The Parched Land Will Exult

Monday in the 2nd Week of Advent: Isaiah 35:1-10, Luke 5:17-26.

Yesterday, we reflected that part of Advent’s preparing the way for the Lord is to keep a burning vision of the heavenly Kingdom at the forefront of our minds and desires. I noted that there is a bit of a failure of the Christian imagination on this front, perhaps linked to our relatively comfortable lifestyles, at least in the USA. In today’s readings, Isaiah presents us with a fantastic vision of the Kingdom, and the gospel reading shows us how that Kingdom came to earth with Christ, a blessing on all creation.

If we have trouble conjuring for ourselves what the Kingdom might be like, Isaiah provides the image. I love the opening to today’s reading: “The desert and the parched land will exult; the steppe will rejoice and bloom. They will bloom with abundant flowers, and rejoice with joyful song.” Here is God’s creation, meeting the glory of its Creator as He descends to greet it. For those of us who live in desert climates, we know that what looks barren and dead is actually full of life — from tiny flowers to lizards under rocks — and certain times of year give us a glimpse into what the final Kingdom might bring. The desert in bloom is beautiful. Isaiah is granted a vision that eclipses normal seasonal change, however. The steppe “rejoices” in bloom, the steppe and desert “rejoice with joyful song.” Lest we think this simple hyperbole, remember what Jesus told the Pharisees who wanted to silence the crowds singing for Him upon His entrance into Jerusalem (Palm Sunday): “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out” (Lk 19:40). All of creation rejoices to see its Creator!

Zion Dreams (contemporary), Johnathan Harris | Image from fineartamerica.com.

As we explored last week, the love we invite into our hearts as Christians is transformative. Isaiah’s passage today is all about God’s transformative love. We are accustomed to thinking of this love transforming human hearts, but what about non-human nature? Isaiah says, “Streams will burst forth in the desert, and rivers in the steppe. The burning sands will become pools, and the thirsty ground, springs of water.” We see all that is good bursting forth, specifically water in many forms. Water is synonymous with life — the land is returning to the state of the Garden of Eden. The dangerous aspects of nature are subsumed in order for the righteous to walk unhindered: “No lion will be there, nor beast of prey go up to be met upon it. It is for those with a journey to make, and on it the redeemed will walk.”

As for humanity, God’s presence will “Strengthen the hands that are feeble, make firm the knees that are weak, Say to those whose hearts are frightened: Be strong, fear not!” Isaiah sees Christ coming into the world, and he relates, “he comes to save you. Then will the eyes of the blind be opened, the ears of the deaf be cleared; Then will the lame leap like a stag, then the tongue of the mute will sing.”

This is exactly what happens in the gospel. We cannot mistake the fact of Christ on the earth: it is the beginning of the Reign of God. These things that are prophesied actually take place; they cannot help but take place in the presence of God! Luke’s gospel reading tells of the paralytic who was lowered through the roof in the house to be in the presence of the Messiah and be healed. Let’s recall that Jesus was teaching “Pharisees and teachers of the law, who had come from every village of Galilee and Judea and Jerusalem.” This was not a small, intimate room but more like a court of the learned surrounding their resplendent King. And into this distinguished court, a poor paralytic is lowered through the roof. Talk about crashing a party!

And does this upset the Heavenly King? Of course not — the paralytic and those with him are exactly the subjects whom the King has come to welcome into his Kingdom. In a typical gospel social class reversal, Jesus shows love for the least of his people, over and above the more distinguished in His company. But this episode has a greater depth of meaning because Christ does not heal the man’s physical infirmity; instead “When Jesus saw their faith, he said, “As for you, your sins are forgiven.'” Jesus has ordered for us what is important: spiritual health far surpasses physical health. We see His true self and true mission. At this point, I almost become uncomfortable referring to Jesus Christ as having a “mission;” As God, He IS. His being needs no mission, it is the ongoing outpouring of creative, salvific love into the world. Like Isaiah tells us, creation rejoices and is transformed in His Presence. So, rather than seeing His true mission, let’s rephrase: we see Him.

Healing of the Paralytic (c.1100), unknown artist, from the Museo diocesano in Salerno, Italy | Image from flickr.com.

He invites us to be faithful and, in return, He will perfect us. Last week, we reflected several times upon the concept of faith that is discussed in scripture and how it is more akin to “fidelity to my promise to you, Lord” rather than “belief in something unproven.” Faith — in our traditional Judeo-Christian sense — is a demonstrable response to something outside of us that is real, not a shaky internal belief system. So when the paralytic and his friends demonstrate their fidelity to God’s promise to send a Savior who will make “the lame leap like a stag” by coming with hope, love, and devotion into His Presence, then the Savior forgives their sins. This purification of their souls (the baptism in the Holy Spirit promised by John the Baptist) makes them suitable to inhabit the Kingdom of God for eternity.

As we might expect, the Pharisees and scribes ask themselves, “Who is this who speaks blasphemies? Who but God alone can forgive sins?” An interesting question arises: do they lack faith? One can imagine that their insistence that God alone can forgive sins demonstrates faith in God. So maybe a lack of faith is not what’s going on with them, but a spiritual blindness. They cannot recognize God’s own Son in front of them whereas others (so often the less fortunate ones) see Him clearly. Perhaps they’re not looking for a Savior at this moment. Perhaps they’re too comfortable in their stations in life to yearn for a Savior; in fact, a Savior might spoil their career plans. We begin to see the importance of Christ’s question to Peter: “But who do you say I am?” (Mt 16:15) and more forcefully to the Jews, “you will die in your sins unless you believe that I am he” (Jn 8:24b). Denying that He is the Son of God reveals our own self-centeredness, our spiritual blindness, our inability to have prepared the way for the Lord.

Jesus, in His love and desire to save all with Him, responds to their unspoken doubts and questioning and heals the paralyzed man, explaining why: “that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” This is a very specific reason, let’s consider this. A self-aggrandizing healer would not bother with the whole sins forgiven quagmire and would just heal so that people would think he’s great. A pretender Messiah would likely just stick with the sins forgiven line and avoid the work of healing a paralytic because forgiving sins is the more religiously important act. But Christ deigns to accomplish both spiritual and physical healing, not to show off His power, but specifically to accomplish another healing: healing the spiritual blindness in the scribes and Pharisees. They are blind to the Son of God in their midst for whatever reason, and the physical healing of the paralyzed man, despite being a lesser miracle, is done for them more than it’s done for the paralytic. 

When he picks up his mat and leaves, the final lines show us that the third healing has been accomplished: “Then astonishment seized them all and they glorified God, and, struck with awe, they said, ‘We have seen incredible things today.'” What they say might on the surface sound a little underwhelming (couldn’t they say, “you are God”?) but it clues us into the problem of blindness and the healing — they now acknowledge that they have seen incredible things.

The Palsied Man Let Down through the Roof (Le paralytique descendu du toit), c.1886-1896, James Tissot | Creative Commons, courtesy the Brooklyn Museum.

I think this spiritual blindness continues to be a problem for us. Our imagination is not dominated by visions of the Heavenly Kingdom; we cannot see it clearly. But this is why we study scripture, why we revel in the ecstatic vision of the Kingdom that Isaiah gives us, and why we gasp with astonishment like the scribes at Jesus’s miracles. When I’ve been asked if I could go back in time to any point in history, I answer that it would absolutely be during Christ’s ministry to see and hear God walk upon the earth. But I need not be wistful for this impossible dream. What we must keep in mind during Advent is that Jesus’s life on earth is a foretaste of the eternal Kingdom promised to us. This is great news! We are all invited to experience Him for eternity — something that was only foreshadowed and begun when Jesus Christ walked in human form on the earth. It seems almost too good to be true. If you’re like me, you earnestly ask, what must we do to reach this Kingdom? 

Christ, the Way, answers us over and over again during His ministry. In this episode, in particular, I think we are being shown an interesting perspective on salvation. We must truly be the paralytic, unable to move on our own, suffering, but filled with the vision of something incomparably better. We can only put ourselves as close to Christ as possible as a demonstration of our faith in Him.

He does the rest.  

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