Editor’s note: Throughout Advent, bloggers for The Mennonite will write reflections on the upcoming Sunday’s Lectionary text. These reflections are archived at themennonite.org/advent. Sign up for our TMail newsletter and follow us on Facebook to receive the reflections.
Sun., Dec. 15 Lectionary readings: Isaiah 35:1-10, Psalm 146:5-10, James 5:7-10, Matthew 11:2-11
For many people I know, the past year has been a season of loss. Friends have lost parents and partners. Relationships are frayed or broken. Students are carrying great responsibilities for their families, adding to the “normal” stress of college. Our campus lost three beloved colleagues in the space of a year.
Beyond those kinds of struggles that are experienced more personally, there is also sweeping collective sense of loss fostered by things like worries about climate change, the rancorous political divide, the ever-growing gulf between the wealthy and the poor. And more. And more.
For so many people, this is a wilderness time. People who have been through them know that wilderness experiences are not simply about vast, sprawling spaces. They are places, seasons of desolation and barrenness, places where there is no sustenance, places that are harsh on one’s body and spirit. The wilderness, in and of itself, does not point to a viable future.
Yet both the Old Testament text (Isaiah 35:1-10) and the Gospel text (Matthew 11:2-11) for the upcoming Sunday remind us that the wilderness is the very place we can and do meet God. The prophet Isaiah, speaking to people returning from exile, says the wilderness shall be glad, the desert will bloom, and healing will come. In the Gospel, Jesus sends a message to an imprisoned John: healing has come.
While the words of Isaiah and Jesus can (and should) be understood as words of encouragement and hope for the faithful, the message seems to be much more profound. They are not simple pats on the back that one day everything will be better if you just hold on. In both settings, context matters. Isaiah is speaking to those “with a fearful heart,” those whose bodies are flooded with adrenaline, who have every right to fear their unknown future. To those, the prophet says, “Here is your God.” Jesus instructs the disciples to tell John what they themselves have witnessed: God is here.
In the season of Advent expectation, we are invited to receive God as we are. It is easy to let the commercial trappings and cultural expectations of the season convince us to put on a happy face, even if on the inside we are grieving, or scared, or angry. God promises to meet us, even in the wilderness.
Regina Shands Stoltzfus teaches at Goshen (Indiana) College in the peace, justice and conflict studies and the Bible, religion and philosophy departments.