I want you to imagine the desert around Jerusalem. For miles you can see nothing but sand in various shades of tan. The desert is not flat but hills and mountains of sand. In the Godly Play stories that are told in the sand we are reminded that the desert is a dangerous place and people only go there if they have to. It is dry. There is no water and without water we die. It is cold at night and by day it is hot and the sun burns your skin by day. When the wind blows the mountains of sand change their shape and it is easy to get lost. The desert is indeed a dangerous place.
But that is not all that happens in the desert. In the early days of the church, the church Fathers and Mothers went to the desert to draw closer to God. Jesus was in the desert for 40 days and 40 nights following his baptism. The desert is where God’s people wandered for 40 years as they journeyed to the Promised Land. With one rainfall the desert is transformed into a sea of beauty as the desert wildflowers bloom in every colour of the rainbow. The desert is dangerous but it is also significant.
Isaiah knows about the desert and the amazing beauty when it blooms. If you read Isaiah in sequence, todays comes as a total surprise. So much of what Isaiah has to say is about doom and gloom. And then we get this beautiful passages promising something new, something different. In chapter 34 Isaiah is talking of destruction and desolation. And then, “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom abundantly, and rejoice with singing.” (Isaiah 35:1 – 10)
Good news is like that isn’t? It doesn’t come at the expected moment. There is no time to get ready for it. One minute is ordinary and then… “The eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; …for waters shall break forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert; he burning sand shall be come a pool and the thirsty ground springs of water; … a highway shall be there called the Holy Way; …they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighting shall flee away.” Isaiah 35:5 – 8, 10)
From desolation to great joy in a heartbeat. We know that it doesn’t always happen like that but every now and then joy breaks through. Barbara Lundblad, shares this story:
“For many years Chuck Campbell taught preaching at Columbia Seminary in Decatur, Georgia. He required students in one of his classes to lead worship and preach at the Open Door Shelter for homeless people in downtown Atlanta. One day he was leading worship in front of the shelter, amid the noise of rush-hour traffic. After the call to worship and a song, Chuck’s plans were interrupted. “I noticed one homeless man waving to me and pointing to himself. I was surprised when I saw him for the man can neither hear nor speak and is normally very reserved.
But there he was, eager to do something. He stepped into the middle of the circle, bowed his head in silence, and began to sign a hymn for us. It was beautiful, like a dance… In that moment our notions of ‘abled’ and ‘disabled’ were turned upside down. The rest of us had been shouting to be heard, but the noise was no problem for our friend…Our worship became a token of the resurrection in the midst of the powers of death, a glimpse of God’s beloved community.” Even Isaiah couldn’t have imagined the glory of that moment in downtown Atlanta as the hands of the speechless were singing for joy!” (http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1941)
Sometimes that highway – that Holy Way for God’s people breaks into our ordinary days and something extraordinary happens. That’s what happened with the shepherds in our Christmas story. The shepherds in the fields watching the flocks. Perhaps they were sitting at the fire trying to stay warm. Maybe one of the shepherds was keeping watch while the others were by the fire. It was an ordinary day for ordinary shepherds. But it didn’t stay that way for long. An angel of the Lord stands before them and the light of God’s glory was all around them and they were terrified. Knees shaking, heart pounding fear because this is not something that you expect when you are in a field, taking care of sheep or really ever as we got about our daily routines.
“Don’t be afraid” says the angel, “I bring good news for all. As saviour is born and you will find him in a stable wrapped in bands of closing lying in a manger.” And then, and then more angels – a multitude of angels singing, “Glory to Godin the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours!”
We’ve heard the story – we know what happens but every year it is amazing. God’ breaks into the world and changes everything. That is what advent is all about, waiting, watching hoping, looking, remembering that Emmanuel – our God with us, comes in the ordinary moments of life and changes everything.
After that day the shepherds are changed. How can they go back to watching their flocks by night? The glory of the Lord shone around them and it was like waters in the wilderness and streams in the desert. God still breaks into ordinary moments in our lives and in our world in amazing ways. Sometimes it’s hard to see, sometimes it’s there but we just can’t or won’t see it.
Today it happens as we gather at the table to share gifts of bread and wine. God comes to us in ordinary gifts bread, wine and reminds us that our Emmanuel, our God with us, our Jesus is with us calling us, blessing us to be God’s people in the world. Amen.