Streams in the Desert

Reading: Isaiah 35.1-10
A few years ago we were travelling from Brisbane to Melbourne via the Newell Highway (the inland route). It was in the middle of a serious drought.

In the northern section between Moree and Narrabri there had been a bush fire in the forestry. A bridge had been burnt out. There was no water, so the detour through the dry creek bed was no trouble at all.

Further south, fodder for the sheep was in critically short supply. Several times we had to stop while sheep in their thousands crossed the road in a cloud of dust - guided by the farmer and his men on horseback - and their trusty sheep-dogs. Paddocks seemed bare of every blade of grass. The odd remaining sheep were pulling out the last roots.

Towards the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area, plague locusts were consuming the foliage in their path. They were also a danger to the car - blocking the radiator core and raising the engine temperature. (We were thankful for a relative in Coleambally who gave us some mosquito mesh to protect the radiator and make it easier to clean.)

The Australian poet, Dorothea McKellar, could pen her love of "a sunburnt country" -

Yes, Australia is our home - for all the extremes of weather. But we don't exactly "love" the ravages of "flood and fire and famine"!

Years ago we saw a picture someone had painted from a photo in a women's magazine. It was Uluru (Ayer's Rock) reflected in a pool of water after heavy rain. What happens in the dry Australian outback when it rains? I am told it is an incredible sight. Foliage and flowers come up all over the place - in sharp contrast to the usual dryness of the region.

The Gloomy Backdrop

Today's reading is like that. In the previous chapter (34) there is a graphic picture of the Lord's judgment on the nation of Edom. And that comes at the end of a series of judgments in which Jerusalem and Judah themselves are warned of coming doom. We have to resist the fashion in Biblical studies to "filter out" the encouraging passages in Isaiah and to say that they must have been written by a later prophet. That is quite unnecessary and detracts a great deal from the Lord's message to us. There is a dark background to today's reading. If we are to understand the love and mercy of God, we must see it against the judgment that sinners deserve - and will receive if they remain in their sins!

In Rom. 6.23 Paul wrote that "the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord." Wages are what you earn, what you have worked for, what you deserve to get. A gift is freely given - not paying off an indebtedness, not depending on what you have done or what you deserve.

Suppose you have worked hard for an employer but hadn't yet received your first pay packet... Then one day your employer writes you out a cheque, puts it in a special envelope with a pretty card which says, "I really care about all you have done for the firm - enclosed is my gift to you!" Gift? That's no gift! You have worked hard and received nothing! Really it is your wages - but given late and rather inadequate in the light of all that you have done!

In Romans 1 we see Paul introducing some of the great themes of his letter. In verse 16 he says he is not ashamed of the gospel because it is God's power for salvation for all who believe. This gospel, he adds in v. 17, reveals how God makes right with himself those who believe in Jesus. But then in v.18 he goes on to say that God's wrath (or anger) is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of the human race...

We long for peace and tranquillity. We want peace in Afghanistan and Israel and other trouble spots. We wish the news media would stop disturbing our peace with all the graphic pictures they insist on showing us. We long for the day when our politicians will stop all their rudeness and nastiness towards one another and concentrate on making rules to make life as comfortable as possible for us!

But there is a problem out there - a problem, not just with them, but with us! "For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Rom. 3.23). We see about us in society, not only the reality of sin, but the evidence of "the wages of sin". But "the gift of God is eternal life" - at great price - "in Christ Jesus our Lord". Against the dark backdrop that sinners deserve to perish in hell we hear the word of grace, "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life" (Jn 3.16).

The World Redeemed

Today's reading gives us a picture of restoration and joy. It is the word of promise and hope for those who have experienced the judgment of God and have now turned back to him - "The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom. Like the crocus, it will burst into bloom; it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy. The glory of Lebanon will be given to it, the splendour of Carmel and Sharon; they will see the glory of the Lord, the splendour of our God" (Is. 35.1-2).

Many years ago I received a booklet by Joseph Hunting entitled "Israel the Modern Miracle". Joseph Hunting was involved in a ministry called Jewish Evangelical Witness. His book described how the Jews, in returning to their homeland, had cared for the land in ways which the Arabs had never done. As a result, the land's fertility and productivity were being seen as never before in recent times. My week in Israel in February 2001 doesn't qualify me to comment on Hunting's comparison.

Yet any fulfilment of these words in modern Israel is only partial - as it was with the restoration from captivity in Babylon. We look to the final plans of God beyond human history.

"Strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way" - words quoted in Heb. 12.12 - "say to those with fearful hearts, 'Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you'."

Then the picture of divine restoration, "Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy. Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert. The burning sand will become a pool, the thirsty ground bubbling springs. In the haunts where jackals once lay, grass and reeds and papyrus will grow."

The Road of Holiness

But then the prophecy clearly reaches forward to the Messianic age. "And a highway will be there; it will be called the Way of Holiness. The unclean will not journey on it; it will be for those who walk in that Way; wicked fools will not go about on it. No lion will be there, nor will any ferocious beast get up on it; they will not be found there. But only the redeemed will walk there, and the ransomed of the Lord will return."

Jesus described himself as the Way, the Truth and the Life, through whom alone it would be possible to come to the Father. "The unclean will not journey on it." We can only walk it on the basis on the undeserved love of God, on the basis that Jesus died for our sins.

"They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads. Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away" (v. 10).

In late 1983 we were travelling south on Long Service Leave. On 11th December I wrote down the following note, "Rev. Gordon Moyes in the Lyceum Theatre, Sydney, preached on 'The Christmas Crisis', a look at the Christmas story from the standpoint of women in crisis. For so many women, their husbands' celebrations lead to arguments, bashings and marriage breakdowns. Christmas is a time when women's refuges are full and many are turned away..."

Christmas isn't a "let's pretend" time, when we try to ignore - or escape from - the harsh realities of life. The world into which Jesus was born was no less harsh than our own. The conditions under which he was born were far from the best available even at that time. The holy family had to flee for their life to Egypt.

He came because of human sin. He came to "save his people from their sins" (Matt. 1.21), "to seek and to save what was lost" (Lk. 19.10), "to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mk 10.45)...

He came and he comes. He comes for you - whether you "have it all together" or "think it is all falling apart". Receive him and welcome him. Begin to know his restoration in your own life. Be part of his redeeming force within society.

© Peter J. Blackburn, Home Hill and Ayr Uniting Churches, 16 December 2001
Except where otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from the Good News Bible, © American Bible Society, 1992.

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