“Water In A Dusty Place”
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
August 9, 2018
The word ‘apocalypse’ in Greek means to literally uncover or unveil something. Its like what my parents used to do on Christmas morning with a bed sheet and a pile of presents they didn’t have time to wrap; after my brother and I bounded down the steps, they would dramatically pull the sheet away to reveal all of our Christmas dreams. An apocalypse in the Bible, however, does not deal with unwrapped Christmas presents. Instead, a Biblical apocalypse is a writing or a vision or an event in the Bible that unveils, uncovers, God’s true and righteous dream for creation.
We have in front of us today just such a text from the prophet Isaiah. This text is clearly an apocalyptic one because it uncovers for us God’s dream for creation. In this vision, Isaiah sees a time when the wilderness and dry land, places of desperation and fear and longing, will be glad and busting at the seams with beautiful flowers. In this vision, Isaiah sees places like Lebanon and Carmel and Sharon restored to their proper places of power and strength. In this vision, Isaiah sees a time when God’s people will no longer doubt the presence of God because God’s glory will be seen everywhere. In order to prepare for this time, Isaiah says, the weak must be strengthened, the feeble must be helped along, and the fearful must be encouraged.
When the time of blooming and gladness and rejoicing comes, the eyes of the blind will be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. The lame will leap like a deer and anyone who was silent will sing out for joy. The dry places will no longer be dry because water will spring up from the ground. Streams will run through the desert and the burning sand will be turned into cool pools of water. The places that were once haunted by predatory animals will be flooded and reeds and rushes will grow there. Finally, a highway will be built and it will be called the Holy Way. There won’t be any tolls or detours on the Holy Way, or any road hazards or speed traps. The righteous people of God will travel to Zion on the Holy Way, and they will be filled with everlasting joy. Sorrow and sighing shall flee away and never be seen again.
This is God’s vision for how things will be when all of creation comes into alignment with God’s good will. Everything that is harmful or deadly or painful is not only put to an end, it is destroyed and replaced with something wonderful. All the stuff that needs to be reversed will be reversed: deserts are turned into rivers, burning sand is turned into pools of water, wilderness will be paved over with the Holy Way. God’s vision is that, plus even some. God’s vision is also that everything is transformed so that it can never go back to the way it was. The deserts will never dry up again. The Holy Way will never be bulldozed or torn apart. The dangerous animals and hazards have been chased away, and they won’t be coming back.
The first hearers of Isaiah’s oracle would have been exceedingly glad to hear it. They would have been glad because life was sad and precarious, always just on the edge of falling off into the abyss. At about the time of Isaiah’s ministry in Israel, the nation was hemmed in on all sides by threats secular and religious. Every day they were challenged to reaffirm their faith in the one God of heaven when the gods of other nations seemed much more believable and far more attractive. This wasn’t a new threat—Israel had faced religious problems from the day they stepped foot out of Egypt. It became more of a problem as their journey with God wasn’t turning out to be what they expected. At the same time, much bigger and far more powerful nations threatened to seize Israel’s land and turn the people back into slaves.
To make matters worse, there was no real leadership in Israel to lead the people around or through these threats. Well, that’s not entirely true. There was leadership in Israel, on the throne and in the temple, but these were self-promoting, power-hungry, slimy people who did whatever they could to get to wherever they were going. These folks didn’t have any interest in promoting social righteousness, and they had no concern for orphans or widows or the sick. These were people who would do and say anything to gain the devotion of the people’s hearts and pocketbooks. One Biblical writer looked on this time in Israel’s history and wrote, “The word of the Lord was rare in those days.” How very sad. God didn’t stop speaking—the people stopped listening. Even worse than that, people were forgetting how to listen because there was no one to show them how. It was a dry, dry time.
And then Isaiah breaks onto the scene and he tells God’s people that their current reality is not their ultimate reality. He tells them that the current leadership, inept as it may be, will not hinder the movement of God. He tells them that the desert of their hearts, yearning for a good word from the Lord, will suddenly run with cool, clear water. He tells them that the barren places in their lives will come into full bloom and be rich with joy and singing. He tells them that the shame and the hurt of the past will be wiped away and replaced with the glory of God. He assures the blind and deaf and broken that God has not forgotten about them and will lift them up to new life. He points to the highway that will lead the people to God, and he proclaims that never again will anything stand in their way. Talk about water in a dusty place—the good news of God would have lifted God’s people up to face the strange and winding course of life with a hope and a peace that could never be defeated. The uncovering of God’s ultimate plan for things would have been enough nourishment to keep the people going until it came to be.
My friends, I’ve had a privileged life. I grew up in a house with loving parents, I was surrounded my entire childhood by a big loving family, and I learned about the love of God early on. I’ve studied in some phenomenal places with some of the world’s greatest thinkers, and I’ve traveled, here in the States and in several foreign countries. I’ve heard Beethoven’s Ode To Joyperformed by a choir of 1,000 singers and I was there to hear the first cry of my newborn son. I want for nothing, and on most days there is nothing that I actually need other than the things God so generously provides.
But the past few months have been really terrible for me and my family. I’ve never had medical problems more than a common cold every winter, but back in May I started having stomach pain that would keep me in bed for days at a time. It let up enough that I was able to finish my doctoral coursework in June, but it landed me in the emergency room one day during class. Luckily, the doctors found what they thought was causing the problem and they were able to treat it. I say ‘luckily’ because just a few days after the ER visit my grandmother took her place in God’s eternal home. By God’s grace I was able to travel to Maryland to be with my family and to grieve our loss. Grandma was 94, so we took comfort in the length and impact of her life.
No sooner had we gotten back to Oklahoma, we got word that my father-in-law had been placed on hospice care. At the time, it was a way for him to receive the care he needed in a way that was most comfortable for him. We traveled to Texas several times. We talked final arrangements and planning ahead, but we didn’t think we would need any of it so soon. Ted told me once that he wasn’t dying, just getting better slow than expected. Then we traveled back to Texas a few weeks ago because Ted had suffered a severe stroke. A day later he died with the two people he loved the most on either side. Ever since that day there has been this haze hanging over our house, one that we walk through sleepily every day. At some points we wonder if we’ll just wake up and things will be back to normal.
My friends, I’m sad; my wife is sad; our families are sad. We’re all dry, too. And in our sadness and thirst we recognize that each and every one of you has experienced the same or might going through the same thing right now. It is an inescapable truth of human life that at times all the joy and singing will be taken away we’ll wonder if we’re ever going to wake up. It is an inescapable truth of human life that we will all experience the death of loved ones and that each of us will one day join them in God’s eternal home. It is an inescapable truth of human life that threats hem us in from every direction and we’ll wonder how in the world we’re going to survive. But the fact that is true doesn’t make it easy to handle. I don’t know about you, but I didn’t get a book about illness and mourning and death and sorrow—if you did, let me know. All of it sucks, and that’s a word I’m allowed to use because I earned a seminary degree. It sucks, and sometimes that’s the only thing we can bring ourselves to say when it is most foggy and unclear.
And yet—in the economy of God’s grace there is always an ‘and yet’—God is faithful. If you want to know how I can say that today I’d like to show you the stacks on stacks of cards that have come through our mailbox this summer. If you want to know how I can say that today I’d like to tell you about the pecan pies and fruit and chocolate chip cookies that have been dropped on our front porch. If you want to know how I can say that today I’d like to tell you about each hug, every handshake, every concerned look we’ve received that was sincere and filled with love. If you want to know how I can tell you, with every terrible thing that has happened recently, that God is faithful,it is because your love and grace and care was water in a dusty place, confirming for me that God’s vision of how things will be already is. Isaiah speaks as if its some place off in the future, but its right here, right now. God’s river is already running through the desert, and it will never be stopped.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, I want you to do two things today.
First, I want you, even if you can only grab the smallest thread of it, I want you to reach out and hold on to some hope. The power of Isaiah’s apocalypse is not relegated to the past because God is not relegated to the past. God is still moving, God is still acting, God is still speaking, and that means that God is still working for the good of all of us because God loves us. The promises of a new and better day are just as clear and present today as they were all those millennia ago, so have hope. Have hope because God has not forgotten about you.
Second, reach out to somebody today. God is big and powerful and able to do anything and everything we could ever dream or imagine. And one of those big and powerful things that God has done is that God has given us each other, fellow travelers on the Holy Way. Reach out to someone today. Don’t try to fix anything. If anything, help them to say, “This sucks.” Cook for them, clean for them, sit with them, experience the silence with them. Then, when the time is right, dance together in the cool, clear streams of God’s grace because they are about to rush through your life and mine.
May everlasting joy be upon all of our heads this day. May we all obtain joy and gladness by the grace and mercy of God. And may sorrow and signing flee away forever. Amen.