A Sermon for Covenant
Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio
Third Sunday of Advent
December 15, 2013
Kyndall Rae Rothaus
(To listen to the audio, click “play” button above. To download audio, click here.)
A poem from a desert wanderer:
Here I am, once again, waiting, waiting.
Waiting for dry sand to sprout streams of water,
waiting for wilderness to blossom, waiting
for empty places to become full again,
waiting for drought to pass and night to end.
Fed up I am with daily manna. I want a feast
of answers, to down a golden goblet full of
things being resolved at last. I am tired of
waiting, of sleeping with sand in my sleeping
bag, and listening to jackals howl through
my nights. I am tired of waking up to so little water
and chasing mirages and feeling my skin crust over.
Tired of Promised Land dreams that fade with
morning and dried out bread crumbs without any
butter. I am tired. I am lonely. I am desert.
When you follow the lectionary as a preacher, sometimes you open to the week’s texts and think to yourself, “Oh no, how am I going to preach on that?” And sometimes, you open to the week’s texts and say, “Yes! My favorite passage!” The latter is what happened to me when I opened my Bible to Isaiah 35. I love this passage. Consequently, Isaiah 35 is why I love the benediction I say every week, because our benediction echoes this passage with its wilderness imagery and its promise of wonders to come.
Anyway, this passage has been dear to me for well over a decade, which is a long time for a youngster like me. My kinship with this text began as early as high school, early college when I experienced my first ever spiritual wilderness. It was a hard thing to describe. I’d long been a passionate person of faith, but suddenly the well went dry. God seemed absent. All was silent and cold. I think my bones shivered and rattled as if they’d been robbed of warm flesh. Was God there? Was God even real? For the first time, I did not know.
My best friend Sara was going through something similar and though we’d never even heard of the desert fathers and mothers, nor St. John of the Cross and his dark night of the soul, we instinctively named this season Wilderness. The guidance of Isaiah and the Psalms provided us with a new vocabulary of faith, language we’d never used before. We began to use words like drought, parched, desert, dry sand, and we began to offer up prayers for things like Promised Land, rain, and manna. It was our very first venture into the spiritual terrain of doubt, discomfort, and darkness. We were the hopeless, but holding on to hope for one another. We would write each other letters, full of Isaiah’s words, the Psalmist’s longings, and the Israelite stories of wilderness wanderings. The biblical poetry of desert became our second-language, like balm to our tormented faith, like seed planted in our expectant hearts. Surely, this will not last forever we told each other, over and over again. Surely, the burning sand will become a pool, the thirsty ground bubbling springs, just as Isaiah promised.
I have always loved empty churches and I distinctly remember arriving to my college church early one day so I could sit in the building alone and pray. It was perhaps about a year into my spiritual dryness and I was reading these exact words from Isaiah 35, words I had replayed to myself again and again in previous months, holding out for it to all come true. And sitting there in that vacant sanctuary, it dawned on me—not suddenly, but gradually like an actual dawn—it dawned on me like a slowly growing light that the desert sands in my soul were fading—no, they were changing almost imperceptibly into pools of water.
I had thought crossing over into the Promised Land would feel more monumental, be more grand. I thought I would take a clear and obvious step over a border, crossing from scorched land to lush. I had expected storm clouds to erupt in my dryness and leave me drenched. But it was nothing like that. It was gentle, quiet, barely noticeable, but very much real and just like the prophet said, I didn’t cross over from one land to the next; rather, the very ground on which I was sitting transformed. The place around me, the place I was sitting, the place where I had been sulking for months and months, this very place changed before my eyes, took on new hues, transfigured. Streams appeared in my desert, water came unexpectedly right out of the wilderness, like Moses striking that rock. The burning sand became a pool; the thirsty ground bubbling springs.
I don’t think a person forgets her first desert, and it is a good thing, because deserts come again and she will need those memories. Now, I want to say that I think place is important, and I am a huge believer in sacred space and thin spaces, spots on earth where the veil between here and heaven is paper thin, translucent. I know there is such a place in Oregon for me where my soul will expand as soon as I step foot there. I know that I feel, literally feel, the peace that exudes from these Covenant acres and many people have said the same about this property. I spend time and energy crafting this space we worship in Sunday after Sunday because I believe it matters, that we have a role in creating space that is holy.
But I also—and just as passionately—believe that any place can be made sacred, that even the most barren, desolate landscapes can be the locale for Spirit to dwell. I experienced this most poignantly in seminary when I worked with a ministry that served strippers. I remember walking into this one particular strip club on the outskirts of Waco, and I knew it immediately that we were not bringing God into this place but that God was already there, among these women who were trying to eke out a living. God was there and there are no God-forsaken places, not clubs, not deserts, not anywhere.
Any place and time can become a moment that shines. This is the blessed, blessed truth that carries us through wilderness and long dark nights. Even the most rugged landscape of the heart will surprise you with wonders. Even the most desolate regions of your soul can become sanctuaries where God will dwell. Even the most broken places in the world are places where God shows up, maybe even where God shows up the most.
By the way, when the text says, “God will come with vengeance,” the English word that gets used here is vengeance, but the Hebrew idea is more like “restorative justice.” God will come, bringing justice, which looks less like a smiting of enemies and more like returning sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf and dancing to the lame. That is to say, the desolate folks will experience the fullness of restoration! There is no God-forsaken place, and there is no God-forsaken person.
Now, while I have experienced this reality again and again in my own personal journey, I am aware that Isaiah was originally writing not so much to our individual souls, though that is certainly relevant, but he was writing to a collective community of fearful hearts, waiting for deliverance.
Which leads me to the observation that really, as a church, as a whole body, we’re in a bit of wilderness. We are by no means without manna. There is a lot to be grateful for. But we’re also kind of shrinking, I’m sure you’ve noticed. We are low on participation and on giving and on serving, and we’re not too sure what to do about any of that. There are some things we know for sure about ourselves: that we are a gentle, quiet, loving, healing, welcoming church, and I couldn’t think of a better equipped group of people to wander through a wilderness with. It’s a wilderness of sorts, but I don’t think that means this isn’t sacred ground. I don’t think it means we are stuck. I think it means we are being carried somewhere. I think it means there is a highway we are meant to find, like Isaiah talked about, a highway meant for us to walk on it, a way forward to find our joy, to find our streams. I think from these very sands, good things will emerge. I think, there is still no God-forsaken place. I think, God is with us. I think God is beside us. I think this is and will continue to be a thin space for folks. I think God has some things up his sleeve for us. I think we are being purified and refined. I think it is not an accident that you are here and that I am here and that we are in this together. I think, I’ve been through desert before and so have you, and so we know how to pray for rain.
I find that the spiritual journey moves people—both individually and collectively—into deserts and through deserts on a reoccurring basis. I, for one, am never really wanting to step into the sand yet again, but it finds me anyway, and if I’m any kind of serious about my faith, I keep walking the Way despite the sandy grits hitting me in the face and winding up in my teeth. This passage is written to “those with fearful hearts,” or, the Hebrew can be translated “the ones whose hearts are racing,” which is sometimes how wilderness feels: wild. Sometimes you are zapped of energy and sometimes your mind is spinning in anxiety and sometimes you ricochet back and forth between crazed and fatigue.
I was talking with some women this week about how most all the paintings of Mary at the annunciation picture a quiet, calm girl, but that there was no way she was feeling calm and quiet on the inside. She was freaking out! Don’t we all know it? Right before God was birthed in her, her mind and heart were racing. Can you really imagine it any other way?
Can you imagine that you and I will feel calm when God starts stirring, trying to birth things? Of course we won’t feel calm! But we will be awake. Like Mary, we can choose, in spite of our fears of the unknown to say, “Yes. This fearful, racing heart be yours. I am tired. I am lonely. I am desert. Rain on me. Grow things inside of me. I will sprout. So be it. Amen. Yes. These fearful, racing hearts be yours. We are tired. We are lonely. We are desert. Rain on us. Grow things inside of us. We will sprout. So be it. Amen.”
 Anathea Portier-Young, Commentary on Isaiah 35:4-7a, September 29, 2012 http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1373.