Seeking the True Joy of Advent
Matthew 11: 2-11
As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at?” Matt 11:7
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.
by Wes Howard-Brook and Sue Ferguson Johnson
Amid the shadowed darkness of impending winter, our Advent lection from Isaiah envisions springtime joy. We might at first wonder, “What does Isaiah’s imagery have to do with the celebration of the birth of Jesus?” This questions leads to another query: What exactly are we hoping for with the coming of the one we call “messiah” and “lord”? Or as John the Baptist puts it in this week’s gospel, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (Matt 11:3)
John’s question is delivered from a Roman prison cell, where he is being held for challenging Herod’s adulterous liaison with his brother Philip’s wife (Mat 14:3-4). We can easily imagine that John had been hoping that the one whom he baptized in the Jordan might be the Davidic messiah who would lead a holy army in battle against the imperial oppressors. Matthew suggests that John is confused by what the Messiah was doing, that is, giving sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, life to the dead and good news to the poor (Matt 11:2-5). We readers, of course, know from the start that Jesus will not be a military messiah. But again, what do Jesus’ reported deeds have to do with the Isaiah imagery? What are we hoping for this season, here and now, that flows from our proclamation that Jesus is indeed God’s Beloved?
After John’s messengers leave, Jesus asks the crowd the question quoted above. He immediately contrasts those in “soft robes” (Gk, malakois hēmphiesmenon) who are found in royal palaces with desert prophets like Elijah. This is the first clue that connects our passages. The Greek root for “robes” is only used once elsewhere in Matthew, where Jesus seeks to instill in his disciples trust in the Creator’s power to provide what we truly need. There, he contrasts someone found in soft robes in a royal palace—Solomon—with a flower. He then tells them: But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe (Gk, amphiennusin) you—you of little faith? (Matt 6:30). In other words, if one wants to live in true security, turn not to the false and fleeting promises of empire but to the trustworthy promises of the Creator God.
Perhaps our own minds and hearts have been so colonized by imperial Christianity that we have missed the message of true messianic hope. What we hear throughout Matthew’s Gospel—a text which echoes again and again with Isaian imagery—is that collective trust in God leads directly to the shalom of heaven and earth.
Let’s look a little closer at Isaiah 35:1-10. The passage is part of the larger unit of Isaiah 34-35. It follows several chapters that cry out in prophetic passion against relying on Egyptian military power for salvation rather than Israel’s God. For instance, we hear:
Oh, rebellious children, says YHWH, who carry out a plan, but not mine; who make an alliance, but against my will, adding sin to sin; who set out to go down to Egypt without asking for my counsel, to take refuge in the protection of Pharaoh, and to seek shelter in the shadow of Egypt; Therefore the protection of Pharaoh shall become your shame, and the shelter in the shadow of Egypt your humiliation. (Isa 30:1-3).
Alas for those who go down to Egypt for help and who rely on horses, who trust in chariots because they are many and in horsemen because they are very strong, but do not look to the Holy One of Israel or consult YHWH! (Isa 31:1)
With this prelude, Isaiah 34 narrates a great slaughter in Edom which is presented as a day of YHWH’s vengeance, a sacrifice of blood that results in the fall of a kingdom and a return to wild nature:
But the hawk and the hedgehog shall possess it; the owl and the raven shall live in it. He shall stretch the line of confusion over it, and the plummet of chaos over its nobles. They shall name it No Kingdom There, and all its princes shall be nothing. Thorns shall grow over its strongholds, nettles and thistles in its fortresses. It shall be the haunt of jackals, an abode for ostriches. (Isa 34:11-13)
This scene of scavengers feeding on the dregs of empire is immediately contrasted at the start of chapter 35 with counter-images of creation singing and rejoicing in the glory of YHWH. And then we hear the next connection with our gospel:
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water… (Isa 35:5-7a).
In other words, trust in God alone allows us to see and to hear what God is really doing: bringing forth abundant life within us and all around us! Advent isn’t just for “us” at the start of winter, but is a celebration of what is true always and everywhere if we have eyes to see and ears to hear. If we can push aside the imperial death shroud that would cover our hope (Isa 25:7), we can join the watered wilderness in singing, Gaudete, “Rejoice!”
One final connection underscores this hope. Later in Matthew, Jesus famously offers the image of the camel going through a needle’s eye to illustrate the near impossibility of a person burdened by wealth entering the realm of God. When Peter seems confused and asks, What then will we have? Jesus responds with an image often lost in translation: Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things (Gk, palingenesia), when the Human One is seated on the throne of his glory… The word translated “renewal of all things” literally means “genesis again.” In other words, when people truly give up hope in empire trusting instead only in the Creator God, it will truly be “genesis again,” the time when God’s will is done, on earth as in heaven. This is our Advent hope, a hope that leads us to sing and to dance and to leap with joy, now and forever. May it be so!
Sue Ferguson Johnson and Wes Howard-Brook collaborate in the ministry, Abide in Me, from their home in the Issaquah Creek Watershed in Western Washington. Sue is a spiritual director of individuals and couples and Wes teaches theology at Seattle University. Together, they seek to integrate the inner and outer journeys with the Creator.
Wild Lectionary is a weekly blog on ecological justice themes in the revised common lectionary, curated by Laurel Dykstra, gathering priest of Salal + Cedar, Coast Salish Territory.