A sermon for the fifth Sunday in Lent. Isaiah 43:16-21
When I get thirsty, I walk over to the cabinet and grab a glass from my line of clean dishes, I meander to the closest of several sinks in my house or in the office, I flick the knob with my wrist, and “ahh,” my thirst is quenched.
Even a hundred years ago, on my great-grandmother’s farmstead in Minnesota, the very most she’d need to do — even in April — was pull on boots and coat, grab a bucket, and trudge across the yard to the water pump, work the handle a few times with vigor, and then enjoy fresh water from the depths of the earth.
The ingenuity of our forebears, the clever and brilliant inventors of our past, have brought unimaginable convenience and immediacy to our lives. Even in our dry season, hoses still spout water for home gardeners, we don’t get concerned that our rivers might leave us without a way to feed our plants, let alone to quench our own thirst. And so, this word from Isaiah, beautiful and evocative though it may be, suffers the risk of remaining in our ears and in our minds, not moving all the way into our hearts and our bodies, because with roads spanning our massive country — even our ponderous state — there’s no real need for a “way in the wilderness,” or for “rivers in the desert.” Except for fleeting, dramatic circumstances (perhaps!), most of us has never needed “water in the wilderness,” or been dependent on some divine being to be given drink to quench our thirst.
We don’t depend on the sun to give us light, we have light switches for that. We don’t depend on the sky to give us weather to cool us, we have air conditioning for that. We don’t depend on our own bodies or even the created bodies of any animal to help move us from one place to another, we have cars for that. Our modern lives have isolated us from suffering and from dependence in so many, many ways; this old prophet, Isaiah, was great back in the old days of exile, thousands of years ago, and even in the days of farmsteads and water pumps, perhaps, but is this really relevant anymore
Isn’t this exactly what so many people say about religion these days? “We’ve evolved past it — it was lovely for ancient people to have stories to help them through the hard times, but today we are not dependent on such things. We have cars and electricity, we have made for ourselves water systems and treatment plants, we have created our own ways in the wilderness — we call them paved roads — and we have medicines and air conditioning and central heating. There’s no need for this myth of God anymore. We are no longer innocent children, we are wise and grown and beyond such fairytales.”
If that was your conviction, I don’t believe you’d be here this morning, but I’ll admit that as I reflect on my daily life and my habits, the assumptions that undergird my existence, I find that I have a lot of interest in my own self-sufficiency. I spend a lot of energy making sure I don’t leave myself in need, weighed down with lots of canteens sloshing with water so that my desert trek doesn’t require any divine intervention.
Do not worry — your 25-weeks-pregnant priest is not planning a walking trip around Joshua Tree National Park! But think about a desert in your life right now. I’ve been referencing deserts and wilderness and rough patches in my sermons for weeks, so let’s sit with one for a moment. When you’re thirsty — like in your physical body — your throat gets kind of tight, maybe even itchy-feeling, and your mood or your body might get kind of jumpy as a way of signaling that something needs to be done. And as that thirst goes unquenched, you might get sleepy, everything moving in slow motion, you might get clumsy and out of breath, and then finally, you collapse.
So — this part is uncomfortable — what relationships or situations in your life, right now, make you feel jumpy or tight? Maybe, the relationship even feels heavy, clumsy, tired. Perhaps just thinking about the situation starts to make you feel out of breath. That, my brother, my sister, is your desert. You may have many, but you are just one body, so for now, let us just consider the one bit of wilderness you’re wandering, the one relationship that has been brought to your mind, the one situation that’s got you on the edge of collapse.
If you’re ready, imagine yourself in a desert, in that desert. And hear the Word of the Lord:
Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old.
I am (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.
…to give drink to my chosen people,
the people whom I formed for myself
so that they might declare my praise.
Whatever has brought you to this wilderness, whatever brokenness and anger and guilt and shame and messiness have traced your steps here, “do not” “consider the things of old.” God is not about rubbing our noses in our mistakes or berating us over our foolishness. Whenever you realize and recognize that you are in the wilderness, surely that is enough suffering — to know that you are parched, to feel, finally, that you are clumsy and tired, without strength and without a way out for yourself. And into that realization, into that opening of the eyes of your heart, God comes.
The God, I AM, comes, and does a new thing. He promises to create a paved road for you to walk — with him. He promises to carry the water that you need and to give it to you to drink any time that you ask. If we continue, though, to live as if we can carry our own water, and as if we can use our own compass to find our way out of our relationship-wilderness, then I’m afraid we are lost.
Like Judas in our Gospel lesson today, deceived and convinced as he is by the arguments of the world, that the good deeds of giving alms to the poor and accounting only for the common sensical things that we can see and touch and manipulate with our own hands, is the way of life and peace, we too can get caught up in the mindset that these modern inventions foster in us.
This season of Lent is to remind us of our dependence on God, our complete helplessness without him. Judas, to be a very very generous interpreter of his actions here, forgets that our God is the Lord, he is lulled to sleep and to complacency by the first-century version of air conditioning and cars and electricity. Judas believes the lie that he has all that he needs already within himself, that he is capable and self-sufficient.
Brothers and Sisters, it is Good News that we are not capable, that we are not self-sufficient. No matter what our paychecks or our car ignition or our administrative skills or our family networks tell us, we are not made to survive the deserts and wildernesses of our lives just as we are. We are not equipped to find our own happiness and peace. We are not made to carry our own water and make our own roads.
Thus says the Lord, …I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?