Scripture: Isaiah 35:1-10
In 2016 I was fortunate enough to attend a trip sponsored by the Indiana Conference to visit Israel. I realize that such a journey is a luxury, but being able to make that trip was such a blessing because in a lot of ways it aided reading and understanding the bible. Just being present in the places where the stories of the bible take place and seeing the geography of the land makes it much easier to visualize the scripture we read. For instance, when I read stories of Jesus in a boat on the Sea of Galilee, I can picture what that begins to look like because I have been in a boat on the Sea of Galilee. When I read the Old Testament and read of the Jezereel Valley, it is more than just a hard to pronounce name but a place that I have been through. Even though it is closing in on seven years since I made that trip, I find the experience continuing to illuminate scripture to this day. This morning’s scripture is a good example, because this morning’s scripture was quoted by the tour guide while we were traveling.
Shimon Peres, an influential Israeli politician, took this morning’s scripture literally. He read verses 1, “The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom”, and thought we can make that happen. Starting under him, Israel invested in cutting edge agriculture research. It paid off, today Israel is the leading expert on desert agriculture. In places that have been barren and inhospitable to humanity for millennia, there are now fields of tomatoes and tanks brimming with farm raised fish. As climate change has led to increasing desertification around the world, Israeli scientists and farmers have been brought into other countries to teach those places the techniques they have learned. This morning’s scripture served as an inspiration for scientific breakthroughs and innovative techniques that are meeting some of the challenges of our changing world. Through scientific innovation, the deserts of Israel are in bloom.
While those breakthroughs are worth celebrating, a future of desert agriculture was likely not what the prophet had in mind while writing this poetic scripture. Like a lot of prophetic scripture, this morning’s is one with layers. During the time of exile it was one that promised restoration to the Israelites. Yet, at the same time the use of words like “redeemed” and “rescued” in verse 9 and 10 point to a time beyond just the end of the Jewish exile. They point to a time when God will redeem all people from the debt of sin and provide rescue from the finality of death. This morning’s scripture uses the natural geography of Israel to paint an evocative and beautiful picture. The message this morning’s scripture communicates is that when God brings about redemption and restoration, God also brings about a joyful abundance of new life. This morning’s scripture illustrates this with the blossoming of the desert, but it can also be true for us as well.
This scripture is one where knowing the geography of the region helps with understanding the scripture. Israel has a lower lying costal reason that buts up against a rocky and hilly region inland. Moisture that hits comes in from the sea, runs into to the hill, and the result is a dry and arid region on the other side. This creates a desert wilderness. That can be found in the South Eastern area of the land. This is the parched desert that this scripture is referring to. This dry region is contrasted with the “glory of Lebanon” and the “splendor of Carmel and Sharon.” When I visited Israel one of the geographical features that struck me was the lack of trees. Even in the non-desert parts, trees were uncommon. Often the trees that could be found were a lot smaller and shrub like than the towering hardwoods that we are used to. The exception to this is the region around Mt. Carmel, it was covered in evergreens. In the Bible, Lebanon, which was to the North of Israel, was famed for its ability to produce timber and all large logs for building had to be imported from there. Sharon, is a lush costal region, found where a river empties into the sea. For the people of Judah, these would have been the greenest places close to them, and they contrasted strongly from the dry and desolate wilderness that surrounded them. The idea of the desert changing into something that remarkably verdant was almost unthinkable.
Yet, it was not entirely unthinkable because the people of Isaiah’s day they would have glimpses of the possibilities. The most dramatic way this morning’s scripture was illustrated to me on my trip to Israel did not come from being informed of agriculture developments or even seeing the geography first hand. Now the most dramatic illustration came up by chance. On one of the days we traveled from Galilee to Jerusalem, passing by Jericho. The road from Jericho to Jerusalem passes right through the heart of the wilderness. It is a 20 or so mile stretch of rocky, desolate desert. That evening though, there was a down pour. It was an unseasonably high amount of rain. The next morning we left Jerusalem to go back East to tour the archeological site of Jericho. This required driving back down the same desert road, but this time the drive looked vastly different. Where before there were empty hills and dried out valleys, now there were green, rolling hills and damp valleys. An evening of rain had transformed the landscape and set off a small desert bloom. It did not last long. A couple of days later we returned the same way to visit the site of Masada and the Dead Sea and the desert had returned to normal. Yet for a brief time, while I was there, the parched land was glad and the wilderness rejoiced and blossomed. This experience really stuck with me, and helped me gain an understanding to this scripture. The desert looks lifeless, but just under the surface the potential for life is there, waiting for a catalyst to revive it.
This is true in the natural world, but I think this is true for the inner workings of our heart and soul as well. There are times in our lives where we feel more like we are exposed in the wilderness than cozy and cared for. There are times when the best words that describe how he feel is dry, desolate, parched, and withered. This can happen corporately, such as with the Israelites in exile. However, these feelings can also occur on the personal level. There are a lot life circumstances that can get us feeling this way. Perhaps we have too much of life throwing us “oh and another thing.” When it seems we can finally catch our breath, yet one more misfortune, one more set back, one more complication we just do not have the energy left to deal with it and we left feeling parched and dried out. Or perhaps it has less to do with too much happening and more to do with not enough happening. Sometimes the grind of life can wear us down. The monotony of doing the same thing day in and day out may have a sense of reassurance, but it can also take a lot of the wonder, joy, and color out of life. Perhaps instead of thinking of a future that felt colorful and vibrant you now only find a present that feels more dull and desolate. Or perhaps it is more complicated. Perhaps you have suffered the misfortune of a strained or broken relationship. Perhaps words that should not have been said have added sparks to volatile situations, and the heat of burned bridges has left you feeling scorched and withered. Because life can be messy and complicated, there will inevitably feel like times that we are in a desert place. There are times when we are the ones afflicted with feeble hands, weak knees, and fearful hearts.
If that resonates with you, if you have ever felt that way then this morning’s scripture is good news. Because this morning’s scripture encourages us with “be strong, do no fear your God will come” and “he will come to save you.” This morning’s scripture encourages us that pointing out that God can make the deserts green. Remember all it takes is a catalyst, a little water, to make the desert bloom, but this morning’s scripture goes far beyond that. This morning’s scripture goes beyond rain bringing color to the desert. This morning’s scripture is about complete and total transformation. If our lives ever feel dry and parched, then God can bring water to gush forth in the wilderness and stream in the desert. The Christian band We the Kingdom sings about this in their song “Holy Water.” They sing, “Walking down these desert roads, water for my thirsty soul. I need you, Oh I need you. Your forgiveness is like sweet, sweet honey on my lips, Like the sound of a symphony to my ears. Like Holy water on my skin.”
What can transform our hearts and souls is nothing short of God’s forgiveness and grace. It is reconciliation and redemption. It is rescue from being lost in the wilderness and being centered in the truth that God can be our God and we can be God’s people. This scripture promises that God can make the dry, cracked, and desolate place full of life, vibrancy, and color again. This will all be accompanied by great joy. In the poetic language of this morning’s scripture verse 8 begins to explain how God does this: “And a highway will be there; it will be called the way of Holiness.” This is where this scripture points to the messiah, because this highway through the restored desert goes straight to God’s presence. Friends, there is only one person that imagery can possibly describe and it is Jesus Christ. It is Jesus who connects us to God the Father. It is Jesus who reconciles us with our Creator. It is Jesus who by the power of his blood redeems us. It is Jesus who restores with the holy waters of forgiveness and love, and it is ultimately Jesus who brings us out of those desert places into the glory of God.
It is Jesus can revive and transform us, but the key to staying that way, the key for our hearts to not dry back out, is to abide in that holy water. When it comes to how we do that, I think we can learn from Jadav Paynag of Northern India. He grew up on Majuli Island, the largest river island in the world where human habitation and climate change have created a soil erosion problem. This problem has caused the island to steadily shrink for decades, and as parts of the island get cut off they wither and become barren sand bars. As a teenager he wanted to do his part to stop this so he went to one of these barren islands and planted a single tree. He tended to it and planted more trees. For over 40 years all on his own he planted on this island, and today it is not a barren wasteland but it is a fully restored ecosystem that is larger than central park. He made the desert green again by his daily care and cultivation. In the same way, if our lives feel dry, if we feel like we are mentally, emotionally, or spiritually in a desert place then the way to bring about a desert garden is to plant and cultivate daily.
By choosing to intentionally give part of our daily time to seek God in prayer, then we plant seeds of faithfulness. By choosing to intentionally take actions that consider the wellbeing of other and put them first, we plant seeds of kindness. By choosing to intentionally treat everyone, even those we might disagree with compassion, then we plant seeds of love. Then to make those seeds grow, all we need is a little water, and Jesus said he is the living water. Jadav Paynag took a desert island and turned it into a lush jungle with a little daily care. In the same way we can join God in making this morning’s scripture a reality by daily seeking to cultivate our own lives by seeking Jesus and planting seeds by following his example.
The leadership of modern day Israel took this morning’s scripture literally and has attempted to transform the physical desert into a farm. This morning’s scripture was prophetic and poetic when it was written, and as people of faith we can enact it in that way to ensure that our hearts and souls are overflowing with the love of Christ and blossoming with the fruit of the Spirit. This does not happen by accident, but it is the result of daily intentionality, it is the result of hundreds of small decisions to be a little bit more like Jesus in how we live. When we do this it is not just our lives that transform, but we become the springs that help water our cracked and parched world. We can be used by God to fulfill this scripture and transform this world into a more loving and kind place. So may we seek to do that. May we live into this scripture. May the joy and gladness we feel because we have been redeemed, saved, and transformed by the holy love of Jesus be an on-ramp for others on to the highway of Holiness that leads back to God. May the joy and gladness we know because of Jesus transform not just our hearts but may our loving actions help desert gardens bloom in our cracked and parched world.