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. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the LORD, the majesty of our God.
Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.”
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes.
A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God’s people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray. No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there. And 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 35:1–10 NRSV)
What shall we do with a desert? I offer you this morning five words of counsel that emerge from this poignant hinge passage from the biblical book of Isaiah.
Call it a desert!
A desert is not the natural state of things from the biblical angle of view. The desert of Isaiah 35 is the result of YHWH’s blasting of the landscape (Isaiah 34). It is a consequence.
A desert is a tragedy.
The desert bears in its drought the memory of promises unfulfilled and opportunity lost. In fact, the desert is a kind of topographical Paradise Lost.
A desert stands between Babylon and Zion, between this damned place to which we have been dragged and the home we once knew and for which we cannot cease to long. It is the desert’s divorcing in-between-ness that makes it reasonable for the captive Jewish community to say:
By the rivers of Babylon— there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our harps. For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’ How could we sing the LORD’S song in a foreign land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither! Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy. Remember, O LORD, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem’s fall, how they said, ‘Tear it down! Tear it down! Down to its foundations!’ O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us! Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock! (Psalms 137:1–9 NRSV)
No rigorous piety, no outstanding prayer life, no psychological technique, no ecclesiastical novelty, no spiritual secret can turn a desert into something pleasant. It is, in the Isaianic vision, a lethal, death-dealing, black hole of a thing and it shall always remain one.
Name it a desert!
Avoid it if you can!
A desert is not, in the biblical view, the natural state of God’s good earth. After he has ordered his earth and provisioned it and set its human caretakers in place with their commission to guard it and serve it, the land is not meant to revert to a desert.
Space once intended for better things becomes a desert because of deep, prolonged human rebellion or because innocent land and its relatively innocent inhabitants find themselves caught up in a drama larger than themselves. They become its casualties and find themselves faced with a desert.
One of the demanding tasks of Western Christians in a run of centuries in which blood has flowed as never before in human history, in which the threat of cities being annihilated if the wrong machinery or the wrong organisms fall into evil hands, in which the Church struggles to keep itself alive while Christian faith leaps, sings, and grows in other latitudes … one of our demanding tasks is to work out as best we can whether our desert is the legacy of our conduct and that of our fathers and mothers … or whether we find ourselves caught up in a cosmic drama which has for the moment blighted our land and faced us with … a desert.
Deserts are serious business. They are to be, if possible, avoided.
Ask your Maker for a life where you never see a desert (as some people grow up never having seen the sea), but don’t expect that you will be granted your request. Few of us are.
What shall we do with a desert? Avoid it if you can.
Laugh at its claim to finality!
A desert makes one fatal mistake: it imagines itself to be final. It presumes that is has conquered.
It is a miscalculation that is common to all human beings as well who would choose to destroy what God has created. It is the besetting intellectual weakness of all who set themselves over against the merciful, redeeming purpose of our recklessly loving Creator.
Those who must traverse deserts or live near them or rescue dying travelers from them learn to flavor their tears with laughter at the Grand Presumption that the desert has exercised.
For all its vastness, all its potency, for all its enormous capacity to devour those who challenge its domain, a desert is in a sense a pathetic patch of ground.
A desert forgets—almost willfully, it forgets—that beneath its sands, somewhere, the Lord’s loyal love courses like some subterranean stream, seeking the place and the moment when it will burst onto the surface and make a green, flourishing mockery of the desert’s claims.
When Israel chants and sings—the repetition is required because the lesson is a counter-intuitive one—that ‘the Lord is good, his loyal love is forever’—it means just this. It is not a straight-line, always-there experience to be taken down off the shelf as needed. It is rather a coursing river which for unexplained reasons descends deep under the soils of human experience and hides itself. But it is no less real down there, no less potent. It runs its course and then—when we have named it a myth or a bit of wishful thinking or a religious painkiller—it bursts onto the desert and drenches us its life-giving liquid.
The desert never sees it coming.
The desert kills, it steals, it ruins, it destroys, it separates what God has called conjoined. A desert is a wasteland because it lays waste to so many good things. But a desert is a stupid thing. It will always be outwitted.
What shall we do with a desert?
We train ourselves to laugh at its pretensions of finality. We employ the strongest language that Christian discipline will allow us to use in order to mock its titanic ambitions.
If the desert had not been so merciless to us and those whom we love we would almost pity it for its approaching doom.
But we do not pity it. We tell the crudest of desert jokes behind its back. We train each other to roll our eyes sarcastically as it sits there thinking the world of itself. We hate the desert and can hardly wait to dance on its sandy grave.
Look for your coming champion!
A desert does not go away on its own. It must be conquered or, saving that, a strong leader must take us through the desert.
Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you. (Isaiah 35:2–4 NRSV)
In the book of Isaiah, the desert loses its teeth only when Jacob’s God comes through it to rescue his captive children in Babylon and take them back home across the desert.
His arrival is an historical moment. He changes the course of events, takes his servant by the hand, rescues his servant from his captors, restores him to his blessed place, and infuses his life with mission and meaning that goes far beyond what little Israel might have imagined for itself.
Those who see their God coming—regardless of the means of their perception—are summoned to turn to those among them whose hands are weak, whose knees shake, whose heart races, and encourage them to live larger than that: Be strong, do not fear!
From Isaiah’s angle of vision, the desert is not so much destroyed as it is rendered irrelevant. It becomes a paper tiger. Its chaos no longer threatens, because God has come.
They thought the Lord was:
But ‘Here he comes!’, they cry, their voices straining to be heard over the desert winds. And his reward is with him.
What are we do to with a desert: Keep an eye out for your champion!
Dance and sing!
Deserts do lose their grip.
When they do, we dance! We sing!
We lose all our reservations because we were prepared to die quietly and alone and now we see our opening to live in community.
On our path home through the desert, we are overtaken as it were by bandits who are strong, faster and better-provisioned than we. But look, those who overtake us are joy and gladness. It is not we who flee them with our last, hopeless, burst of energy. It is rather sorrow and sighing that flee away.
We dance! We sing! We feast! We weep for joy, and then come back to song! We embrace, we love, we build cities—so runs the prophetic vision—where aged grandmothers and grandfathers walk the streets safely, bending over their canes with children playing unselfconsciously around their feet.
We remember the desert … a little. And each time we do, the vegetables that grow in its place taste a little sweeter, we sigh with pleasure a bit more loudly as we take in the aroma of the flowers that now bloom ahead of schedule.
When John the Baptist rotted in a Herodian prison, he sent a question to Jesus:
When John heard in prison what Christ was doing, he sent his disciples to ask him, ‘Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?’
Jesus replied, ‘Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me.’ (Matthew 11:2–6 NIV)
Jesus encouraged his beloved John to see symptoms of a desert losing its totalitarian grip on the most vulnerable to its violence. John might well have wanted more than this.
I do, too.
You may also, your desert unknown to me, as it should be.
Might it be that my little role among your worshiping community this morning is to speak old Isaiah words of anticipation?:
Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.’
And then to speak in paraphrase of Jesus’ tender warning to John and those who knew him?:
Blessed is the one who does not fall away in disappointment about the way I choose to make deserts bloom … eyes see … ears hear … lame leap … dumb sing … all things new.
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