Here is this Sunday’s sermon.  The content is stolen from here and there, but the movement of the message you must blame on me.



December 12, 2010


“The Desert Blooms”

Isaiah 35:1-10


Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.



At last month’s Rally To Restore Sanity, Jon Stewart closed his remarks by saying, “We live in hard times, not the end times.”  He did not explain himself.  I am not sure he had to explain, to that crowd.  I assume that his audience knew what he meant: Shame on the doom-and-gloom politicians and pundits who frame every issue in apocalyptic terms, exploiting the fear and ignorance of those who are sure that President Obama is the anti-Christ or that Sarah Palin is the devil in lipstick and high heels. It seemed, given the loony times in which we live, a very sane thing to say.


But there are some of us liturgical geeks who winced when he said this.  Let me explain my discomfort, for it is complicated.  I do not want to be associated with biblical literalists who seem to have such a strong grip on much of the political landscape.  I am not one of those ‘dispensationalist.’  At the same time, here in church we let the scripture speak of these times regularly.  We are celebrating the fact that we do indeed live in the end times; Advent is about preparing for this event.  My complicated position involves both belief and denial, gloom and hope, a desert and a flower.


In Kathleen Norris’ book, “Dakota,”  one of the preachers at the tiny church in Hope said, “City people want hymns that reassure them that God is at work in the world, but people in the western Dakotas take that for granted.”  You might even say that busy, modern people, like us need reassurance that God is at work in the world and so we, more so than most, need Advent.  We need a bolus dose of Advent, to get ready, for the kingdom of God has come near – and is in our very midst, in fact. 


The prophet we have been allowing to speak every darn Sunday in Advent, Isaiah, says that God, who is coming, is the one with power to transform creation and humanity-and, look, here he comes! The prophet is not talking philosophically, or metaphorically; Isaiah means it literally, it is a present announcement: God is showing up. Watch what happens! 


Unfortunately, the present realities are not used as a means to demonstrate God’s presence, but rather God’s absence.  Generally people see things in a dualistic manner.  We are an ‘all or nothing’ kind of people.   By that I mean we tend to see things as either all good or as all bad when, in fact, life is never that way.  Life is rather a mixture of blessings and curses.  It is pain and pleasure, both.  Neither is it one side of a coin, or the other, the coin has two sides, and a middle.


Norris said she “…preached a sermon at Hope that attempted to address the meaning of Advent in terms of the tangle of pain and joy we feel in preparing for birth and death.  The other church in town had opted for no sermon that day.  Instead they sang Christmas carols and listened to sentimental poems from Ideals magazine.  The text from Isaiah was read aloud during the service, but its meaning was clouded by cheer.  “We,” says Norris, “were busy comforting ourselves and had no wish to be reminded of our mortality.”[2]   


This all or nothing world view carries over into our own lives.  We want to be able to characterize our lives as ‘happy’ and ‘good’.   We do not want to be too realistic, fearing that facing the facts about life would ‘ruin it’ for us.  No one wants to think about the difficulties in life, let alone think about dying.  One brave woman named Elizabeth wrote this week:

The days of our lives, for all of us, are numbered. We know that. And yes, there are certainly times when we aren’t able to muster as much strength and patience as we would like. It’s called being human. But I have found that in the simple act of living with hope, and in the daily effort to have a positive impact in the world, the days I do have are made all the more meaningful and precious. And for that I am grateful.[3]


We tend to measure God’s presence in any situation by our sense of well-being, and fail to recognize that disturbance in our lives is often a sign of God’s activity.  These texts today ask us to stay in these places of ambiguity or paradox long enough to discover that God is indeed there also.


Alongside our anticipation of the birth of the messiah stands a shadow of a memory:  In Advent we are aware that this promise is just beginning.  Our waiting is vindicated, not by the infant in swaddling clothes, but the mystery surrounding this event that points to a Savior.  The Messiah for whom we wait, to be effective, must do more than arrive in a stable.  See, the crucified and risen Christ must not only interrupt history but consummate it.  He must not only be a figure of history, but a figure that is beyond history, if you and I are to receive real hope.  His reach must extend into the deserts of our lives if we are to be optimistic about our future.


Isaiah is my favorite prophet, because he is a pessimistic optimist like me.  You may wonder, “What is a pessimistic optimist?”  Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr[4] coined the term to mean that while we may be greatly cynical about human nature and our propensity to sin, we can still be fundamentally optimistic because of the grace of God works in us and through us.  Isaiah fits this description, because he could equally chastise a king for a terrible foreign policy decision, and yet he gives us remarkable poetic images of peace and hope:  There are blooms in the desert!


The text from Isaiah cannot help but point us in the direction of the hope we have in Jesus, which is embodied in our Advent hope, which is a hope that looks not just for some personal deliverer, someone to ease our individual troubles. What is envisaged is nothing less than the transformation of society and nature itself. Such transformation will ultimately depend on the Lord who restores.


Jesus pointed to this text from the prophet Isaiah to explain his ministry: Watch what’s happening. Things are being transformed. The sick are healed and creation obeys my voice. God is at work here, and wonderful things are happening.  We know that this transformation is not complete, yet we have hope because God does what the world thinks is not possible.


In the meantime, between promise and fulfillment, we do not sit idly by.  We help inmates get their GED, we bring gifts so the Salvation Army can distribute them to those who otherwise might have no gifts, we serve food and a smile to those who huddle at a child’s bedside in the hospital; and we engage in many other activities to ‘help the blind to see and the lame to walk’.  Advent is more than a time of tinsel and planning presents and fancy meals. It is a time which embodies that calling to hope expressed in our daily lives – a hope for each of us – a hope for all of us.


Listen, for people of faith, it is quite impossible to read the beginning of this story as if we did not know the conclusion; “the end is where we start from.”  The cross makes the crèche intelligible. Advent names the tension in which we live and helps us to anticipate, indeed to practice for, the time when, as T.S. Eliot wrote, ”the fire and the rose are one.”[5] Isaiah says it another way: 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.   The reality of struggle and hope co-existing is not a fantasy. It is the Advent way.


We are here to proclaim our allegiance, pledging our heart and soul to a crocus in the desert, Jesus the Christ, springing from dry wasteland of worldly power(s).  While we hope for wise and righteous leaders, we have something beyond political hope.  These texts proclaim that the sustaining gifts of life are not just the divine right of kings, but are a uncommon gift for common people. 


[1] T. S. Eliot, “Little Gidding,” V., number four of four quartets.

[2] Kathleen Norris, Dakota: A Spiritual Geography, Mariner Books, 2001.

[3] Elizabeth Edwards, in a note to the public, Dec. 6, 2010.

[4] Niebuhr’s optimism is not optimism about human achievements but about divine achievements that can transform the destructive character of our human achievements. The word about sin is the penultimate rather than the ultimate word of the gospel, which witnesses to the power of God, in both judgment and mercy, to provide by grace the resources we cannot provide for ourselves. Pessimistic optimism.  Robert McAfee Brown, Christian Century, January 22, 1986, p. 66.


[5] T. S. Eliot, “Little Gidding,” V., number four of four quartets.