These two scripture readings almost seem to be at odds with each other. During the Advent season, the lectionary invariably sends us to the prophets to consider how Christ’s coming was a part of God’s plan for the redemption of creation and the reconciliation of humanity. For the third week in a row, we are invited to hear the words of the prophet Isaiah, who says of the Lord’s coming that “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and bloom” (35:1).
I’ve had two opportunities to visit the desert in my life, both times in Arizona. I remember being amazed at seeing saguaro cacti in their natural habitats, having no idea that they could grow so tall! I remember driving home from the Grand Canyon late at night, and pulling over to the side of the highway and turning off our car’s lights in order to experience the extremity of that remote darkness. I remember being afraid to walk outside of my host’s house at night after he told me that that’s when the scorpions come out! And I remember, above all else, the scorching heat. I wasn’t just in Arizona — I was in Arizona in the summer time. I know what you’re thinking: “But it’s a dry heat!” Balderdash! My oven provides dry heat, too, but you don’t see me crawling into it!
When I was there, it was dry and hot and full of sand and rocks and scrub brush. It wasn’t much to look at. It’s hard to recall that hard-scrabble landscape and think of it as an apt metaphor for creation’s celebration of its Redeemer’s Advent! But that’s because I’ve never seen the desert in all its glory.
The conditions have to be just right — rain at the right times, in the right amounts, over several months. But if those conditions are met, the desert explodes with life and color like a New Orleans Mardi Gras! The third Sunday of Advent, during which we light a pink candle in order to symbolize the joy of an otherwise solemn season of preparation and expectation, is traditionally called Gaudete Sunday, from the Latin command “to rejoice!” It just so happens that Gaudete and our English word “gaudy” share the same root! “Gaudy” means “extravagantly bright or showy, to the point of being tasteless.” That’s what a desert in bloom looks like! It is such an extravagant and joyous explosion of color and life as to be almost tacky! I haven’t seen it in person myself — and apparently, the conditions required are so fickle that it only happens an average of once every ten years — but I’ve seen photos of the desert in bloom, like the one pictured above. But, of course, the original audience of Isaiah would have known precisely what a desert in bloom looks like. And it’s possible that no better metaphor exists for the transformation that creation will undergo when God’s redemption and reconciliation of the cosmos are complete. An explosion of life and beauty in a place of parched desolation? That sounds like the Lord’s own work.
And then there’s James and his words of warning that sound like they must have been written with furrowed brow. Patience! he says. “Do not grumble against one another so that you may not be judged… As an example of suffering and patience, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.” Seriously, where’s this guy’s Christmas spirit? He was speaking about the prophets because so many of them suffered terrible fates for speaking God’s truth to leaders who didn’t want to hear it, and usually not seeing their prophecies fulfilled in their lifetimes. And yet, juxtaposed with today’s prophetic reading, one could point out to James that while prophets may have had to endure patient suffering, they did so while maintaining a spirit of indefatigable hope. Daniel brought hope to his people despite their oppression at the hands of foreign empires. Ezekiel comforted his exiled people by assuring them that God was still with them in their exile. Isaiah reaffirmed God’s promise to Israel that all the nations of the world would be blessed through them.
James, perhaps taking a page from his brother Jesus, who often used agricultural metaphors in his parables, pointed to farmers as models of faithful patience. “Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient” (James 5:7-8a). Everyone reading his letter understood that there were two seasons of rain in the Middle East — in the spring and in the fall — and that both were essential in order to assure a successful crop. You couldn’t harvest your crop too soon; you had to wait for both the early and the late rains, or else it would be ruined.
The Kingdom of God was coming, James assured his readers, but we must be patient. It’s only after God has done everything necessary to assure an abundant harvest—not just the early rains, but also the late rains… the ones that are so hard to wait patiently for, but which cause the crop to ripen and mature properly. These seasons of precious, life-giving rain are signs of God’s grace. Ancient farmers found themselves at the mercy of the weather — and honestly, although there have been hugely significant advances in farming techniques, farmers still rely heavily upon the climate for their success. No matter how much they toil under the sun, they can’t bring the rain that causes the plants to grow. All their work would be in vain without the Lord’s blessing.
Just as a farmer’s patience is a sign of his faith in God, so the late rains are evidence of God’s faithfulness, which is the source of their hope. James uses this metaphor to encourage his readers to maintain their patient hope in the coming Kingdom. “Strengthen your hearts,” he writes, “for the coming of the Lord is near.”
That’s easy for him to say, we might grumble. But it’s been 2,000 years and there’s still no sign that God’s Kingdom is near! Remember, the wise farmer waits patiently until after the late rains before harvesting his grain, and so if God hasn’t yet begun the harvest—as we know he will—then it is for good reason, and we must continue to wait.
Patience is an alternative to the life of grasping and exploitation that James condemns in his run-up to this morning’s reading. Patience makes possible a life of delayed gratification, waiting for fruit to ripen before harvesting it. It is hard to imagine a more countercultural way to live in our materialistic, fast-paced society.
Knowing that this life is not all that there is, and that God’s future is far better than we can imagine, makes possible a life of patience. We know what we’re waiting for, and we know it’ll be worth the wait.
In the meantime, James encourages us to take a page from the prophets. And so we should; for the prophets doggedly pursued their vision of the realm of God. They spoke hard truths to those who exploited their neighbors, exploited the poor, exploited the earth, and all for their own personal gain. They confronted kings and princes, naming their sin. They demanded of spiritual leaders the true religion of honoring God by caring for the weakest and meekest. And they shared with the people words of hope, visions of a future of peace, vibrancy, and life abundant.
The challenge for us is, first, to look past those things that cause us anxiety about the world in which we live — environmental crises, politics of division and recrimination, incitement to fear our neighbor — and put our hope in God’s vision for the culmination of all things. The challenge for us is, second, to speak the truth into a world where the term “fake news” has been the talking point of the day. Not the truth that you’ve created for yourself with the assistance of your social media echo chamber — that’s where the fake news is coming from. But the truth of God’s love for the world; the truth that God’s vision for the world is one in which Jesus’ Way brings peace rather than war and unity rather than division.
The challenge for us is, third, to live with eyes wide open to the ways in which the Spirit even now is causing the Kingdom to break forth. Sometimes we are reminded of this when we’re struck by the sight of a dandelion growing out of a crack in a sidewalk, or in my holly bushes growing back after I’d cut them down at ground level. I see it in our young people, whose vision of a just society include neighborliness at both the very local and the very international level, seeking to bridge divides, care for one another and the earth we share, and inquire after differences with interest rather than fear or condemnation. I saw it in an act of reconciliation between armed forces veterans and Native Americans at Standing Rock this past week. Though we continue to wait for the late rains to fall, even now we are able to see the first shoots, the initial buds that will culminate in the Kingdom bursting forth like a desert in bloom.
Look past our anxieties, speak the truth, and seek out the in-breaking Kingdom. Jesus entrusted his ministry of reconciliation to his disciples and to us and promised that the Spirit of God would advocate for and comfort us in our work. As we wait with hope and work for peace, let us celebrate with joy wherever we see God’s Kingdom peeking through the veil.