The importance and purpose of the Wilderness Desert (Sermon) December 15, 2013

The Rev. Rebecca Myers, CSW
St. John’s Episcopal Church
Advent III, Year A

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.

Isaiah 35:1-2

Please be seated.

You’ve heard me talk before about my mother’s family who were Italian and some of the different foods and customs I experienced growing up.  We lived in Central Pennsylvania, which was Pennsylvania German or “Dutch” culture, so my mother was delighted when she could find her favorite Italian foods.  For instance, at that time, getting fresh fennel was not all that easy.  Have you ever seen it?  It kind of looks like celery.  It tastes like licorice.  If my mother found it, we’d have it at holiday meals.  It was a great way to digest your food after a big meal.

One day in the winter, my mother found this pink/red fruit at the store and taught us to eat it.  You had to cut off the leathery skin and inside was this deep red core, almost the consistency of a peach.  It tasted so good, except for the slight problem with the little black round seeds inside it that were as hard as stones and which my mother insisted we should never swallow.  The fruit was prickly pear from the prickly pear cactus.

Today is Gaudete Sunday or Joy Sunday taken from the Latin:  “Gaudete in Domino semper” (“Rejoice in the Lord always”).  We lit a pink candle for joy.  All of our lessons tell us about the joy of restoration and about how much we are loved.  In Isaiah’s words, we hear how the people will be restored after their exile.  There is mention of wilderness and desert.

The wilderness had special resonance for the Hebrew people because of their sojourn for 40 years after they were freed from bondage in Egypt.  Even a few days in the wilderness caused some to yearn for Egypt and want to go back into bondage.  The wilderness desert is not an easy place for us to be and yet it is a necessary place if we are to be transformed and changed. 

A good steward understands the importance and purpose of wilderness desert.

Deserts are places where there is only a little water.  There is not enough water to raise the kinds of crops we see in places with more rain.  All of life needs water, so deserts are not the most hospitable places for humans, plants or creatures to live.  Wilderness deserts appear desolate and forgotten. 

Isn’t that how we feel sometimes in our lives…like God has forgotten us…like we are dried out and without life?  Maybe a relationship we relied upon has changed or ended.  Maybe our job no longer gives us joy, but we don’t know what to do next or where to go.  Maybe we feel like we are “going through the motions” in our life – nothing to look forward to and no goal in front of us.  Maybe we don’t know how we even got up this morning.  We’re like the old westerns where the man in the desert was crawling on his belly trying to get to a water source before he died.

But you see, the desert wilderness is useful and necessary….  Because we usually don’t like change nor eagerly seek it.  We want to hold on to our life as we’ve known it, even if that life is killing us – think the Exodus where the people wanted to go back into bondage rather than be out in the wilderness.

From physics, we know that we like to maintain our equilibrium, even if that balanced state is unhealthy or not good for us.  Physics tells us that change of our state requires an “unbalanced force”… one to move us to a different place.  The wilderness desert is that unbalanced force pushing us off our equilibrium.

Helen Keller said, “When one door of happiness closes, another opens; but often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one which has been opened for us.”

A door opens into the wilderness desert, but all we can do is long for the closed door…the life we’ve left behind.  The wilderness desert gets our attention, though.  The wilderness desert gives us time to change.  You see, that’s why the people wandered in the desert for 40 years.  They couldn’t go into the promised land, because too many of them kept looking back at the closed door.  God waited until the new generation who had never known the previous life was in charge..the generation able to see the open door. People went to hear John the Baptist and to be baptized by him in the wilderness desert.  To be changed and to hear of a new day coming.  And in the Gospels, Jesus begins his ministry in the wilderness desert, after being baptized there.

Yes, we need time to grieve what is behind us.  Even if it wasn’t perfect or caused us pain, there is still grief and even fear in leaving it behind.  The wilderness desert provides that place.  When we are there, we are forced to focus on our very basic needs of water and shelter and food.  We are forced to rely upon God. There are not a lot of other distractions.  There is space to go from what was and move to what we don’t yet know.  Wilderness desert times are the bridge.

And today we hear the hope and yes even the joy.  Yes, the wilderness desert is not the easiest place to live.  And there IS LIFE THERE.  The plants and creatures adapt.  They have tough skins so they can retain moisture.  The have ways to store water and to protect their water supply…think of the Cacti.

The desert shall rejoice and blossom.  Have you seen the blossoms of the cacti?  Some of you probably have a Christmas Cactus blooming right now.  That prickly pear my family enjoyed comes from a prickly pear cactus that has a beautiful yellow flower, which then becomes the succulent, deep, red, juicy fruit. 

When we are in the wilderness desert, we are being transformed.  We are being toughened and reshaped to live in the conditions where we will go.  We are forced to stop looking at the door that has closed and turn around and look at the new door that has opened.

God is with us, providing for us and speaks this assurance:

 the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly,
and rejoice with joy and singing.


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