Let us pray: We will enter your gates with thanksgiving in our hearts; we will enter your courts with praise! We will say, “This is the day the Lord has made.” We will rejoice for You have made us glad. God, we confess that we find ourselves in the midst of the messiness of life. We struggle to see you, and we long to find rest and renewal with you. Remind us, God, as we struggle, that you are here with us, and that you are always faithful to call us back into the rest and peace of your presence. Send us, God, to remind others that we do not have to toil and struggle alone. Send us, God to be tangible signs of your hope, peace, and joy for others. O God, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be pleasing and acceptable to you; for you are our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

Each Sunday during Advent, we light a candle on the Advent wreath. Each candle represents a different characteristic of Advent. On the first Sunday, we prayed with the members of our Finance team as we lit the candle of hope. Last Sunday, Wendy and James, from our choir, led us in praying as we lit the candle of peace, and today, the children of our church led us in prayer as we lit the candle of joy. From the beginning to the end of our passage from Isaiah this morning, we hear, see, and feel the joy promised by God.

Isaiah is speaking to a people who have been scattered as a result of war and of the poor choices made by their king, King Ahaz. The words that Isaiah speaks in chapter 35 are redemptive reversals: dry lands will be glad, deserts rejoice and blossom abundantly; they rejoice with singing. Isaiah does not mince words: the changes God brings will be dramatic and complete.

As we enter into this third week of Advent, I find myself wondering what kinds of changes do we seek today? Where are those places in our lives, in our homes, in our church, in our community, in our nation, and in our world where we long for change, for the evidence of God’s presence with us? As we look forward to the birth of Jesus, and the coming of the Messiah, what is it that is causing us sorrow? Each of us came into worship carrying a burden that we have learned to live with, a burden that we keep close to our heart and only reveal when we are made to feel safe. Each of us will leave this worship space today and carry our burden out with us, not wanting to trouble anyone with a story of hurt, uncertainty, or sadness in what is expected to be the most wonderful time of year. We may not fully know what those around us live with on a daily basis, but this text of Isaiah speaks to the heart of each and every one of us. From the brokenness and scattered pieces of life, Isaiah speaks to a fractured land, to torn apart families, and to our broken hearts.

Isaiah speaks of people longing to experience new wholeness:  when the blind will see, the deaf will hear, the lame will leap, and the mute will sing. Isaiah is not offering fodder for a prosperity gospel moment; he is speaking into the brokenness and desolation of Judah and saying, “Beloved, watch what God will do. The Messiah is coming, and the Messiah will bring you back into full relationship with your Creator. Through God’s grace and deeds, you will be completely restored.”

In the time that Isaiah wrote, anyone who was unable to see, hear, walk, or speak would have been have been automatically excluded from participating in community with others. Through God, all persons are invited and included in community with God and with one another.

Isaiah is speaking to people who literally are re-entering a shell of the land they knew after having been exiled and imprisoned in foreign lands. As we enter into this third week of Advent, there are those of us who are imprisoned and held captive by our debt load; there are those who are held captive by a diagnosis and a poor prognosis; there are those held captive by addiction, their own or that of a family member; there are those held captive by broken relationships. There are those held captive by war or the threat of war. While the people of Judah may be marching back into their now barren land, there is a spring in their step—not because of what they observe around them, not because of all that has already been lost but because God’s activity in the people of Judah is not done. They see the mess that their life is now, and the people of Judah persevere and cling to the promise of God: of redemption and restoration.

On this third Sunday of Advent, we are asked to glance behind us. We are asked to look at the places in our lives: the holes, the stumps that tripped us, and the deer that came out of nowhere and wrecked our cars. We are asked to glance backward in order that we may more fully move forward knowing and trusting that the God who delivered the people of Judah cares about each one of us enough to bring us into a fuller relationship with God, a place in which we will find our rest and our restoration. I offer this you all in the name of God: Father, Son, Holy Spirit, Mother of us all.