Sunday Night Worship – 12/16/07

“Streams in the Desert”

Isaiah 35: 1-10, Matthew 11: 2-11, and Luke 1: 46b -55

I’ve been thinking about streams in the desert. You can see how this might come up in my thoughts. We’ve got Isaiah and then Matthew both talking about wilderness this week and we were with John the Baptizer in the wilderness at the Jordan last week. We’ve got this Advent time of waiting, a penitential season in which we pray for reign, r-e-i-g-n, and anticipate the joy that erupts with Christmas…

Before we traveled to Israel and the West Bank two years ago, when I heard “wilderness” I always pictured terrain more like what I have encountered backpacking in the Appalachian mountains. Wilderness for me meant a place to get lost, a wooded place where it might be hard to see the trees for the forest, a place to hide out when it rains or when bears come too close. A place removed from civilization – which can be freeing and terrifying at once. Whenever I read about biblical wilderness, I definitely saw it in my mind’s eye as a large thicket. I had it wrong.

When I traveled to the Middle East I realized that wilderness and desert are the same. It’s not Appalachia, but Arizona. There is no place to hide, unless you find a cave or sit on the shadier side of a large rock. No thicket, just miles of exposure. Sand, sun, searing. It’s a place where water is scarce, highly valued, and absolutely necessary for life. It’s also a place where water can be terrifying when it finally shows up.

You’ve probably seen a movie scene set in the American Southwest, if you haven’t been to a place like this is real life. The ground is cracked open, yawning upwards for any drop of moisture and there are wide flat areas that – at first, to a Virginian – don’t seem all that different from the rest of the desert floor. It’s all hard, parched, baked, and tan. But when you come across a wide flatter area like this you often see a sign designating it as “a wash.” When the weather changes you find that these are dried riverbeds. These are spots where – when it finally rains hard – the water comes so quickly the ground can’t absorb it and it runs off in great washes of tempestuous flowing water. You don’t want to be parked in a wash or sleeping in your tent in a wash. There is no time when you hear that loud roar washing your way. In movies this is a terrifying scene and I suspect that’s pretty true to real life.

So, I’ve been thinking about streams in the desert. Usually when I read this passage from Isaiah I focus on the joy and rejoicing – and surely that is here. Surely, in this season of promise and anticipation, we know that the slaking of our thirst with living water will bring rejoicing from the desert-like places in our own lives.

Usually when I read this passage I think about the blessing water is, especially in the desert. Imagine: streams will flow in the desert! What a gift! What cause for joy and singing – even for crocuses!

But this time when I read the passage, I was remembering my trip and the re-defining the word “wilderness” went through for me. This time I was not only picturing a really hot place where it sure would be nice to get some more rain soon. This time I was picturing the washes.

Isaiah proclaims that “[t]he wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom” (Isaiah 35: 1) and he writes “waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert (v.6).

Imagine what it would be like to be there when “waters break forth in the wilderness and streams [break forth] in the desert” (v. 6). Would joy be your first response? Would you be dancing and rejoicing or trying to get out of the way?

Have you ever prayed for something so long and so hard and then, when your prayer was answered you weren’t sure you had prayed for the right thing?

Imagine praying for water in the desert. Imagine being an East-coaster praying for water in Arizona or the West Bank. Day in and day out, the same prayer. The same hope.  Some days are harder to keep up hope and to believe in the efficacy of prayer. But you do it and you envision what it will be like. Maybe you are thinking of building a dam to get you through the lean times of low rainfall. Maybe you are anticipating a sensual drenching in it, dancing in the mud and getting wet through your clothes to the skin. Maybe you have all your bottles and buckets lined up to catch it when it comes. In any case, soon there will be rejoicing and celebration.

And then one day it does come. But it hardly comes from the sky before you feel it on your feet, rising in your house, rushing past your door, creating havoc with those neatly aligned bottles. It is out of control, too much too fast, not safe for swimming in, muddy from the rough-and-tumble way it’s careening by. What would you do?

I can imagine being terrified by this, rather than full of joy. I can imagine wondering how I am supposed to use and enjoy this unpredictable and lurching water. I can imagine wanting to run away. I can imagine questioning God’s gift of water like this.

But here it is in the leading-up-to-Christmas liturgy. “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” (Isa. 35: 6-7) And it is read as good news.

Mary knows good news when she hears it – and even though it defies all semblances of good news. A pre-marriage baby born to a poor teenager. A carpenter willing to stand by her though he isn’t the father. Not what she was praying for. And yet she sings! My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for God has looked with favor on the lowliness of this servant. Surely everyone in all generations to come will call me blessed! (Luke 1: 46b-48).

Later, John the Baptizer wants to know, from deep within his prison cell, if what he is hearing can be believed. Are you the one I’ve been preaching about and baptizing for? Are you here at last or shall we keep waiting? (Mt. 11: 2-3). Jesus tells the messenger who comes asking, Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame leap, the leapers are clean, the dead live, and the poor know good news at last (Mt. 11: 4-5).

The texts for this season are powerful and poetic and often very familiar to us as they weave back and forth between promise and fulfillment, resounding in both testaments of the Bible. When we really read the texts for this season they can be hard to take. If the poor are receiving good news, what are the rich receiving? Mary sings that they are sent away empty (v. 53). If streams break forth in the desert is that the answer to our thirsty prayers or a drowning, new, terrifying problem?

God’s promises can be trusted. This is awesome and terrifying precisely because God doesn’t make trifling promises. What happens when one of God’s promises is fulfilled in your presence? When what you have been praying for shows up how will you react? Will you make room for the guest in your home or out back in the shed? Will you sing when it looks to others like you are crazy? Will you recognize Jesus even if he comes naked and cooing rather than riding in as a king? How will you trust the promise, when what you are expecting is a lake but what you receive is a thunderous charging stream in the desert?

May you be offered such a gift along with the grace to receive it.

Thanks be to God!

© Deborah Lewis 2007