Soil Tending in the Desert

Comfort, O comfort my people,says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.

A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. 

Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?”

All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass.

The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.

Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!”

See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.

Isaiah 40:1-11

atacama_desert2..jpgOnce upon a time, there was a vast and arid desert. The oldest, driest desert on earth. Hundreds of years would go by without a drop of rain. Only the sun scorched the earth that lay exposed beneath its rays. No plants could grow there; animals and people would walk miles out of their way to avoid finding themselves lost in the endless, barren place. Only the hardiest reptiles and tiny grasshopperes found a home there, where they preyed upon those unfortunate to lose themselves there.

Over time, deep fissures coursed through the red clay soil, and it seemed as though the land were forsaken, forgotten by the world. It was hard to imagine that anything could ever be otherwise.

But then, one day, something different happened. Rain fell from the sky. First one drop, then another. And another. And another. Before you knew it, water was coursing through the cracks in the earth, mini rivers soaking into the bone dry soil.

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For twelve hours the rain kept coming. 7 years of rain in half a day. The earth swelled, and the cracks disappeared. Tiny green shoots—where did they come from—appeared in the loam. The arid landscape suddenly blanketed in blues and yellows, purples and reds, veiling what once seemed dead and barren with unmistakable signs of life. The desert was alive.chile_desierto_florido14.jpg

If this seems remarkable, then it is. The Atacama desert of Chile, which is often compared to the terrain of mars and is regarded by many to be the absolute driest place in the world, experienced an explosion of color this fall as El Nino drenched the hillsides with water earlier this year.

It turns out that deserts contain more life than we would expect…many deserts, in fact, harbor hidden life in the form of seeds and deep root systems that are just waiting for the right moment, the amount of water so that the life may burst forth, for however brief.

Even the land of the Bible has seen this phenomenon. Long, long ago—10,000 years ago, in f act—monsoon rains transformed the Sahara desert into a lush and habitable land. Generations of people and animals found refuge in the desert.

What a difference a little rain makes.

I wonder if this is the sort of notion that Isaiah was getting at when he told the people to prepare a highway in the desert for God. You see, the people have been waiting a long time for this. For generations they have waiting—in exile, forgotten, barren, disconsolate—held prisoner in a foreign land. They have wondered—has our God abandoned us? Will we fade away in the darkness of exile?

It is to the desert of the soul that Isaiah speaks a word of comfort: Comfort, Comfort, my people. God is coming. Get ready. Prepare a way for the Lord. What faith it must take to prepare for something that you cannot see. For something that you cannot know for sure will happen. To live as though God is coming, even when you cannot see through the darkness that is in front of you.

And yet, that is what we are called to do in the season of Advent. To acknowledge that often we find ourselves living in the desert, living in lack. But we aren’t called to live with despair. Rather, we are called to live like the seeds do—to pay attention, to wait and watch and make room for the possibility that rain may fail on us. To trust when it comes that it will be enough. To live as though we were made to bloom.

If this is difficult to imagine, then perhaps another horticultural image will help: If you are someone who likes to garden, perhaps you have noticed that your easiest years of gardening in a plot are often the first. You plant your tomatoes and your eggplants, your peas and your cabbage, and they spring up with no trouble at all.

It only takes a year or so for the pesties to figure out that where you planted the buffet. Suddenly, you have an extra chore: managing the bugs and the interlopers so that some of your harvest makes it to your table. And perhaps you have noticed, that if you don’t rotate your crops, or amend your soil, your cabbage heads are smaller and smaller, your tomatoes are less fruitful. So then you find you are spending your time tending soil as well.

Winter turns out to be a great time for doing this work—after the plants have grown, that is the time for preparing for the next year. For planting cover crops, and turning in hay or leaf mulch. For cleaning your tools, and making notes about what worked and what didn’t, which pests to treat for, and which to keep an eye on.

Again, the earth reminds us that we are in the season of our faith in which we are asked to wait, and watch and prepare. To tend the garden of our souls. This is a season for reflection, for deepening our knowledge of God and of love. This is a season for remembering God’s promise—that The LORD is coming, even when we find ourselves lost in the desert. This is the time for preparing for rain whose arrival we cannot predict, but whose promise is like a desert full in flower. It is a time of opening: of our hearts to God, and to one another as well.

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Perhaps it is also a time for us to reflect on the deserts of our own lives. To remember that there are two kinds of deserts in this life: the ones that find us, and the ones that we create. To remember that grief and loss, violence and despair, hatred and division—these are deserts. But so too are the personal choices we are faced with: to overwork ourselves, to overcommit ourselves, to deny ourselves rest or pleasure, to isolate ourselves, to “go it alone” because we would rather be in control than be in community.

And perhaps it is also a good time to remember that no desert is so vast that God cannot find us. That there is no war that cannot be meet with God’s peace, no hatred that cannot be met with God’s compassion, no hunger that cannot be met with God’s body and God’s blood in Christ. We can—we must—acknowledge the deserts. But we can also affirm that they are not God’s intention for us. There is, as Paul says, a more excellent way.

When we remember that, when we are filled with the bread and the cup that remind us of God’s constant abiding in us through the Power of God’s spirit, then we have something. We have God’s story, which reminds us that the violence and hatred of this world, the partisanship and division and vitriol—they are not ultimate. They will not win. Darkness cannot overcome the darkness. Only light can. Only Christ can. And Christ, the light, hope, the Kingdom—take your pick—they prevail when WE live as though the Kingdom were real—when we choose hope over fear, love over hate, open arms over closed doors, following Jesus at the risk of our own lives over our own safety, because we cannot do otherwise.

So come, out of your deserts, whatever they may be. Come and be fed at the table that will never fail, be refreshed by the baptism of living water that never dries up, be encouraged by the knowledge that Christ is coming soon. Christ is coming very, very soon.

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