As a young university student I worked for two or three summers on the wheatbins – specifically at Balla, a little spot you probably won’t find on the map, the very northern-most tip of the fertile wheatbelt, within a day’s drive of Kalbarri Gorge. We lived in a little tin shack in the middle of nowhere and day after day our only visitors were dusty farmers bringing truckload after truckload of the wheat that somehow or other they had wrestled out of this unlikely looking country. In fact it was very fine wheat they grew around Balla, we only accepted A-grade wheat and only once in my memory did we ever have to turn away a truckload to another bin that accepted lower quality. The country looked unpreposessing – low scrubby vegetation, deep red earth hard-baked, home to bull-ants and snakes and rabbits and emus and birds of prey. The hot summer days were brutal – you sought out patches of shade and minimised your movements, any hard physical work you tried to get done early in the morning or during the cool of twilight – and the nights were cold under a sky brilliant with stars. It was quite an experience for a teenager from the big city. Just once I saw a different side of the place – a storm blew up from nowhere and within minutes in the middle of a scorching day we got an inch or more of rain – and the landscape turned from parched red earth to a slushy mud. It rained solidly for a day or so, and spent another 24 hours drying out – and then the insects came, and the birds, and almost overnight a carpet of green shoots, and little flowers – and for a brief moment the parched and dusty spot we called home was transformed.
The desert, for Australians, has got a special resonance, hasn’t it? Even if we don’t and couldn’t live there, we feel its presence at the heart of the country, and we have an awareness of its power. And the symbol that the prophet gives us this morning, the desert bursting into green flame – is one that as Aussies we ‘get’ – we can visualise the earth springing into new life and we understand what that means for human life, for farming communities strugglimg against drought and fire and flood, in the hope of catching the once in a lifetime transformation that produces bumper crops and fat bank accounts. It’s an image of renewal, of hope and transformation that appropriately belongs to the third Sunday of Advent that we call Gaudete Sunday and mark with a pink candle, a day for celebration in the middle of a season of waiting.
The prophet is talking to a people who have endured years of anxiety and terror at the hands of besieging armies. Isaiah 35 is a strange and apparently out-of-place section that looks both backwards and forwards - backwards across the years of harassment by the armies of Assyria leading up to the siege of Jerusalem in 690 BC but also seemingly forwards beyond the devastation of Jerusalem by the Babylonian army a hundred years later and the long years of exile to a distant time of peace. The present time of siege warfare is one of desperate political alliances, of betrayals and false hopes, and the prophet warns against relying too much on Israel’s stronger neighbours and their foreign gods, urging instead a return to the ancient faith in Yahweh. In chapter 34 just before today’s reading the prophet unleashes an oracle of judgement against one of Israel’s tiniest neighbours, the little, maybe 30 square mile kingdom of Edom that has been an unreliable ally. Faithless Edom, the prophet says, is going to become desolate, the haunt of jackals and ostriches and vultures – a hell on earth.
And then abruptly – an oracle of restoration for Israel itself, a delightful reversal, the land itself rejoicing and blossoming, an echo of images of Eden and of the long-remembered Exodus stories of miraculous provision for God’s people in the desert. The prophet is offering a message of hope to a people who have not yet even experienced the worst of what they still have to endure. The sudden reversal gives the reader of this book a sort of theological whiplash – why would God act like this? Doesn’t the prophet see the contradictions of his two chapters? What are we to make of this sort of worldview that wishes destruction on others at the very same time as claiming a vision of hope for ourselves? But it says something about the mystery and contradiction of life and history itself, and the fact that sometimes the reversal and renewal God promises can only come out of the deep yearning of devastated hopes.
Ultimately the prophet is pointing to the mercy and power of God, and is trying to get a people addicted to hopelessness, ready for hope and transformation and change. Political scientists tell us that change in the middle of disappointment - when people have got used to limited horizons and thwarted hopes – that the promise of sudden reversal is hard to hear. People fear the very renewal they long for. And the prophet has a hard time preaching hope to a people whose lives have been overwhelmed by fear, vulnerability, and lack of courage. History tells us that the prophet was right – that after months of siege the Assyrian armies encircling Jerusalem suddenly got up and left, for reasons historians still can’t explain, in the middle of the night, and peace returned for almost a century. But preaching hope can be dangerous, when the people to whom you are preaching have got accustomed to living with a small and limiting vision of themselves, and a fearful vision of the future.
And so, before we can really hear it, we need to remind ourselves of our own hunger, to get in touch with what in us is still unsatisfied. The message comes to us today in the middle of the Advent season when the world around us has already rushed on ahead into the Christmas season and by December 26th will be sick of it and looking for the next thing. But the church teaches us to wait, and to listen to the message of hope with full awareness of how and in what ways we ourselves have run empty, have got used to minimising our expectations and turning the message of hope aside. Of course we know we are in the business of proclaiming that the hope of the world is encapsulated in the child of Bethlehem – but what would that hope look like for us and for the world we live in? What would the deserts of our lives and our world look like if they suddenly blossomed?
Well, the first thing we can do is look at the obvious level of the prophet’s own metaphor. Last week in our reading from Isaiah we heard the prophet’s vision of universal peace – this week the land itself bursts into flower and demonstrates creation’s capacity for restoration and healing. Not a bad image for a week in which delegates from the world’s major economies have sat locked in yet another round of talks at the COP25 climate change conference in Madrid - and left again without, it seems, any agreement or even any shared statement of hope. A week in which Australia burned, and we asked ourselves whether this was just the new normal. It’s a reminder, perhaps, that the hope to which we commit ourselves when we assure one another of God’s actual presence in human history is not just a deferred hope for individuals at the end of their lives, but a hope for the whole of creation – and that the redemption of the whole creation that St Paul talks about needs us to learn to see the earth not just as a commodity for our use, but as God’s creation and as the very incarnation of God’s love. And to learn the truth that human flourishing is inconceivable without a new view of ourselves as living in harmony with God’s creation.
And secondly, perhaps, we might reflect that the capacity for rejuvenation that we see in the desert country where the promise of new life lies dormant for years in the earth until the rains come – we might reflect that the same capacity is built in to human life despite our repeated failures to live in peace and to share our resources. Because the promise of restoration – which as Christians we connect with the Word of God made flesh in Jesus – the promise of restoration is not just the blind hope that one day things will be different but the realistic assurance that ultimately all creation seeks its true purpose and reveals its Creator. And the intuition of the prophets made explicit in the Word made flesh is that God’s promises are always made in flesh and blood, and that history itself is the painful, three steps forward and two steps back coming to realisation that we ourselves are templates of forgiveness and peace, that the coming true of God’s promises for our world depends on us realising and yearning for the promises to come true in our own lives.
For God to take on flesh in our world, in other words, requires our ‘yes’ to God taking on flesh in us – our willingness to take a new perspective on our own lives and our relationships as the landscape of God’s new creation – in which we commit ourselves to living God’s priorities and believing in God’s promises. Our ‘yes’ to the greening of the deserts of our own back yards.