Tuesday, December 13, 2016

The Blooming Desert -- Third Sunday of Advent

Isaiah 35:1-10
December 11, 2016

            Last year, as we were making the transition from the big church to our little church here, Alice noticed that a volunteer petunia had begun to grow in a crack of pavement; just where the concrete met the brick wall of the big church. It was a small blossom, but it was sturdy. We took pictures of it, and Alice made the comparison that it was a metaphor for our own situation. We were small like that flower, but we were going to bloom where we were planted – or where we landed as the case may be. We shared that picture and that metaphor in the church newsletter. We hoped that it would inspire all of us to have faith and keep going.
            It was an inspiring flower, because it bloomed and bloomed and bloomed. It got bigger and fuller. The weather remained warm and there was rain, so it had no reason to stop growing. I don’t remember how long that petunia grew in that break in the concrete, but it was a good while – much longer than we expected. As the weather changed, it finally withered and died. As tenacious as that little flower was, it wasn’t sustainable without the right soil for its roots.
            But what was it doing there in the first place? I can imagine how the flower got started in that inhospitable environment – the wind or a bird scattered the seed of the petunias that were planted. A seed must have found a tiny patch of dirt to grab hold of, and then we know the rest. But seeing that beautiful flower flourishing in a crevice of pavement was a wondrous but strange sight. It seemed to have no business there, but there it was in spite of itself.
            I think the same could be said of this passage in Isaiah. Barbara Lundblad Taylor asked the question, “What is it doing here?”
Taken on its own, this passage in Isaiah is an example of beautiful and compelling language. It is poetry at its most masterful. The imagery and the visceral response the words evoke are both beautiful and amazing.
            “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it 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.”
            That is powerful. But hear these other powerful words from the mouth of the prophet:
            “For the Lord has a day of vengeance, a year of vindication by Zion’s cause. And the streams of Edom shall be turned into pitch, and her soil into sulfur; her land shall become burning pitch. Nigh and day it shall not be quenched; its smoke shall go up forever.”
            That is Isaiah, chapter 34: 8-10; the chapter just before the one we read today. The chapter after ours tells of King Sennacherib’s capture of the people of Judah. He challenges them, demanding that they submit to him. So these eloquent words of promise – of creation being reordered to reflect the fullness of God’s glory; words that tell of the blind seeing, the deaf hearing, the lame walking, the speechless singing – are prefaced and followed by words of judgment, vengeance, capture and forceful submission.
            What is this passage, this chapter of beauty and promise, of expectations upended, of miraculous reordering, doing here; stuck between prophecies and stories that convey the exact opposite? Some of the scholarship of this passage claims that it is in the wrong place in the text. It belongs to Second Isaiah – which is considered to start at chapter 40 and contains words of new hope after the exile of God’s people has finally come to an end. It must have been moved by some scribe. Lundblad Taylor wrote,
“Some things even our best scholarship cannot explain. The Spirit hovered over the text and over the scribes: ‘Put it here,’ breathed the Spirit, ‘before anyone is ready. Interrupt the narrative of despair.’”
Interrupt the narrative of despair. Isn’t that what we desperately need right now? Isn’t that what every generation has needed? An interruption in the narrative of despair. Isn’t that what we are preparing for during this season of Advent? An interruption in the despair that seems to not only loom around us, but also seems to be growing exponentially. How is God interrupting us right now? How is God speaking words of hope, whether we are ready for them or not, whether we are capable of recognizing them or not?
How is God’s interruption turning upside down our expectations of God and of the world? How is God’s interruption like a blooming desert, like streams rushing through arid land, like waters flowing recklessly out of a sparse and thirsty wilderness?
These words of Isaiah are an interruption in the narrative of despair; they are “a word out of place.” Marian Wright Edelman, who is the founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, speaks about pushing for just causes whether the world is ready for those causes or not. She names Sojourner Truth as her role model, and after a defeat of a bill that would have served to protect the children she advocates for, she contemplated the following story about Sojourner Truth.
Sojourner Truth was a slave. She couldn’t read. She couldn’t write. Yet her speeches against slavery are some of the most articulate and eloquent words I have ever read. She was determined to push for the end of slavery, an evil and unjust institution that went against all that was good and right and true. Truth gave a particularly passionate anti-slavery speech in Ohio. After the speech, a man came up to her and said, “Old woman, do you think that your talk about slavery does any good? Do you suppose people care what you say? Why, I don’t care any more for your talk than I do for the bite of a flea.”
Truth answered him, “Perhaps not, but, the Lord willing, I’ll keep you scratching.”
I’ll keep you scratching.
A word out of place.
An interruption in the narrative of despair.
Perhaps this is what faith is all about. It is not just that we believe in what we can’t see. It is not just that we put our hope in doctrine or creed. Perhaps faith is even more than how William Sloane Coffin said, defining it as “Trust without reservation.” Perhaps faith is remembering how God has interrupted our own narratives of despair. Perhaps faith is not just clinging to those memories, but pinning our hope to our belief that there are more interruptions to come. Perhaps faith is trusting that God’s greatest interruption – the incarnation of the Word, the birth of a baby into the world – was not just an interruption that happened once, long ago and far away, but is an interruption that continues to occur. It is an ongoing, constant, ever present word out of place.
Isn’t our being here, in this little place, unsure of our future but believing that there is more to come, that our ministry is not yet finished, an interruption in the larger narrative of despair over church decline? Is not the gospel, with its reordering of what is just, what is righteous, what matters and what doesn’t, an interruption in the narrative of despair? Doesn’t Mary’s song in response to the angel’s news about who God called her to be and who she was called to become ring with God’s glorious interruption? In the midst of the mundane, we are interrupted by words of a blooming desert, of flowing water, of expectations upended, of what was dead becoming alive, of what was old becoming new. A flower can grow in a parking lot and monochrome deserts can bloom with color. God’s word out of place is the foundation of our faith. God’s interruption of hope and promise is the center of the gospel, the reminder that the kingdom is here among us.
A flower can grow in a parking lot and a desert can bloom with color.

Thanks be to God! Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.

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