be any number of things. It can be a place of flight and freedom, escaping bondage and servitude. It can be a place where water is scarce and crops do not grow. It can be a place where one retreats in those critical life junctures when you’re trying to figure out what comes next. It can be a place where it is all too easy to lose your way.
But, as we find in our passage today, the wilderness can also be a place for transformation. Massive transformation. Not simply slapping a new coat of paint on things, not “change for change’s sake.” No – a full-blown upending that brings about new life and hope where there’d been neither.
There is personal transformation in Isaiah’s passage – more specifically, bodily healing and regeneration. Eyes will be opened, it says; ears will be unstopped (or, as one translation puts it, “released”). The lame will leap like a deer; the tongue of the speechless will sing for joy.
In other words, this is transformation for those in need of it, in the way they most need it.
One of my former seminary professors, Chuck Campbell, used to require his students to lead worship and preach outside the Open Door Shelter in downtown Atlanta, a center that cared for those experiencing homelessness. One day during worship, amid the noise and din of rush-hour traffic, their plans were interrupted by one of the regular patrons at the shelter, who started waving at the students and pointing at himself. Which was surprising because this man could neither hear nor speak and was usually quite reserved.
The group called him over and he stepped into the middle of their circle. He bowed his head in silence, and then lifted his head and began to sign a hymn – not recognizable to anyone but himself. It had something that sounded like words; it had a melody that only he knew. It was beautiful, though, like a dance; it swayed back and forth with its wordless refrain.
And in that moment those students had their entire notion of ‘abled’ and ‘disabled’ turned upside down and inside out. They’d been so focused on shouting to be heard in rush hour noise that they’d been blind to a whole different kind of praise coming from the most unlikely of worshippers. I daresay even Isaiah himself could not have imagined the glory of that moment in the wilderness of downtown Atlanta as the voice of the speechless was singing for joy.
So this wilderness transformation, this upending is most assuredly personal. But it is more than that. Beyond bodies and voices and limbs experiencing new life, it is also the very earth itself:
The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly,
and rejoice with joy and singing.
I wonder if you’ve ever heard of a super bloom – do you know about this? It’s the term used to describe what happens when the desert experiences an uncharacteristically rainy fall and winter season, such as what happened this past year in California’s Santa Monica mountains. Anza-Borrego, the largest state park in California, saw seven inches of rain alone. The cold winter that followed further locked moisture into the ground.
All of which sets the normally dry and brown landscape up for a breathtaking transformation in the spring, an explosion of every kind of wildflower imaginable. The pictures of these super blooms are stunning – one in particular, which will be on our website, looks like some kind of Van Gogh painting. The transformation is so profound that in some instances they can even be seen from outer space.
You look at pictures of these super blooms, and it is hard not to think of the prophet’s words. In fact, I am struck by the way Isaiah ascribes feeling to the land – the wilderness is glad, the desert rejoices, all of it sings. You remember when Jesus entered Jerusalem and the Pharisees wanted him to silence those who were singing hosannas, do you remember what Jesus said? Even if they were to be silent, the rocks and stones themselves would start to sing!
That’s what’s going on here – a super bloom of the highest level. The transformation of the wilderness.
But here’s the thing: this transformation, like all transformations, does not happen overnight. There is nothing instantaneous about the work that God does on the land, or even in us. It takes time. And you and I, we have to look for it a little bit. We have to change our perspective so we can better see the signs of transformation breaking into our dry and parched world. To see the berries still hanging on the ends of leafless branches, to pay attention to dandelions stubbornly emerging from cracks in the cement, to watch more intently the cardinals cast in stark relief against a gray sky. To see all of that and know that the wilderness serves a purpose.
And what is that purpose, you ask? What good is the wilderness to us?
It seems to me that the wilderness is where we learn to trust. It was in the wilderness where God carried God’s people through their forty-year sojourn; it was there where God fed them, where God gave them improbable water. It was in the wilderness where God found God’s people and God’s people found God because, quite honestly, there was nothing else to find. Those forty years of wandering were a super bloom of learning to trust God for literally everything they needed to get them from one day to the next.
And we, we learn as well to lean on God in the wilderness. When all else fails, when we are lost and not yet found, we too come face-to-face with that age-old question the wilderness always asks us: do we choose life or death? Do we search high and low for signs of the super bloom, even in the smallest of signs, or are we resigned to never leave the parched brown desert?
In a way that question, that choice is precisely what Advent is about; this wandering, wilderness-excursion where we know what is coming even though it’s not here yet. And our God, like always, is a step ahead of us, showing us the way. In fact, the prophet speaks of this directly: a highway for us, a holy way, right through the middle of the desert.
Which is interesting, don’t you think? A highway? Not a little path, but a full-fledged construction project, plowed right through the depths of the wilderness, taking us from where we are to where we have always longed to go. It’s interesting because, for all we make about Advent being a time of waiting, waiting on God to come to us, waiting and waiting and more waiting; this highway through the wilderness suggests something different. It suggests that Advent is not just about God coming to us. It is also about us going to God.
Stacy Wren and a group of fellow experienced hikers were traversing a section of fissured ice on Mt. Rainier back in 2012 when she slipped and fell. Tethered together for safety, it set in motion a chain reaction that saw multiple people fall with her, a 40-foot drop off a cliff onto the slope below. She suffered bruises; others in her party sustained greater injury. Saddest of all, one on their team died.
It would be two full days before the group was able to hike all the way down the mountain and return home. But in the days and weeks and months that followed, Stacy found that she had not fully left the wilderness behind. In fact, she had entered another wilderness altogether, this one without shape or form, this one much harder to escape. It was the wilderness of lingering trauma from the accident, and the nagging feeling she could not shake that in some way this was her fault, and it was wrong that she remain relatively unscathed while others were still recovering from injuries and one even lost their life.
For months she was trapped in this wilderness. Depression ensued. She cut herself off from others. And for her, the turning point, the first signs of new life in the desert, happened during one of her regular therapy sessions, as she recalled a critical moment in the whole ordeal. It was right in the aftermath of the fall when they were beginning their hike down the mountain. Stacy recounts that she was cold, tired, and hungry and wanted to give up. She actually begged her fellow hikers to just leave her there. But they would not do that. And one of the rangers said to her, “Stacy, this is where you decide who you are and whose you are. This is when you dig deep; this is where you choose to live.”
She chose in that moment to live, and that is what got her down the mountain. And now those same words were coming back around, as if spoken to her all over again. And that is what helped her find her way through her formless wilderness, through the grief and guilt, to find a highway running right through a super-bloomed desert.
The land, and our very bodies, are being transformed in this Advent space. We may have to look hard to see the signs, but it is happening. And a highway is opening up before us, leading us through the wilderness to the place we so long to go.
My dear sisters and brothers – when we find the Holy Way, let us not wait for our Advent God to come to us. Let’s just start walking.
In the name of God the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.
 https://www.newsweek.com/super-bloom-2019-photos-1386440. Also https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2017/03/california-desert-anza-borrego-super-bloom/.
 Images provided by Jill Duffield in her weekly email, “Looking Through The Lectionary” from the Presbyterian Outlook.