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Joy in the Desert

Sermon – 12/12/04
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Isaiah 35:  1-10

It feels good to be back, to be worshiping with you in this familiar place, with the choir, and all of you, to see you again and to share with you.  The text for this morning comes from the prophet Isaiah, the 35th chapter:

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus 2it 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. 3Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. 4Say 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."

5 Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; 6then 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; 7the 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. 8A 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. 9No 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. 10And 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.

There was a wonderful, fun movie that came out earlier this year that depicts the harshness of deserts – Hildago.  The story of this horse race across the Sahara desert, just a wonderful adventure movie.  But it really captures this sense of harshness of the desert.  And how difficult such a race would be in normal conditions, but of course our hero of the story faces all kinds of additional trials and tribulations as his opponents try to stop him and his fast horse.  But you get the impression in that movie that deserts are not friendly places.

And that is true in scripture.  Deserts tend to be the opposite of paradise.  In Deuteronomy 8 we read ‘Take care that you do not forget the lord your God who led you through the great and terrible wilderness, an arid wasteland with poisonous snakes and scorpions’.  And of course we recall the story of the exodus when the people of God are going through the wilderness and they complain bitterly to Moses ‘Why has the lord led us into this forsaken place, that we will die in the wilderness’. 

And then the prophet Hosea uses the image of the desert to depict God’s wrath, he says ‘I will strip Israel naked and expose her as the day she was born and make her a wilderness and turn her into a parched land and fill her with thirst’. 

I’m glad I don’t live in the time of Hosea, because that’s an image of God I cannot relate to.  But it does portray the desert as essentially a God forsaken place, or perhaps better, a place of the God forsaken.  And so it’s against that backdrop of a dreary place in a forsaken time that Isaiah makes this astonishing proclamation – ‘the wilderness and the dry land shall be glad.  The desert shall rejoice and blossom’.

Do you hear that joy?  This isn’t a nervous whistle to chase away the fear of the dark.  This is British and American, French and German troops all together singing Christmas carols from the trenches of World War I on Christmas day.  It’s Tchaikovsky’s symphony celebrating the end of the War of 1812 – ba ba bum ba bum ba bump bum bum.  Boom!  It just gets your heart pounding with the celebration.  It’s Beethoven’s Ode to Joy with full orchestra played in the Reichstag when the Berlin wall came tumbling down – ‘joyful, joyful, we adore thee’.

The original historical reference, of course, in Isaiah 35 is that of the return from captivity in Babylon, through the wilderness.  So joyous is this return, so remarkable is the turn of fortune for God’s people that the wilderness itself will respond, and will reveal the glory of God, and the joy of God and people over their return.  However, such a joyous proclamation of total transformation cannot be confined to any 1 historical event.  For it speaks of the many transformations, and the ever constant work of God to turn desert into garden, and death into life. 

And so Jesus draws specifically and intentionally on this passage when the followers of John the Baptist ask ‘Are you the one for whom we have waited?’  And he says ‘Go and tell John what you have seen and heard, that the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk’.  In other words, God is at work once again – the reign of God is coming here and now.

Now if you are one of those for whom the state of world has got you down, then you need to hear this message of good news.  If war, and the news from the Middle East, and rumors of war discourages you, you need to hear this good news.  If the declining state of our environment causes you despair, you need to hear this good news.  If you’re struggling in your life, and life is not turning out the way that it should, the way that you expected it to, you need to hear this good news.  If your family is torn apart by violence or by fighting or by addictions, you need to hear this good news.

I am hear to proclaim this morning that there really is joy in the desert.  That though there are times in all of our lives and in our world when we feel like we are caught in the desert we have not been deserted.  There are times when we feel very lonely but we are not alone.  We may have feeble knees, but we do not have a feeble God.  Therefore, we need not be afraid for there is joy in the desert.

I shared with you a few weeks ago my experience of the Jazz worship service in New York City, and the black pastor there that taught us the song, and now I share another song with you, and I invite you to recall the summer of 1971.  And what was going on in our nation – Vietnam war was at its height, the year before was the Kent State tragedy and the students that were killed there in the demonstration, the Watts riots in ’69, the tension in the urban setting in particular, racial tensions in our cities.  The following summer of ’72 was the Olympics in Munich, remember the Israeli athletes, I think 7 or 9 athletes that were killed in that commando raid.  It was a time of turmoil and tension and fear and concern. 

And this pastor taught us this song:

Be strong, do not be afraid
The Lord our God will come to save us
Be strong, do not be afraid
The Lord our God will come to save us  

Sing that – Be strong, do not be afraid
The Lord our God will come to save us
Be strong, do not be afraid
The Lord our God will come to save us
 

And if I were to say to you – ‘Tell those who are frightened’, you would respond ‘Be strong’, and secondly, ‘Tell those who are frightened’ – ‘do not be afraid’.  So try that:

Tell those who are frightened (Be strong)
Tell those who are frightened (Do not be afraid)
Tell those who are frightened (Be strong)
Tell those who are frightened (Do not be afraid)

Be strong, do not be afraid
The Lord our God will come to save us
Be strong, do not be afraid
The Lord our God will come to save us
 

And you see that’s taken right out of Isaiah 35!  That is the message of the prophet.  And when you can sing that in the wilderness, when you can sing that in the desert, and you feel that, and you believe that, then you know that there truly is joy in the desert.  Not because of the conditions of the desert, but because of the condition of your heart, and your confidence in God.

It was in the midst of tragedy in our own lives, our own personal desert, when Judy and I were worried about our children, and how that tragedy was impacting them, that someone said to us “are they singing?”  Are the children singing?  Because if they’re singing, you know that they will be OK. 

I’ll recommend another movie to you, this one not as popular, not as well known, the story of Steven Biko portrayed by Denzel Washington in the movie “Cry Freedom”.  Wonderful story of tragedy and hope.  Tell the story of apartheid in South Africa and Biko the black activist who is banned and actually killed by the white regime while he was in custody – beaten horribly.  And in that story, that’s leading up to and includes the massacre in Soweto that got the attention of the world, when we really became aware of this enormous oppression that apartheid and the racism of it was causing there in South Africa.  One of the powerful images you get from that movie of this very difficult time in the life of the people is the singing and dancing of the black population.  It’s filled with joy in spite of those conditions.  Because of their confidence of the work of God that would eventually liberate them and free them from that oppression.

During India’s struggle for independence, Mahatma Gandhi said “Why worry one’s head over a demise that is inevitable?  That is why I can take the keenest interest in discussing vitamins and leafy vegetables and unpolished rice”.  There they are struggling for their freedom and Gandhi’s worried about just everyday things.  Because he understood that the oppression of the British empire would collapse under its own weight.  And therefore, all the more important to worry about the everyday concerns of the people that touches their everyday lives.

Jonathan Shell in his new book “The Unconquerable World” comments on this, he says:  “For Gandhi, ending untouchability, cleaning latrines, improving the diet of Indian villagers, improving the lot of Indian women, making peace between Muslims and Hindus (through all of which he believed he would find God), that was his primary goal in his movement.  Not just to free the people from British rule.” 

When does God dwell here on earth as in heaven?  When the eyes of the blind are opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped, and the lame leap like a deer, and the tongues of the speechless sing for joy.  This is what it means to turn deserts into paradise, human empires into the reign of God.  To make transformation happen, to bring real change in the lives of people, to see the Kingdom of God here on earth.  The message sent back to John the Baptist by Jesus, that the blind see, the deaf here, the lame walk, the poor have good news proclaimed to them is a way of saying ‘the reign of God is being established not by violence and war but by healing and peace’.  That the transformation of this world occurs not by changing governments, but by changing lives.  And I take that as a challenge and as a hope. 

The challenge – that the transformation of the desert begins when we take that holy way of which Isaiah speaks.  The way of Jesus, the way of Mahatma Gandhi, the way of Steven Biko, the way that changes lives by trusting in the radical grace and justice of God.  And the hope – that this holy way really does make a difference.  It transforms deserts.  It proclaims good news to the poor.  It heals broken lives.  It brings the reign of God to earth.  And because of this hope, we can sing ‘Joy to the World’ – not because of the condition of the world as it is now, but because of the way it can and will be. 

“Joy”, says poet Leon Bloy, “is the most infallible sign of the presence of God”.  Joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God.  That’s why we know that there can be joy in the desert – because God is there.  Whenever we face our fears, God is there.  Whenever we strengthen the weak, God is there.  Whenever lives are transformed, God is there.  Whenever we journey through the wilderness, God is there.  Whenever we bring joy into this world, light into darkness, peace in time of war, and hope in times of despair, God is there.  And so we sing: 

Be strong, do not be afraid
The Lord our God will come to save us
Be strong, do not be afraid
The Lord our God will come to save us
 

Tell those who are frightened (Be strong)
Tell those who are frightened (Do not be afraid)
Tell those who are frightened (Be strong)
Tell those who are frightened (Do not be afraid)
 

Be strong, do not be afraid
The Lord our God will come to save us
Be strong, do not be afraid
The Lord our God will come to save us
 

 

Amen.

 


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