Both the Old and New Testament readings for the Third Sunday of Advent reference a blossoming, dry wilderness, a seeming oxymoron. Isaiah 35:1-2 begins, 

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
    the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly,
    and rejoice with joy and singing...

For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
    and streams in the desert. (Isaiah 35:6)

Isaiah was writing to a dispirited Jewish community during the 6th Century BCE. Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian king, had destroyed the walls of Jerusalem, pillaged and desecrated the Temple and taken many Jewish community leaders captive. Their situation looked utterly bleak. They seemed to be living in a Godless wasteland.

Yet Isaiah held out hope, inspired by wilderness and the experience of flowers bursting forth after a rain. Botanical flowering became a metaphor for the return of the exiles from Babylonian captivity and a source of hope.
the ransomed of the Lord shall return,
    and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
    they shall obtain joy and gladness,
    and sorrow and sighing shall flee away. (Isaiah 35:10)

The wilderness did not see like a place for hope or joy, yet Isaiah held it up to the Babylonian captives as a both a reminder and promise of God’s ability to do the unexpected. 


John the Baptist’s emergence from the wilderness represented a different kind of flowering of hope. He had preached a change of life in preparation for the near-term arrival of the Messiah. 

As the gospel (Matthew 11:2-11) opens, John is in prison for having condemned Herod for taking his brother’s wife. The opening verses reveal that John had questions about Jesus’ identity, even after he had baptized him (Matt 3:13-17)

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ 

Jesus answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.’

John apparently knew that Jesus was holy. His queston has a ‘could-he-really-be-the-One’ quality to it. It wasn’t so much doubt, as awe!

As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.” (Malachi 3:1) 

Jesus called John a prophet, but more. Yes, he was a truth-teller who confronted the failings of both the Jewish religious institutions (Matt 3:7-8), Herod’s adultery (which is why he was in prison) and individuals. Some biblical scholars think that Jesus was referring to John as more than a prophet because he had the unique prophetic role of identifying Jesus as the Incarnate Word of God. 

Jesus also noted that John found his spirituality…his relationship to God… in the wilderness apart from the dominant culture of the day. The wilderness where John lived was also ‘home’ to the Essenes, the religious community that kept the Dead Sea Scrolls. Like John, they found that living apart from the rest of their contemporaries was necessary for living in right-relationship to God. 


St. Aidan’s Advent discussions of the book, Refugia Faith, reflects this sense of wilderness as a place of spiritual development and the hope of blooming, in the words of Isaiah. As a Christian community we, too, live apart, yet within a post-modern consumer culture that is cynical about institutions, notably for us, religious institutions. The world at large mocks belief in the incarnation. We choose to live in pockets of faith that resist the broader materialism and scorn. We live in hope.

Our hope is not wishful thinking. It is a realistic sense of our situation and a consideration of what is possible with the grace of God and our own response to that grace. We recognize that our actions, by themselves, will not bring the peace and joy of Christ…nor will they restore the environment to a pre-industrial kind of balance. Yet we act in ways that are in keeping with hope and John’s instructions to repent, or change our ways. We align our behaviour with God’s will because it is the right thing to do, regardless of whether we think our individual commitments will make a difference to the global community. Metaphorically, we keep the Advent candles lit while all around is dark.


Jesus' strange statement toward the end of this passage …among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he…invites us to consider how the least in the kingdom were greater than John the Baptist. 

John the Baptist had pointed directly to Jesus. The church made him a saint for his role. He outshone other prophets in directing people’s attention to the presence of God with Us.

Yet Jesus’ words hint that John the Baptist, great as he was, still fell short in some way from the fullness that one would experience in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus was not criticizing John, but saying that the fullness of one’s spiritual life is only possible in the kingdom of heaven… John was like a caterpillar in chrysalis, yet to emerge as a butterfly. He had not yet experienced metamorphosis. The greater life belonged to those who lived in Jesus' presence, such as his disciples. Personal relationship with Jesus is the goal of the kingdom of heaven and John the Baptist may have come tantalizingly close, but was not one of Jesus’ disciples.

Jesus’ sentence, the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he, could further suggest his relationship with his followers transformed them, gave them a fullness of life and aligned them with the Father in a way that could only be realized in the presence of God. We know from many other passages in the gospels that Jesus had a magnetic attraction for people and that healing power came forth from him. He passed these powers on to his disciples when he sent them out two by two on ‘training missions’. (Mark 6:7)  


  • Recall a “flowering wilderness” experience in your own life. In what “desert” did you find unexpected joy or spiritual nourishment? Is it a continuing source of hope for you? 
    Does John the Baptist’s question… Are you the one…feel like doubt, or does it seem like a question that comes from a sense that ‘this is too good to be true’?
  • How do you imagine John responded when his disciples returned with Jesus’ answer? After all, Jesus didn’t say, “yes”. Or did he? 
  • Do you feel that you live in a post-Christian culture? How do you filter out the influence of materialism and cynicism? Where do you find your peace, hope and joy to nourish your spiritual life?