To read the Isaiah 35 text click here: Isaiah 35:1-10
Images of the Kingdom: Streams in the Desert
As I write this reflection this morning it is very cold outside. Today is perhaps one of the coldest days we have experienced here in Southern Illinois in a while! So our image for this weekend is Streams in the Desert stand in profound contrast to our current weather conditions. We, in fact, might today find ourselves longing for a desert right about now. So perhaps we should try to lift our minds momentarily out of our cold, snowy and icy environment and picture a desert – the opposite of what we are in the midst of. As we all know, a desert is a place of intense heat and dryness. The famous deserts in our world – Death Valley in California, The Sahara in Africa, the Arabian in Saudi Arabia and Palestine are places of desolation and death. Very little can live there. Scientists tell us that at one time these were places brimming with life but as time went on a change in topography and the availability of water turned these locations into places of endless sand, death and nothingness. And one does not dare to be stuck in a desert environment for very long.
But these deserts are not completely devoid of water. In fact, every so often there is rain. But since there is so little rain when it does finally comes it can be equally dangerous with the dryness. In Palestine throughout the desert there are these dry conduits that are called Wadis. A wadi is simply a dry riverbed. Over the thousands of years these rains have dug deeper into the sand and sometimes they are deep enough to be lined with cliffs on either side. This makes them attractive for travellers to use them as roads. As they are deeper they are a bit cooler. But there is a danger there. Rain doesn’t come often, but when it comes it can come without warning and it can come as a major downpour. People can get stuck in the wadis and can be swept away by the waters that quickly accumulate and turn these wadis back into rushing rivers. These streams (or rivers) in the desert often do not last long, but sometimes they last long enough to encourage some growth. Immediately following a rainstorm and a full wadi, green growth and flowers will appear and bloom, until the water evaporates and the heat of the desert return these wadis to their usual dry, desert desolation.
This is then our image today:
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… For 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… (Isaiah 35:1-2, 6-7)
Streams in the desert! For Isaiah and those listening to him, this image was profound. They were surrounded by desert – and the desert represented desolation and loss and death. They had all seen and experienced moments when the sudden rains had come and turned everything lush for a moment. Perhaps some of them had even scrambled out of a wadi just in time. And they had all desired that this momentary lushness could just last a little longer, before the desert returned. But Isaiah is not just talking about geography and weather. Isaiah is talking about something much closer – the deserts that reside in the life of the community and the deserts in the hearts of the people of Judah. Isaiah is talking about the deserts that dried up compassion to the extent that the South could stand by and watch impassively as the Assyrians destroyed the North. Isaiah is talking about the desert wadis within the community and individuals which lead people to ignore the desperation, and desolation of human need – the blind, the lame, the hungry, the naked. Isaiah is talking about the desert wadis that run through our own hearts that encourage us to think only of ourselves and encourage us to accumulate and hoard stuff leading us to completely disregard the needs of others. And Isaiah’s word here is both a promise and a word of warning: the justice of the Kingdom of God will sweep through these deserts like the rains in a wadi, and human selfishness, cruelty, callousness, greed, exclusivity will all be swept away and in their place will grow love, grace, kindness, compassion, inclusivity and community! And this time they heat of the desert will not return!
This proclamation is also echoed by Jesus in our Gospel for today. How can we tell if you are the Messiah? How can we tell if and when the Kingdom of God will appear? These are the questions that the imprisoned John the Baptist sends to Jesus. And Jesus’ answer: "Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me." In other words, look out! Because the rains of God’s love and grace are coming and they will wash away all those things we prize so much – power, strength, greed, the worship and accumulation of things, the categories we put people in, cruelty and hard-heartedness, all those excuses we come up with for why it is ok for us to let children starve in our own streets and communities; And in their place we find love and grace and community and sharing and compassion and caring and justice.
What are the deserts in your lives, in your hearts? What are the deserts within this community, parish? What is the darkness in your lives that needs to be illuminated by the light of Christ? What are the losses we need to give to God? Of what do we need to confess and be forgiven? What do we need to forgive? What are our priorities, and how do they interface with the priorities of the Kingdom? Brothers and Sisters in Christ - this is the Gospel message for today from both Isaiah and Jesus: Be prepared, the rains are coming! Streams will break forth in the desert and the wadis will be overflowing with the love and grace of God. Are you ready?
This beautiful work is by Mark Lawrence. See his other work and purchase copies here: