Few of us have probably experienced the physical wilderness described in the Bible. The closest I have come was several years ago when I visited a Nevada State Park called the Valley of Fire. With sparse vegetation and little rain, Valley of Fire, like the wilderness region of the Holy Land, is a vast, arid, desolate place of sand, rocks and jagged cliffs.
Though the use of the term “wilderness” in this text is a reminder of Israel’s forty years of “wilderness wandering,” by the time of Isaiah’s writings, the people of Israel found themselves not in this notorious physical wasteland, but in a new wilderness—that of exile. Scholars tell us that Isaiah wrote for a people who had been scattered far from home and who needed hope for the future to help them get through the present.
This type of wilderness is one with which we may be more familiar, for though we are not scattered geographically, how many of us can deny our own parched desert places, or the times in our lives where we feel far from home and where what we need most—hope—seems just out of reach?
Perhaps what is most exciting about Isaiah 35 is that rather than bringing his people out of the wilderness as he had done in the past, God’s ultimate solution is to deliver them within it—by transforming the wilderness itself into the promised land. It is the story of ultimate redemption—one that evokes the theme of new creation as God transforms every sign of despair into a symbol of new life, every inability into ability, and every insufficiency into miraculous abundance. This is the message of the Advent season: Hope is alive because God is at work bringing renewal and wholeness to our lives and our world.
“Your God will come…He will come to save you” (v.4) These words spoke of a future that is now realized, a promise fulfilled. God has come. In the form of Jesus the Christ, Emmanuel comes to us in the midst of our own wilderness wanderings, redeems and renews us, and with him, we walk home (v.8-10).
Amy Hill Herring is a CBF Leadership Scholar attending Campbell University Divinity School.