Rivers in the Desert—A Homily

Given at the New College Communion Service, Thursday, March 14th

Reading
Isaiah 43:16-21

Thus says the LORD, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters, who brings out chariot and horse, army and warrior; they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick:
Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old.  I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. The wild animals will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches; for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise.

Psalm 126

When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream.
Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then it was said among the nations, “The LORD has done great things for them.”
The LORD has done great things for us, and we rejoiced.
Restore our fortunes, O LORD, like the watercourses in the Negeb.
May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.
Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.

Reflection

As Lent drags on into its fifth week, many of us may feel a bit like we have wandered off into a desert, and are straining our eyes toward Easter, shimmering in the distance like a mirage.  We went out here into this desert trying to be like Jesus, determined to use these forty days of Lent to fast and grow closer to God, to fight against the temptations of our flesh and hopefully grow just a bit more holy or at least self-disciplined, to take more time for God, for prayer and reading his Word.  But here we find ourselves instead, wandering aimlessly, wondering what became of the last four weeks, of our lofty aims.  If we’re still keeping our fast, perhaps it feels more out of drudgery than devotion, and how many of us can say we’ve carved out the extra time for God that we meant to; how many of us can say we feel much further at all on the path toward holiness?  Perhaps this is the reason why Lent is forty days long: it gives us plenty of time to fail.  I’ve heard people object to Lent on account of its length—fasting is all well and good, but forty days of it?  Is that really necessary?  Forty days, though, gives us long enough to realize how bad we are at fasting, how bad we are at devotion and self-denial.  By the end of it, or perhaps well before the end of it, we’re out there in the desert, gasping for living water, yearning for the new life of Easter to be poured out on us, to give us the spiritual strength we so clearly lack.

You don’t have to observe Lent to be familiar with this feeling.  How often in our lives do we find ourselves in that place—we’ve set out with our heads held high, ready to do Christian discipleship right this time, ready to follow Jesus on the hard wilderness path, but suddenly we find that we’re there on our knees, crawling instead of walking, seemingly alone, and parched with spiritual thirst, waiting on God to send rain so we can resume the journey.

 

Perhaps you’ve seen some of these amazing BBC nature documentaries, where they show these dry riverbeds of southern Africa, choked, parched ground beside which both plants and animals wait and wither; suddenly, water that fell as rain on mountains hundreds of miles away arrives in a torrent, turning the dust first into mud, then into a rich marsh in which all kinds of life thrive.  Perhaps it is something like this that the Psalmist and the Prophet have in mind—”rivers in the desert,” “the watercourses of the Negev.”  Parts of the Negev, after all, had seasonal rainfalls that would suddenly fill the watercourses and make the desert a place of life.  The Christian, too, on pilgrimage through the wilderness, can rely on such seasonal outpourings of God’s grace and faithfulness, particularly when we are parched by drought and feel we can go no further.  The song “Great is Thy Faithfulness” which we have just sung expresses the Christian hope that we will never lack God’s presence for long; he will always pour out a fresh effusion of grace to give us “strength for today, and bright hope for tomorrow.”

In the liturgical year, Easter can play the role of these seasonal rains for us, bringing us rivers in the desert through which we have wandered during the weeks of Lent.  We trade our mourning for joy, our fasting for feasting, we worry less about crucifying the sin within us than rejoicing in the new life we have in Christ.  And yet Easter too will pass, after its six weeks, and after the warm summer months, another autumn and winter will come, and no doubt, somewhere in there, another spiritual dry season.  Is the repeating annual cycle of Easters, then, the only “water in the wilderness” for which we hope?

As you journey further south into the Negev, you quickly come to desert that almost never sees rain—just 3 cm a year.  The Israelites were well-acquainted with this permanent desert, this dead land, since they had wandered through it on their way out of Egypt.  It was thus no mere seasonal rainfall that the Prophet and Psalmist looked forward to, for Behold! God was going to do a new thing.  Much as they relied on God for the sustenance of mercies new every morning, they looked beyond this for the hope of the day when the deserts would be transformed, flooded with springs of living water, when the cycle of drought and rain, of need and grace, of death and life, would end, and life would triumph through all the world.

That shimmering in the distance, then, is not a mirage, nor a brief flow of water to give us just “strength for today,” but the “river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb,” and alongside it, “the tree of life, with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month, and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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