Sunday 15 December 2019
The Third Sunday of Advent
The thirty-fifth chapter of Isaiah begins: “The desert and the dry land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom like the crocus.” I am not a gardener, but as many of you know, my mother really is a gardener. A few years ago, she got me a book that talks about every plant that is mentioned in the bible. I broke it out this week because of this first verse. The wilderness will blossom like the crocus. Not crocus will blossom in the wilderness. The wilderness will blossom like the crocus. The crocus is being used as a metaphor to describe how the wilderness will blossom. I figured in order to understand this passage, I would have to understand how a crocus blooms.
So I found the book on my shelf: Figs, Dates, Laurel, and Myrrh: Plants of the Bible and the Quran. And I opened it up to the section on crocuses. And there was nothing there. No entry for crocus.
So I figured it must be a translation issue. I was using the Common English Bible, so I looked in the New Revised Standard Version. It also said crocus. But when I looked in the King James Version, it said the desert shall blossom as the rose. So I went back to the garden book and looked up rose. It said that a number of plants in the Bible are identified in English bibles as roses. However, none of them actually are roses. Roses don’t grow in the Middle East. So want kind of plant is it?
The Hermeneia Biblical Commentary says that “it is variously translated as rose, crocus, asphodel or meadow saffron.” The Brown-Drivers-Briggs Hebrew Lexicon says it is meadow saffron or crocus. The Greek version of the Old Testament says that this plant is a lily. And when I just took the Hebrew word and dropped it into Google, I came up with a type of daffodil.
Meadow saffron, also called autumn crocus, is not native to Israel, so that seems unlikely. There are hundreds of different kinds of crocus, including several that are native to Israel. Crocus ochroleucus grows in rocky places and light soils between October and December. Crocus pallasii grows in Israel, the Balkans, and western Iran. Crocus sieberi, or Snow Crocus, is an early-blooming, Spring crocus. Crocus graveolens is spring-flowering and is found in Turkey and northern Israel. The Winter Saffron, or Crocus hyemalis, is found in the early spring in Lebanon and Israel. Crocus aleppicus is found from West Syria to Jordan. When I just Googled the Hebrew word, what came up was the Sea Daffodil, Pancratium maritimum, It grows all over the Mediterranean region, usually on beaches and sand dunes. Even though it’s not a crocus, it is one of our most likely suspects.
So what does it mean that the wilderness will blossom like one of these flowers? Well, we can’t be certain, but a lot of these plants grow in pretty harsh conditions. Many varieties of crocus are among the first to bloom in the spring. Some will even come up in the snow. Many of these plants grow in marginal soil, like the Sea Daffodil, that actually grows in sand. They show up in places where you might not expect to find flowers.
In fact, the way that the Bible describes the desert bursting out into bloom, is probably something akin to a super bloom, like the one that happened in California a few years ago. They happen in places that are usually arid. But once in a while, water gets there, and all sorts of flowers pop up. Listen to how Isaiah refers to water in our passage:
Waters will spring up in the desert,
and streams in the wilderness.
The burning sand will become a pool,
and the thirsty ground, fountains of water.
The jackals’ habitat, a pasture;
grass will become reeds and rushes.
In a land that is often quite arid, a little water goes a long way. But in this passage, Isaiah is talking about increases in water that dramatically change the nature of the land. It goes from being desert to being bursting with life. The earth itself rejoices.
In the midst of this blooming wilderness, we are told, there is a highway. “It will be called the Holy Way,” Isaiah says. “Even fools won’t get lost on it; no lion will be there, and no predator will go up on it.” There is a way in the wilderness. And it will be so clearly marked that no one will be able to get lost.
We are halfway through the Season of Advent. It’s the season of preparation before Christmas. And Advent can be a bit of a downer. The first Sunday in Advent usually has to do with the end of the world. The second Sunday in Advent is usually devoted to John the Baptist and his very fiery message about repentance. But on the Third Sunday of Advent, we get something different. The third Sunday is dedicated to Joy. It’s so special that it even gets a special color of candle: pink. There’s one Sunday, and one Sunday only, that I wear a pink stole, and this is it!
I’m not great at joy. You can ask my family about our favorite colors. Kaylah likes purple, Kiahla likes pink, Karthik likes blue, and Melissa likes yellow. What’s my favorite color? Gray. Unmitigated joy does not come naturally to me, so it’s good that I have people who can balance me out. But I’m the sort of person who can take a perfectly happy situation and find the hypocrisy in it, or the hidden way that it is actually less than joyful.
I think John the Baptist is kind of the same way. Jesus shows up and is doing all kinds of amazing things, and John is just not convinced. Whatever it is that Jesus is doing, it’s not quite what John expected from the Messiah. He’s in prison, but he sends messengers to Jesus to ask him if he really is the Messiah, or if they need to be looking for someone else. And Jesus says that they should report back to John what they see and hear. “Those who were blind are able to see. Those who were crippled are walking. People with skin diseases are cleansed. Those who were deaf now hear. Those who were dead are raised up. The poor have good news proclaimed to them.” Are you serious? Jesus seems to say. All these amazing things are happening and you think it’s not enough? Perhaps you’d like more war and retribution? Can’t you just enjoy a good thing?
Jesus is drawing on texts like the one we have from Isaiah. “Then the eyes of the blind will be opened, and the ears of the deaf will be cleared. Then the lame will leap like the deer, and the tongue of the speechless will sing… Strengthen the weak hands, and support the unsteady knees. Say to those who are panicking: Be strong! Don’t fear!”
It can be easy to be overwhelmed by the negative. There’s a lot happening in our world that isn’t the way it should be, that doesn’t contribute to human flourishing. And our mass media and social media are finely tuned to deliver us the most upsetting news that is available, whatever will make us feel angry, outraged, or afraid. Anger, outrage, and fear keep people watching, keep people reading, keep people clicking. And certainly there are things in our world that need fixing, that demand our attention.
But the word gospel means good news. And good news should be good news. Sometimes we need to celebrate the things that are good. Sometimes we need to approach the world with joy. So I’d like you to take a moment with one or two people near you and share something that brings you joy right now…
Isaiah tells us:
The desert and the dry land will be glad;
the wilderness will rejoice and blossom like the crocus.
They will burst into bloom,
and rejoice with joy and singing.
A highway will be there.
It will be called The Holy Way.
The Lord’s ransomed ones will return and enter Zion with singing,
with everlasting joy upon their heads.
Happiness and joy will overwhelm them;
grief and groaning will flee away.
So let us be filled with the Joy of the Lord. Like a spring crocus or a daffodil, let us be the first to find joy and spring forth with blossom. Because we have heard the good news of our great and wondrous God. Jesus Christ is coming. Let all the world rejoice!