The Desert Road - 3 Advent 2016

Sermon for 11 December 2016

Isaiah 35:1-10; Psalm 146:4-9; James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11

“As a deer longs for flowing streams, so longs my soul for You, O God.” Amen.

That famous line from Psalm 42 was not one of our readings for this week, but it expresses perfectly the Advent sentiment. Think not so much in terms of Oregon deer, which get plenty of water, but think of deer in the Palestinian badlands, where rain is rare and the only water comes from springs that bring water down from the mountains. All the land around you is parched; such plants as there are, are hardy, thorny things. You can’t really just stay by the springs because that’s where the predators are. So you have your trails on the steep hillsides and you wander them endlessly looking for the next green plant to munch and trying to stay away from the lions and jackals. Most Israelites didn’t live in the desert, of course, but they saw it from where they lived, and it represented for them the realm of chaos, of demonic powers — the realm of death. In contrast to the land made fertile by God’s grace, the desert was ever visible as a part of the world that resisted the divine gift. Nowadays we see desert and wilderness as places, perhaps, where we find God, and Israel has stories about finding God in the desert, too, but mostly the desert is someplace where God is experienced as absent, a place in need of re-creation, that needs to be made fruitful. What the poet who speaks in Psalm 42 does is makes a connection between that physical condition of unfruitfulness to the spiritual condition of feeling God’s absence.

Now I know as well as you do, or anyone does, that God is never actually absent. Yet there are times, aren’t there, when God’s absence seems almost palpable, when the “God-shaped hole in the human heart” feels like more than mere emptiness. At least that’s how it sometimes feels to me. And yet that emptiness is such an ache, such a longing, that it’s like God is present in that very absence and even by means of it. “Absence makes the heart grow fonder,” goes the saying, as a ravening thirst increases one’s love for cool water. “As the deer longs for flowing streams, so longs my soul for you, O God.”

Advent is a time to feel that absence, to relish it as you relish the feeling of hunger when you smell the afternoon feast cooking on Christmas morning. It’s not just a desire to satisfy your hunger with food; there’s something delicious about the hunger itself, which serves as a sign of the feast to come.

This is the kind of feeling we ought to have as we hear Isaiah’s marvelous poem. Remember that to the ancients of the Middle East, desert symbolized the parts of the world that were in rebellion against God’s tireless efforts to make the world live. The desert was where demonic forces, predatory animals, and uncleanness of all kinds endured. If you got sick, and especially if you were infirm in a way that led to ritual uncleanness, such as being lame or blind or had leprosy, then you were of the desert, whether you lived there or not. But in Isaiah’s vision, God makes the desert fertile and lush, and all those symbols of barrenness are cured. The desert blossoms and becomes as fruitful as the greenest regions in Israel. The sight of the blind and the hearing of the deaf is be restored, those who had been unable to speak now can sing, the lame are able not just to walk but to leap for joy. The waterless wastes overflow with vigor. And no predators endanger anybody. And in the midst of this re-created land, this former desert, this place formerly inhabited by the unclean and demonic, there is now a sacred road that leads to Jerusalem and to the temple of God on Mount Zion there. This is imagery of pilgrimage to the temple. The power of God’s new creation, and of the holy road that leads to God’s presence, is so great that even fools can’t miss it, there is no uncleanness on this road because all uncleanness has been healed by God. The highway leads inexorably to the presence of God, and God’s redeemed people travel that way with joy that is so great as to drive away all sorrow and sighing. Doesn’t this vision of Isaiah just make you want to find that road and walk on it, like a thirsty deer who smells the water from afar? Walk with me through Advent; that’s our holy road and it leads to God’s own Self, who was made a human being like us for our salvation.

What I’d like to invite you to see with me is that the healing that’s needed by the desert, and which God promises, is also needed by us. Because there are things that dry us up, that make us forget who we are created to be, things that get control of us and make us who are called to be children of God into slaves. We are, as the Collect says, “sorely hindered by our sins.” I used to think of God as a stern old man who scowled when anyone smiled. That God wanted to prevent us from sinning mainly because he didn’t want us to have any fun. But the longer I live the clearer it becomes to me that that’s wrong-headed. Sins are the things we do that hinder us from living fully, that make us less than fully human, that deaden our physical and spiritual nerves so that we’re unaware of the world’s marvelousness. If you’re like me then you probably don’t have too much trouble thinking of the sins that dry up your soul, things you’ve neglected to do that you should have done; things you’ve done that you shouldn’t have done. Attitudes that cut you off from God and your neighbor. God promises to make the desert bloom again, to save us from our sins, but here we are still in the midst of them. In Advent, hoping and longing for the salvation of God to be born in us and in the world. In this Advent desert I long for God’s healing grace like a deer thirsting for flowing streams.

This the solution of the powerful riddle about how the loving God is also our judge: When God comes to be our judge, He comes to save us. God’s judgment is not a punishment for failure to be saved; it is the means of God’s salvation. That’s because what God is saving us from, is our sins, the attitudes and actions that shrivel up our hearts and make God’s world a desert. God will save us from those sins, because God is recreating everything into a new, green, fertile heaven and earth. I think myself, using Leonard Cohen’s words, that “every heart to love will come, but like a refugee.” But even if we utterly refused that salvation, God would save the rest of the world that we insisted on destroying. God’s salvation is inevitable, because life and bounty are God's way.

So what do we do while we live in Advent, in this time of expectation as we await the final victory of God? In modern Israel, the desert is increasingly being made fruitful by irrigation. That is, through a combination of human effort and God’s miraculous gift of life. Our individual lives are like that, too. The main way God frees us from our sins is by helping us to stop sinning. It doesn’t do any good to ask God to free us from our sins if we won’t walk in the freedom we’re given. The desert becomes fruitful when we irrigate it. The holy highway leads to the Jerusalem, but it is our legs that have to carry us on it. Our effort is part of the grace that God gives; it’s not good works versus grace, it’s the grace of good works. And so we remind ourselves annually, in this Advent season, to come back to the Source, to watch and pray for the Lord’s return, to do works of justice and mercy and peace. To eat and drink these signs of the banquet which we shall all eat, cured of our diseases, healed from our infirmities, and saved from our sins. This bread and this wine are the very presence of God breaking into our dried and twisted roots of our souls and beginning to irrigate the parched land. Strengthen the weak knees. Break up your fallow ground. Let streams begin to flow in the desert.

“As the deer longs for streams of water, so longs my soul for You, O God.”