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Changing Perceptions
a sermon based on Isaiah 35:1-10 and Matthew 11:2-6
by Rev. Randy Quinn

Sometimes, when we change the wall paper or paint a room a different color, it seems as though the room changes in size. It either looks smaller or larger. When we changed the windows in the Allen Sanctuary, for instance, the room suddenly seemed to grow. I don't know if you noticed it -- or if you remember it -- but I noticed, and I wondered what it was that made it appear this way. The reality is that it hasn't changed size. It just appears to have changed. It is a change in our perception.

When Isaiah speaks of the desert beginning to bloom, I wonder if he is speaking about an actual transformation or a perceived change. Is it something that looks different or is it really different? I know, for instance, that deserts bloom literally when they are irrigated. But my sense is that Isaiah isn't referring to an irrigation plan. My sense is that he is speaking of the possibility of changing our perceptions so that the desert becomes a lush and fruited plain.

The key seems to be the way we look at the desert. When the people of Israel left Egypt, they went into the desert on their way to the Promised Land. To them, the desert was a place of punishment. It was a time of testing. It was not a good experience, and that experience has influenced and affected the way they perceived the desert.

To move from exile in Babylon back into the Promised Land would mean another journey through the desert. And understandably, they were reluctant to do so. Life wasn't so bad in Babylon. As one commentator points out, nearly two-thirds of the Jews remained in Babylon after King Cyrus allowed them to return.

Isaiah is speaking to these would-be pilgrims as they consider their trip 'home,' their journey back to the land of their ancestors. He says to keep their minds on Zion and the desert will serve as a life-giving place rather than a punishment.

During my years in college, in the Navy, and even during seminary, I made periodic journeys "home." I often flew into Seattle and drove from there. And always, as I came over the hill at Conway, I had a sense of relief. I was home. I've mentioned that to many of you, and you, too identify that place as the boundary between "home" and "someplace else."

Isaiah's description of a road in the wilderness is intended to bring that kind of emotional response to the people of Israel. This is a road that leads "home", it is a road that the pilgrims will take as they return to Zion, to the city of God.

When we begin to recognize it as such, it changes the way we see everything around us. It is no longer a desert, but a garden. But not everyone was able to see it. As Christians, we see and hear in this passage a message of hope, a promise of the coming of God that was made known in Jesus. We think it's so easy to see. Or we think, if only Jesus came here in person today, we'd recognize him. But the people didn't see it when he did appear to them.

John the Baptist, a cousin of Jesus', the one who came to prepare the way of God, the one who invited others to follow Jesus, didn't see it. Listen to John's concern in the Gospel lesson for today.

(Read Matthew 11:2-6)


I suspect we are no better than John. I suspect that we wouldn't necessarily recognize him, either. I suggest that we HAVE seen Christ and have failed to recognize him (Mt 25:40). But we're too caught up in the desert to notice the flowers that bloom.

I remember hearing the conversation between a visitor to the desert at 29 Palms, California and a local resident. The visitor looked around and saw a wasteland. He saw nothing but death. He could see nothing good there. The resident then began to point out the signs of life all around. The small blades of grass that manage to survive in the desert floor. The bugs and animals that call this home. The vast array of life all around. It was a matter of changing perceptions.

The shocking news of Advent is that Jesus still comes to us and we still fail to recognize him. Dietrich Bonhoeffer is quoted as saying "Jesus stands at the door and knocks in complete reality. He asks you for help in the form of a beggar, in the form of a ruined human being in torn clothing. He confronts you in every person that you meet. Christ walks on the earth as your neighbor as long as there are people."

As you prepare to meet Christ, as you prepare for the Advent journey, as you prepare to enter the desert that now blooms, maybe it would be helpful to remember what it was like the last time you took a trip.

I know when I went to San Diego earlier this month, I spent time packing. I tried to imagine what the weather would be like and chose suitable clothing. I thought about what I would do with any free time I might have and brought a book to read and phone numbers of people I know who live in the area.

As we prepare for this trip to Bethlehem, let's perceive with Isaiah the things that make the desert seem to be a garden. People are no longer blind as they see the Christ in their midst. People are no longer afraid as they go with freedom and assurance. People are no longer left behind since they are all welcome.

Let's begin expressing and living life with a recognition of the joy in the desert that God has brought to us this season of Advent. Amen.