The Desert Shall Bloom

Isaiah 35, Matthew 11:2-11, Decembr 15, 2013

In the Northern Hemisphere Christmas comes at just about the darkest time of year. These days have the least daylight and the Sun’s height at midday is not very high. No one knows for sure what Jesus’ birthday was, but in my opinion December 25 works. It’s a time when we need a little Christmas. In fact the custom of bringing a tree indoors at this time of year is connected to the Winter Solstice. Sometimes you hear people grumbling about Christmas trees being a pagan symbol and I say, “So what? They bring light and color and freshness into our homes when the days are short, the nights are long and the weather’s getting cold. Many, many people suffer from what’s known as Seasonal Affective Disorder, it’s a coincidence that those initials spell “sad.” The lack of sunlight contributes to depression for many people this time of year.

Others find this time of year distressing because they perceive that everyone around them is excited, upbeat and looking forward to celebrations. In addition to feeling blue or low or depressed, they feel out of step with what they believe everyone else is feeling. Once a month I meet leaders of all faiths for coffee. On Tuesday I learned that there are three different churches in town that are holding special worship services specifically for people who do not find the holiday season a happy, joy-filled time. I’ve put information about these services on our website. Some families are facing their first Christmas since the death of a loved one or a divorce and that can be very difficult. I think it’s helpful that people can gather with others and share their pain and sorrow and confusion.

This time of year isn’t just dark—it’s also dry. Really. My hands have been scaly and dry since it turned cold a few weeks ago. Our dehumidifier in the basement has hardly run at all for two weeks. And I’ve never seen it show such low numbers for the relative humidity in the basement as it has recently. Every morning we make sure to give the Christmas tree a drink because we want it to stay fresh until Epiphany. Even the snow that has fallen has been unusually light and dry so far this winter, not good for snowballs or snowmen.

When we read the message from Isaiah on Tuesday the dry, bareness of the lesson came through. And the thirst for water and refreshment was everywhere. This was a message that Isaiah gave to the people when they were in Babylon in exile. They had been there more than 150 years, so think of it as about seven generations that they had lived in Babylon, but kept the hope of returning to Israel alive. What would it feel like when they finally got to go home? And what would it be like to be home in a place they’d never been before? That idea has always intrigued me—John Denver says the same thing in his classic song, “Rocky Mountain High,” which he wrote shortly after moving to Aspen, CO in his 27th year and watching a meteor shower up in the mountains. That’s the fire raining in the sky he sang about.

God is speaking to the people through Isaiah, telling them how marvelous things are going to be when they finally get back. The dry, barren places will be watered generously. The wilderness and the desert will “rejoice” with flowers, they will be like the thick forest they know as Carmel and like the rich pastures of Sharon, where they used to keep their flocks. Water springing up in the dry barren places is as much a sign of God’s presence as the deaf hearing, the blind seeing and the lame leaping like deer. Water is life. And as this bit of prophesy unfolds the central fact of water being necessary for life, for renewal, for survival, for hope is reinforced. Water’s abundance is a sign of God’s abundant love for humanity. I left the lunch table Tuesday with the contrast between abundant water and the barren desert in my mind. That evening I found this amazing article in the newspaper: “A Rare Middle East Agreement on Water.” This felt like more than a coincidence to me. For as long as I can remember people have been praying for peace in the Middle East, for peace between Israel and everyone else. For security for the Christians who remain in Syria, Lebanon and Israel, for justice for the residents of the land occupied by Israel that is home to Palestinians. The conflicts there seem perpetual and intractable. Yet here’s something that the Israelis, Jordanians and Palestinians are doing together. This is part of what the article in Tuesday’s New York Times said:

"In a rare display of regional cooperation, representatives of Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority signed an agreement Monday to build a Red Sea-Dead Sea water project that is meant to benefit all three parties."

This is a long-standing problem.

The water level in the Dead Sea, an ancient salt lake whose shores are the lowest dry places on the earth’s surface, has been dropping by more than three feet a year, mainly because most of the water in the Jordan River, its main feeder, has been diverted by Israel, Jordan or Syria for domestic use  and irrigation; very little now reaches the [Dead Sea]. [NYT 12/10/13]

Perhaps, in some small, but symbolically important way, these three desert peoples are beginning to understand that they are better off working together—and that God is glorified when they work together. The fact that it will take a $240 million desalination plant to make this happen does not make it any less of a miracle.

The burning sand shall become a pool
And the thirsty ground springs of water!

But wait, there’s more! And there should be more, because this is the third Sunday in Advent, the day that we turn from the deep darkness and somber mood of this season to introduce some joy. We see that with the pink candle. Isaiah promises that there will be a highway that will lead the people from exile to their ancestral home. It will be a safe road and one that it is impossible to stray from-it says, “Not even fools shall go astray.” Whenever I get lost and I stop somewhere asking for directions the poor clerk at the gas station often concludes by saying, “You can’t miss it.” Sometimes I pretend to be offended and say, “Don’t tell me what I can do!” More often I nod and resign myself to the fact that I’ll probably have to stop at another gas station, because I can indeed miss the unmissable! So the idea of a road back home from which I cannot stray, and on which everyone will be singing songs of joy and gladness, returning to a home where sorrow and sadness cannot last sounds really, really good to me.

In the gospel lesson this morning we have a little more guidance about walking the path that Jesus is on. Last week we heard about John the Baptizer, the crazy man out in the wilderness. This week he has been put into prison and he’s been hearing things about Jesus of Nazareth, but wants confirmation. John has his own followers who are his messengers to Jesus. How does Jesus show that he is the one that John was pointing to? By pointing back to the promises of the prophets. We heard some of those promises in the Old Testament lesson that the blind see, the deaf hear and the lame are able to leap—but there are others that Jesus alludes the 29th chapter of Isaiah it says “The meek shall obtain fresh joy from the Lord, and the neediest people shall exult in the Holy One of Israel.” And again in the 61st chapter of Isaiah it says,

The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; 
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners.

Jesus even points to John as the fulfilment of these words from the Prophet Malachi:

See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to the temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming says the Lord of hosts.

Jesus does not just tell John that he is the Messiah, that he is the One John was preparing the way for—he goes much deeper—he talks about the many, many ways that prophecy from centuries before is being completed and fulfilled. Look at what’s happening, Jesus says, and decide for yourself whether I’m the long-promised Messiah. Each of these signs, each of these prophecies is a glimpse of heaven.

Where do you get a glimpse of heaven? Christmas is the time when we celebrate and remember the extraordinary thing that God did in becoming a human being, in bringing God and humanity into reconciliation. And as we celebrate this best of all possible news we must also recognize that the realm of God has not yet been fully established. But we get glimpses of it. Think about the advances in medicine when the deaf hear and blind see. Think about the ways that we are able to treat mental disorders now that were unimaginable a generation ago. Think about the desert blooming, the parched ground coming to life because of life-giving water. And perhaps the greater miracle is that three people who have long been at odds have found a way to work together for everyone’s benefit. Old hostilities have been put to rest and with new cooperation Jordanians, Palestinians and Israelis are finding a way that they can survive, together, in a harsh, dry place. I’ve given some glimpses of heaven this morning. Look for others. Expect others. Celebrate them and remember they are signs and reminders of God’s vast, inexhaustible love for all people and all of Creation. Amen.