Patience in the Desert 12-11-16

Isaiah 35:1-10 Let the desert and the wilderness exalt!  Let the Arabah (dry land) rejoice and bloom like the crocus! Let it blossom profusely, let it rejoice and sing for joy!  The glory of Lebanon is bestowed on it, the splendor of Carmel and Sharon.  They will see the glory of YHWH, the splendor of our God. Strengthen all weary hands, steady all  trembling knees. Say to all those of faint heart:  “Take courage!  Do not be afraid.  Look, YHWH is coming, vindication is coming, the recompense of God—God is coming to save you!” Then the eyes of the blind will be opened, the ears of the deaf will be unsealed. Then those who cannot walk will leap like deer and the tongues of those who cannot speak will sing for joy. Waters will break forth in the wilderness, and there will be streams in the desert. The scorched earth will become a lake; the arched land, springs of water.  The lairs where jackals used to dwell will become thickets of reed and papyrus. And through it will run a highway, a road called the Sacred Path.  The unclean may not travel by it, but it will be for God’s people alone, and no traveler—not even fools—will go astray. No lions will be there, nor will any fierce beast roam about it but the redeemed will walk there— For those whom YHWH has ransomed will return.  They will enter Zion shouting for joy with everlasting joy on their faces; joy and gladness will go with them, and sorrow and lament will flee away.

This Brubeck piece was such a beautiful evocation of the Isaiah reading that I decided to base my words today on that first assigned reading – with a little help from this second reading from James. Both clearly are meant to guide us in our waiting and longing in this season for the Child of God, the bringer of authentic joy.

James 5:7-10 Be patient, my sisters and brothers, until the appearance of Christ.  See how the farmer awaits the precious yield of the soil, looking forward to it patiently while the soil receives the winter and spring rains. You, too, must be patient.  Steady your hearts, because the coming of Christ is at hand. Don’t grumble against one another, my sisters and brothers, or you will be judged.  The Judge is standing at the door! To learn how to persevere patiently under hardship, sisters and brothers, take as your models the prophets who spoke in the name of the Most High.

December 11, 2016

Patience in the Desert

Patient waiting is not one of my strong suits. I hate lines. I hate waiting on hold while stupid music plays. I hate waiting in an office, or in a traffic jam, or in a supermarket. I will go way out of my way, maybe even taking a longer period of time, not to have to wait in a traffic jam or a line. I like to keep moving.

Twice recently I was on a phone call that I thought might take a hefty wait when a computerized voice came on and asked if I would like to leave a number that could be dialed back when it was my turn for service. “Oh yes!” I went for that. That just about made my day.

No, it may be part of my privileged attitude, but I am not good at patient waiting. It may be a bit ironic then, at this time of year, that, as a pastor, I expect and inflict patient waiting on my beloved congregation. It is a tension that happens each year at this time between some pastors and their congregations or their choir or the society in general. “Why aren’t we singing Christmas carols?” the alert congregant asks.

“Christmas carols have been playing everywhere since before Halloween. Why can’t we sing a few carols in church to get in the mood and feel the spirit?” Well, before I give my reason, which is bound to be dismissed with the same vigor as ‘political correctness,’ let me claim that I am not totally rigid in this area. We did sing at least one Christmas song last week, and one of my new favorites will close the service today.

Many years on the third Sunday of Advent we sing a whole cantata which is often full of Christmas carols. And next week, the Sunday before Christmas, we will let the gates open and sing a bunch of carols along with our Christmas pageant. Really, I don’t mean to be a Scrooge about Christmas carols. We can sing them any time we wish.

There is, however, something special about singing “Joy to the World” and “Silent Night” on Christmas Eve, about saving those beautiful songs for that beautiful evening. There is a benefit to the discipline of patient waiting in the Advent season, waiting in anticipation and expectation and taking the time to reflect on what we really await.

 

Isaiah’s community was waiting in exile, Last week we talked about the people of Judah worried about being overrun by the Assyrian empire. This week reading from later in Isaiah, we hear that the Assyrian army did indeed destroy the country. The leaders of the Hebrew people have been captured and taken to Babylon by the Assyrian army. They cried that they could not sing their songs in a strange land away from Zion. They felt like they were in a desert wilderness. They were far from home and their hearts were broken.

Modern scholars think that the writer here is not the same Isaiah we read last week who gave people hope in a new leader he thought would be the Messiah. This is second Isaiah, who writes just as eloquently. The first promised transformation of weapons to useful farm implements, a reordering of economies and social orders. This second Isaiah promises that YHWH God is coming to transform the very earth – to bring water and flowers into the desert, to heal all disabilities – blindness, lameness, deafness, – all the injuries they had sustained from the wars of resistance.

Today, of course, we know that all of us are blind in some ways – to racial injustice at times, to the effects of poverty. All of us need to learn to hear and sometimes people with disabilities are the ones who can teach us how to see, how to walk, how to listen. And we certainly know that people with the least water – people living in actual deserts are people who are most acutely aware of the need for water and of changes in climate that are leading to drought. Sometimes these are also the people who can teach us to find the water – to look forward to the explosion of flowers in the desert when the short season of rain comes.

Besides promising a change in the very environment, and in people disabled by war, Isaiah also points to the hope of a sacred path back home – a way for the people to find their way back to the land of their birth. All these words of hope inspired early Christians in their longing for a return of the Messiah, Jesus.

 

You see, it is not really Christmas carols that we are waiting for. It is not Santa Claus or a sleigh, or gifts or the chance to give that gift that you can’t wait to give because you know she is going to absolutely be thrilled. All of those things are worth waiting for and part of pwhat gives us patience while we wait. But many of us are waiting in a kind of desert. We are waiting with a deep thirst – thirsty because of difficulties that our friends or family are having, a mother going into hospice, a mother who died when her child was just a year old, and we live in a bigger desert – a community rife with opiate addiction, a polarized society with no clear direction.  So what we are really waiting for, what we really expect and anticipate this season is so much deeper than singing Christmas carols – so much so that we sometimes can’t bear to really articulate it, in case it would never arrive. Our hopes are much deeper than anything our political system could offer, even if it was functional.

What we really await is the Child of Light, the bringer of deep, authentic, and lasting joy. We await the Spirit of Liberation, water in the Desert, flowers in the parched wilderness. What we await – and why we have to learn patience in the wilderness without giving in to despair – we await a heart of flesh to replace our hearts of stone, the birth of the Spirit into our very broken hearts. We wait in desperate but real hope for the birth of the Living God into our dry bones and parched world.

“We shall sing with joy e’er lasting: ‘Fear not, be strong!  Here is your God!”