December 15, 2013
“For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert”.
Early on Sunday mornings, during my first year of seminary at Candler School of Theology at Emory University, I’d leave my parents’ home in northwest Atlanta and drive downtown on the nearly empty I-75 to All Saints Church listening to a radio show called “Streams in the Desert”. I think it was put out by the Southern Baptists with whom I’ve had many issues, but I am grateful for this radio ministry.
Grateful because it proclaimed that everyone has a desert in them, a wilderness place where sadness and suffering live, where we are not in control of our lives, and that Christ comes to us precisely in that place.
As a seminary student I knew people suffered in much the same ways I suffered, but deep down I was an idealist who thought if I could just find the right theology, the right worship, the right prayer practice, the right church, and the best spiritual director, then work really hard, God would remove my desert and send me on my way rejoicing.
Of course I should have realized this was not God’s way the first time I read through the Hebrew Scriptures, because the desert is a central image, a necessary image, in the story of salvation.
- Moses is met by God in the desert;
- Israel wanders 40 years in the desert after their escape from Egypt;
- Elijah returns to Mt Sinai in the desert when King Ahab and his evil queen Jezebel are out to kill him.
- And Jesus himself spends 40 days in the desert doing spiritual combat with the devil.
The Bible is telling us that the desert is the place human beings are met by God so it is a mistake to try to live as if we have no desert. To be human is to have a desert.
Of course our culture tells us to run away from such inner darkness.
So we invented houses of capitalism called shopping malls and when that wasn’t enough really smart people invented little electronic gismos to keep us connected to the world with its 10,000 things to distract us from our pain.
In the culture, the wilderness is a bad thing.
In the Jewish-Christian tradition it is the place we are met by God.
Even someone as saintly as Mother Theresa knew the desert intimately.
She wrote to her spiritual director in a 1959-60 spiritual diary, “In my soul, I feel just the terrible pain of loss, of God not wanting me, of God not being God, of God not really existing.” Catholic News Service at: http://www.catholicnews.com/data/stories/cns/0201292.htm
In September 1979 she wrote to a priest: “Jesus has a very special love for you. As for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great that I look and do not see, listen and do not hear.” – Mother Teresa to the Rev. Michael Van Der Peet,From Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light
The Prophet known as Second Isaiah addresses the Jewish people who have been taken into exile in Babylonia, which is modern Iraq, and says
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert….”
For Jews this passage becomes a template for the hope that God’s representative, the Messiah, the Christ, would meet people in their darkness and become their light.
So it is natural that John the Baptist, from Herod’s prison sends disciples to Jesus to ask: “Are you the one who is to come or should we expect another?”
This is a fundamental question: is Jesus the Christ God’s stream in our desert or should we be looking for someone else?
A fundamental question—Is Jesus God’s healing presence with us or should we be looking for someone else?
In answering this question Jesus knows John is a student of and believer in the Hebrew Scriptures so he says, “What Second Isaiah prophesied 600 years ago is actually happening in my ministry.”
“Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
This was a good answer for John because he knows Isaiah’s prophecy.
But it is not as helpful an answer today.
My great grandfather learned to read by reading the Bible. His generation knew the Bible front to back. Many of that generation could read it in Greek and Hebrew.
But not today.
The Revd Albert Mohler, said in ‘The Scandal of Biblical Illiteracy: It’s Our Problem’:
“Fewer than half of all adults can name the four gospels. Many Christians cannot identify more than two or three of the disciples. According to data from the Barna Research Group, 60 percent of Americans can’t name even five of the Ten Commandments.
Mohler quotes more from George Barna’s 2005 survey:
“… at least 12 percent of adults believe that Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife.
“Another survey of graduating high school seniors revealed that over 50 percent thought that Sodom and Gomorrah were husband and wife. A considerable number of respondents to one poll indicated that the Sermon on the Mount was preached by Billy Graham.” http://churchmousec.wordpress.com/2010/04/14/barna-groups-biblical-literacy-survey-we-have-work-to-do/
Is there way other than quoting the Bible to respond to the question, “Is Jesus the Christ, God’s presence with us today?”
In John’s gospel when two men were interested in Jesus he said to them, “Come and see.”
When Nathanael wondered if anything good could come from Nazareth Phillip said to him , “Come and see.”
Jesus is still saying this today: “Come and see if there is a stream in the desert. See if this stream can heal you and save you from yourself, because of course we are our own worst enemy.”
Come and see can mean go to church and see if Jesus is there as advertised.
It could mean go serve the poor, or at least the guy at work no one much likes, and see if Jesus is there, as he said he would be.
It could mean use your imagination to see Jesus Christ in the desert of your own soul and see what happens. This is called prayer.
What is your desert now?
Relationship problems, health problems, money issues, work concerns, anxiety, depression, fear, regret, quilt, shame?
Can you take your eye off your problem for a few minutes and put your attention on Jesus Christ?
Sit in your desert and say, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me a sinner.”
Some of you will recognize this is the ancient prayer from the Eastern Church that told her people to say this prayer like a mantra to anchor your hurting heart in Christ moment by moment.
The wandering pilgrims in 19th century Russia would say it over and over until it said itself in rhythm with the beating of their heart.
“Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me a sinner.”
To see if Jesus Christ is the stream in the desert you need to drink from that stream.