Messiah or Mirage?

Strengthen the weak hands,
Make firm the feeble knees 
For the wilderness and the desert shall be glad.
Like a rose it shall blossom,
Waters shall break forth,
As streams in the desert. 

The people Isaiah is writing to are not actually in the desert. They are languishing in exile. They witnessed the destruction of their temple, of their homes, and of life as they knew it. Ever since they have spent their days feeling lost, waiting for rescue, for ransom, longing for a way to get back home. 

That’s what makes Isaiah’s gospel such good news. 

Then shall the eyes of the blind be opened,
And the ears of the deaf unstopped.
The mute shall speak.
The lame shall leap.
A highway shall be there, flowing like a stream in the desert.
Be strong. Do not fear. 
Here is your God.
The one who shall come and save you.

Typically you’d expect us to be dreaming of snow, or at least expecting a nice Mid-Atlantic wintry mix this time of year. Instead the third Sunday of Advent sends us into the desert.

Rob Delaney is a comic actor you may know from the TV show Catastrophe in which he is typecast as a rye, cynical, and yet endearing husband and father. 

He showed up in my newsfeed last week because he has written a book titled A Heart that Works. The title is the latter half of a line from a song that says “A heart that hurts is a heart that works.” 

Rob’s book is about the diagnosis, treatment, and subsequent death of his third born two-and-a-half year old son, Henry. When I heard the story suddenly I was in the desert too, having my own crisis of faith. I thought of my own son and wondered “how does anyone make a way through that?”

“I started out writing the book very angry,” Rob explained in a recent interview. “When I first started writing I wanted to pummel someone, I wanted it to hurt people.” He said at first it was about just getting that anger out there, but then the book became more about making a way through his grief, a way for others to know what had happened to him, and a way for him to write his way back into humanity.

Isaiah’s exhortation to “strengthen the weak hands, make firm the feeble knees,” it connects us to a people weakend by an arduous journey, in the wake of a traumatic event, parched, thirsting for something, someone, to sustain them and to bring them home.

“Be strong,” Isaiah writes, “Do not fear. Here is your God. Behold, you shall find a rose in the wilderness. Water in the desert. Here is your God.” 

Did you notice Isaiah points not just to “there,” not just to a God waiting for them in Zion, but here?

In the desert. Here is your God. 

When I read that this week I thought of little Henry.

Really? Here is God? Here? 

In his interview on CBS mornings about the book, Rob stops the conversation at one point and says to Gayle King, “Just before we went on the air you came to my dressing room to say hello. You asked me questions, specific questions, about my son and then you started to cry, and that made me cry with you.” 

“I know,” Gayle says, starting to apologize, but then Rob said, “No. That was the best thing that’s happened to me in the last few days… Your interest, your genuine human response to my son’s death, it was like, like water in the desert.”

When I heard that I thought, “Did I just hear Rob Delaney, an avowed atheist, inadvertently quote the prophet Isaiah?”

A rose in the wilderness.
Water in the desert.
Here is your God. 

“I started writing in anger,” Delaney said, “but then over time this book and my experience have become more and more about love.” 

Today we light the pink candle; but in church-speak the proper name for its color is “rose.” Back when Advent was a season a lot more like Lent people would fast during this time, they’d give things up or otherwise take on special religious practices to commemorate and embody the longing of this season, the longing of the exiled, our longing for a savior.

But, in her wisdom, the church decided to punctuate this long deep purple December with a rose in the wilderness, a pink Sunday to break our fast and slake our thirst. Most years on this Rose Sunday we read about Mary but this year, we are sent to the wilderness to Isaiah, and later to that same wilderness with John the Baptist. 

John is Advent personified. He embodies Isaiah’s own prophecies, the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, he goes and hangs out by streams in the desert saying “Prepare the Way of the Lord. Get ready! He’s coming soon!” 

And then one day, after a long wait, near one of those streams, he sees Jesus walk by, and he points and says “Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Behold. In the wilderness, a rose, in the desert, living water. Here is your God.”

But not long after that, John finds himself locked up in jail, facing a death sentence. Now he’s really in the desert, in the valley of the shadow of death, and he has some questions. So he sends some of his friends to Jesus to say “Hey, are you the Messiah, the one we’ve been waiting for, or do we have to wait for another? Are you the Messiah or are you a mirage in the desert?” 

Jesus sends word back, “Tell John what you have been witnessing. Tell him the blind see. The deaf hear. The mute speak. The lame leap. Tell him, behold, a rose in the wilderness, water in the desert.” 

In a different interview with Stephen Colbert Rob says this whole experience has forced him to become more comfortable with mystery. “You see deeper,” he said, “you see through the veil, things that are much bigger and more powerful than what’s happening in the day to day. You put your hand on the pulse of something much more majestic… and terrifying… and beautiful.” 

Colbert, a Christian, then asks, “What is that thing, if I may ask?” 

Sheepishly, Rob answers “I mean it might be love.” Then to my amazement he said, “The big problem for me is that my faith organ or whatever has actually been growing in the years after Henry’s death.” 

Faith growing in the wake of death?

A rose in the wilderness.
Water in the desert.
Here is your God.

You’ll be glad to hear that just a couple of years ago while still writing the book Rob and his wife conceived and bore a son, their fourth son. Rob and his wife say that their hope for this book is that, even through the grief and anger that they still live with and walk through every day, they hope to show people, and I quote, “how grace still can appear in even the darkest of times.” 

This week I needed to hear that. When I heard that, Rob became my Isaiah, my John the Baptist, the voice of one crying in the wilderness saying it’s not just a mirage, there’s something here, it’s real. Even in the valley of the shadow of death: light, a rose, water in the desert. This is what the scriptures promise, what the Word tells us to watch and wait for: for God to be revealed in the desert.

This is a different kind of Messiah than we may expect. This is God with us in the least likely places, a God who chooses to be revealed in the desert, and ultimately even in and through the death of a son.

What about you? What desert do you find yourself in? What are you thirsting for? What are you longing for a way to be made out of? 

Allow me to be your Isaiah. Hear the good news. 

Behold, a rose in the wilderness. Water in the desert. Here is your God. Here, with you in the desert, making a way to save you. This God has been proclaimed by the prophets, and in the fullness of time was made flesh in Jesus Christ by whose death and glorious resurrection we have been given hope that even the death of a son does not mean that God is gone.

Here is your God. 

May this gospel strengthen our weak hands, and make firm our feeble knees. 

Be strong. Do not fear. 
Your God shall come to save you.
I promise.

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