Even the wilderness and desert will be glad in those days. The wasteland will rejoice and blossom with spring crocuses. Yes, there will be an abundance of flowers and singing and joy! The deserts will become as green as the mountains of Lebanon, as lovely as Mount Carmel or the plain of Sharon. There the Lord will display his glory, the splendor of our God. With this news, strengthen those who have tired hands, and encourage those who have weak knees. Say to those with fearful hearts, “Be strong, and do not fear, for your God is coming to destroy your enemies. He is coming to save you.” And when he comes, he will open the eyes of the blind and unplug the ears of the deaf. The lame will leap like a deer, and those who cannot speak will sing for joy! Springs will gush forth in the wilderness, and streams will water the wasteland. The parched ground will become a pool, and springs of water will satisfy the thirsty land. Marsh grass and reeds and rushes will flourish where desert jackals once lived. And a great road will go through that once deserted land. It will be named the Highway of Holiness. Evil-minded people will never travel on it. It will be only for those who walk in God’s ways; fools will never walk there. Lions will not lurk along its course nor any other ferocious beasts. There will be no other dangers. Only the redeemed will walk on it. Those who have been ransomed by the Lord will return. They will enter Jerusalem singing, crowned with everlasting joy. Sorrow and mourning will disappear, and they will be filled with joy and gladness.

Isaiah 35:1-10

The story is told of a Scotchman who lived in Liverpool where he was to embark for his journey to America. He counted the few coins that made up his entire earthly wealth and decided that he would save as much as he could on food during the trip in order to have more money on hand when he reached New York. He went to a small store and bought a supply of crackers and cheese to get him through his days at sea. But as the voyage progressed the sea air made him very hungry. To make matters worse, the dampness in the air made his cheese hard and his crackers soft. He was almost desperate with hunger. The last straw came when he caught the fragrant whiff of delicious food on a tray a steward was carrying to another passenger. The hungry man made up his mind that he would have one good, square meal, even though it might take several of his shillings. He awaited the return of the steward and asked him how much it would cost to go to the dining room and get a dinner. The steward asked the Scotchman if he had a ticket for the steamship passage. The man showed his ticket, and the steward told him that all meals were included in the price of the ticket. The poor man could have saved the money he spent on crackers and cheese; he could have gone to the dining room and eaten as much as he liked every mealtime. This is a humble picture of the position of many people who have believed in Christ as Savior. Because of that faith they are saved, but they go on their dreary way without enjoying any of the blessings God has for them in Christ! How terrible is the responsibility of these cheese-and-crackers Christians, who show no joy to those who are looking for the reality of joy in life… It is hard to show the kind of joy people are really looking for if we don’t have it. Yet it has been abundantly provided for us in Christ. “He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:32) While people today are searching for the path to joy, many are trying to find it in the wrong places. So how do we find the path to true joy? I like to consider that question. 

Many people mistakenly believe that the path to joy can be found in external circumstances such as having a large bank account, or a successful business, or achieving fame and popularity. But the path to joy cannot be found in external circumstances. There is a difference between joy and happiness. Happiness is a checkbook that has money, a car that works, a good date for Saturday night. Happiness is the absence of major hassles, or terrorism or crime; happiness is kids getting good report cards and spouses getting a raise. Happiness is something we know as enhancement or protection of our own lives. Joy comes in connection with another or with Jesus. Joy can happen without money or a working car. Joy happens when we get to the core of life and realize that love is at the core. Joy befriends us; love accompanies us. King Solomon was the wisest man there was. He said, “I devoted myself to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under heaven.” Yet his quest for knowledge got him nowhere. The conclusion he reached at the end of his search was this: “For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.” From the quest for knowledge, he moved on to the quest for pleasure. He thought to himself, “Come, now, I will test you with pleasure to find out what was good.” But again, he came away empty-handed. He said, “Laughter is foolish. And what does pleasure accomplish?” Next, he turned to other projects: houses, vineyards, and worldly wealth. He acquired many slaves. He had more herds and flocks than anyone else in Jerusalem had ever seen. He amassed piles of gold and silver, the treasure of kings and provinces. He provided himself with lavish entertainment, and he had hundreds of women in his harem. He said, “I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused myself no pleasure.” Yet, in the end, he was no better off. It was all empty and meaningless—a chasing after the wind. As he looked at all the evil in the world, he even declared that in some ways it was better to never have been born at all! Solomon is like many people today who are desperately searching for happiness, only to find that the search itself has left them empty and dry, making them more unhappy than they ever were before. The irony of our modern society is that, while we have removed many of the physical sources of discomfort, our emotional well-being is far behind that of many people in poorer, less advanced societies! Sadly, this crisis has now become an epidemic. 

Nor does the path to joy always consist of having favorable circumstances. The path to joy often leads through the desert. Today, if you are looking for God’s joy as an escape from the problems of life, you are going to be disappointed. God’s solution to our problems goes a little deeper than just saying, “Don’t worry—be happy!” The path to true happiness often winds through the desert, where we experience times of testing. There is pain. There is grief. There is sadness. In the Old Testament, Israel was tested in the desert for forty years before finally entering the Promised Land. In the New Testament, the desert was also where the devil tempted Jesus for forty days. In order for the Israelites to return to Jerusalem from captivity in Babylon, they would also have to make a long and difficult journey through the wilderness. There is no getting around it! If you’re going to get to where you want to be, there is a desert to cross. But there is also good news. God can even make the desert bloom! Absolute desert (where rain almost never falls) is in the Middle East to be found only in the Sahara, the peninsula of Arabia, and Iran. The deserts of Palestine, Syria, Transjordan, and Sinai are all ‘tame deserts,’ with a little rain every winter, often in sudden storms causing dangerous flash floods. Such rain tends to fall in March and April, or even early May. Occasionally heavy rain can occur more frequently during the winter, and then the desert does indeed ‘blossom abundantly’. Just picture it! A dull, dry, lifeless landscape, hostile to life. But just add water, and it becomes a beautiful display of vibrant color. With his Spirit, God can do that in us! What was once only a desert can suddenly bloom, and God brings us new life in abundance. I believe that Isaiah also had John the Baptist in view here. He was a “voice in the wilderness”. Yet, when people heard him, they repented, confessed their sins, and were baptized in the Jordan River. There in the desert, they found the refreshment from God that their thirsty souls had been seeking. Our situation in life might not have changed—after all, we are still in the desert! But, by the grace of God, even the desert can become something beautiful. There, we can learn to trust in God for everything we need. The twenty-third Psalm expresses this truth in terms of God as our Shepherd, skillfully leading us through the dangers and valleys of this life until we reach our home safety: “…he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.”

Finally, the path to joy is found in Jesus. The night Jesus was born angels came to shepherds near Bethlehem, and one said, “I bring you good news of a great joy.” That was a happy greeting. But a deep, dark valley of sorrow lay between that salutation and the joy it promised. For the new-born Child, trials and sufferings began almost immediately. When he was just a baby a jealous king tried to kill him. When he grew up, the people at Nazareth threw him out of their city. He became a wandering teacher – homeless, often hungry and weary, tempted and sorely tried. He was hated, accused, denied, betrayed. At last, there came a Friday when a wreath of thorns was pressed hard on his brow, and he was spat upon, scourged with whips, nailed to a cross, and by mid-afternoon he was dead. Before sundown, his body was placed in a tomb, lent for the purpose through the generosity of a kind-hearted man. The life whose beginning was heralded by the happy song of angels had been one long sequence of heartbreak and pain. But the story does not end here. On the first Sunday following his burial, very early in the morning, Jesus met his friends walking in the garden outside the tomb, and his first word was this: “All hail!” – the Greek word “chairete,” “Joy be to you!” “Be of good cheer!” This greeting was a happy one, this greeting in the garden. Here, perhaps not more than an hour away from the tomb, Jesus picked up the theme of joy precisely where the angels had left it more than thirty years before. And here today, nearly 2,000 years later, let us echo that theme again: “Be of good cheer: we bring you good news of a great joy!”

In Christ, we have the joy of someone who is thirsty finding a spring in the desert. In Christ we have the joy of someone blind being able to see, someone deaf being able to hear, someone lame being able to jump, and someone mute being able to shout. In Christ, we have the joy of a prisoner being set free, a captive on his way back home. In Christ, even when life is at its worst, we still have the joy of God’s wonderful, amazing grace, his unconditional acceptance of sinners like us for the sake of his own beloved Son, Jesus Christ. And for that we can rejoice!

O God we thank you for the joy we have in Christ which is a joy not dependent on our external circumstances, but which sustains us through the greatest challenges of life. Help us to live as your joyful people even as we are living through difficult times. This we pray in the name of Jesus. Amen. 

Questions for Reflection

  1. What is the major difference between joy and happiness? Which would you rather possess?
  2. Some would compare this time of pandemic through which we’re living as a desert experience. How do we discover joy in this desert of pandemic? Can you list any good things that have come from living in this desert?
  3. The angels described Christ entrance into our world as “good news of a great joy.” How does this news bring joy? Have you discovered the joy of knowing and following Jesus?