Rocherty UMC December 8th, 2019
Finding Hope in the Desert
Sermon Manuscript



          Well, this morning we find ourselves in a bit of an odd space.  Last week was supposed to be our transition from the church calendar season known as “ordinary time”—that time of the year in which we aren’t celebrating anything special, and this time of “Advent” which is a season of preparation.  But, like many things in life, things didn’t go according to plan.  Foul weather was once again in the forecast and we made the decision to postpone our Advent services and our communion until this week.  Thank you all for being flexible and also for being cautious.  I know some churches who will have church even in a blizzard, and I don’t think that’s the right attitude to have.  Safety first, even on Sunday’s.

          But as I was thinking about it, last week’s unexpected change of plans provided a perfect example of the kind of thing I wanted to talk about this week.  Each week in Advent, there is a theme.  Last week’s theme was peace.  If you didn’t get a chance to read the sermon I posted on the website, I encourage you to do so this week.  I’ll leave it up until Wednesday for those that want to read it.  Peace is seemingly hard to find in these days of uncertainty and conflict that surrounds us.

          Corollary to that lack of peace is a sense of despair.  Despair is a sense of hopelessness that is brought about by circumstance.  Despair is a mix of sadness, failed expectations, and lost hope that makes us narrow-minded and forgetful.  Narrow minded in the sense that we fail to see beyond our own circumstances—we get a sort of tunnel-vision to life that fails to see beyond the next bill or the next doctor’s appointment, or even the next day.  We forget all too easily how God has been at work in our lives, the lives of others, and in the life of the world and fail to see God’s blessings that are all around us.

          Despair is a major problem for the United Methodist Church right now.  And despair is a major problem for the Church at large as well.  All around we see declining numbers, we see more and more people identifying with no religious affiliation.  We see our children and grandchildren growing up without learning the old stories of the faith that have so shaped and influenced our own lives.

          But in the midst of all of that, we fail to turn our eyes backwards to see how God has richly blessed the church in the past.  We forget our own history.  Christianity has not always been the dominant religious tradition in the world.  Indeed, for its formative years, the first three centuries of its existence, it remained a small, misunderstood, and even persecuted sect in a small part of the world.  Only with the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine did Christianity—and the world—begin to take on the trappings of Christendom that has dominated Western society for the next thousand and more years.

The Desert

          This Advent season, I plan to take us on a journey throughout our preaching time.  The theme of this year’s sermon series is entitled “Are we There Yet?”  That’s the annoying and repetitive question little children often ask on long car rides.  Particularly those car rides when they expect a treat at the end of the journey.  “Mom, are we there yet?” is a constant refrain.  It’s like children have a built in radar for the destination.  The closer we get, the more frequently the children pipe up with the refrain.

          But asking the question “Are we there yet?” isn’t limited to children.  I would argue that this question underlays a great deal of the confusion and yes, despair that exists within the church today.  The Bible tells us a great story of God’s dealings with humanity.  It starts with the creation of the heavens and the earth as a veritable paradise that humans are charged with tending and taming.  And we all know what happened next.  Humans just couldn’t keep paradise paradisiacal.  They chose their own way and fell from grace.

          From that point on, humanity began a journey.  A journey back to God.  A journey back to themselves.  A journey back to the way things were always supposed to be.  But like any journey, that journey was fraught with dangers, toils, and snares.

          One of the things that is central to my own personal theology is the notion that the spiritual life that God calls us to is really not a destination that we arrive at.  We don’t learn about God, then one day accept Jesus as Lord and Savior and “arrive”. We don’t start with a sinner’s prayer, and then just sit and wait until our death to “arrive” in heaven.  No, following Jesus and learning the Kingdom life is much more like a journey. In this life we are always “on the way”.  We never quite reach it.  Part of the reason is, the journey is not just mine – or yours – or any one person. This journey involves all of us, and all those who went before, and all those who will follow after. And like any journey, there are bound to be sidetracks, unexpected pitfalls, and even times when we turn around and have to retrace our steps.

          The nation of Israel’s story in the Old Testament is really exemplary for how this notion of the spiritual life is caught up with the notion of a journey.  Like every journey, the journey of the people of Israel had a starting place.  Beginning from one family, Abraham Sarah and their miracle son, Isaac, the people of Israel grew and grew and eventually found themselves enslaved to the mighty Egyptian Empire.  But God remembered his promises to Abraham and brought the Israelites on a journey—an Exodus—from the hands of their oppressors.

          The bulk of the first five books of the Bible, the Pentateuch or Torah, tells the story of Israel’s wanderings.  And where did Israel wander?  Ah yes, the wilderness.  The wilderness of the ancient Near East is not a place you wanted to be for long periods of time.  It was a harsh, barren landscape that was little populated—except for the rugged, fearsome beasts that could survive in such a harsh climate.  There was little food, little water, and little chance for long-term survival.

          Yet Israel was going to wander in this barren land for forty years.  Enough time for the rebellious first generation out of Egypt to reach the end of their natural lives and for the second generation to mature enough to enter the Land of Promise.

          Another word that we could use to translate the common Hebrew word for “wilderness” (Midbar) is the word “desert.”  For us westerners, particularly those of us blessed to live in such a beautiful place as rural Pennsylvania, the word “wilderness” actually sometimes takes on positive connotations.  We think of wilderness as the wild, unspoiled land that has potential to rouse our sense of wonder.  We go exploring the wilderness places looking for interesting animals and plants.  It’s where the hunters among us go with rifle, bow, or flintlock looking to stock the freezer with venison for the upcoming year.

          But when we think about the desert.  Then we get those images of dry, desolate, and barren land.  We get pictures of the Mojave, the Sahara, the land around the Great Pyramid in Egypt.  We picture sand, we picture sun.  We feel the relentless heat, we fear the thirst of no water and no rain.  We conjure up images of the cactus and the scorpion.  Of the tumbleweed and the rattlesnake.  It engenders a healthy fear because it symbolizes true danger.

The Spiritual Desert

          These images of desert and desolation are often referenced in the Bible in terms of spiritual testing and trial.  When Jesus began his ministry, he was called to forty days of trial, testing, and temptation in the desert wastelands at the hands and whiles of the Adversary.  He ate no food and tasted no water.  He was regaled with temptation after temptation to make the madness stop and capitulate to the offers of the Enemy.  Yet he withstood the temptation.

          Our spiritual lives perhaps won’t face as dramatic a set of circumstances as did our Lord in the desert, but in each of our lives temptation comes.  In each of our lives we feel the pull to look back at our lives and sense that we’ve somewhere lost our place.  That we’re not where we’re supposed to be.  I call these “desert times.”  Some folks call them “spiritual dry spells.”  It is those times that try our souls the most.  Times we feel distant from God our outside of God’s will somehow.

          Right now, I think that the entire church is in one of those moments.  This is particularly true in the United States and Western Europe where Christianity is no longer growing, but in decline.  Rapidly. Young people look inside church buildings and see either angry, judgemental old people who are rude to them, or they see fancy lights and loud music with jumping, shouting people that pretend to have all the answers, but only have a false feeling of experiencing God.  So we dwindle.  We feel like we’ve somehow lost our way.  We feel that our best days are behind us and we feel very uncertain about the future.  And many times, this leads us to a sense of despair.

Finding Hope in the Desert

          But do we need to despair?  Is all lost?  I think the answer is a clear and resounding “No!”  Our Scriptures for today point us beyond this moment in our history and toward a future that is bright and more important, certain.

          Our passage from Isaiah this morning points forward to a day in which the world will live in peace.  Last week, our Scriptures pointed us toward a vision in which weapons of war would be turned into implements of agriculture.  Swords into plowshares, spears into pruning hooks. 

          This week, Isaiah paints for us a picture that builds on that image of peace.  This is the famous vision of the “peaceable kingdom” in which the lion lays down with the lamb.  The wild predator no longer desires to slaughter the prey.  The venomous snake no longer thirsts to inflict their poison into the flesh of children.  And this isn’t just a vision of peace between humans and animals, but a vision of peace between nations as well.

          Jew and Gentile, the old distinction that divided the world between “clean” and “unclean” would no longer exist.  All nations would come to know the Lord and the knowledge of God would cover the earth as the waters cover the sea.  Knowledge of God will be universal and there would be no stopping people from hearing, accepting, and loving God with heart, soul, mind, and strength.

          But that all sounds so “pie in the sky,” so unrealistic to our modern skeptical ears.  This is why we need the passage from Romans.  Written nearly two thousand years ago, this book was written to encourage another church that was waiting for God to bring about his promises, another church that found themselves in the desert.  And Paul writes that the Scriptures were written for our encouragement.  To point forward to the day when that hope inscribed in its pages would come to pass.

          And that’s where John the Baptist comes—providing hope in the desert.  John, the one who comes to prepare the way of the Lord, the one who lived in the harsh barren liminal space that separated people from people and place from place—the Judean desert—comes preaching fire and brimstone.

          Wait—what is there to hope about in a message that sounds an awful lot like the Fundamentalists “turn or burn” style of evangelism?  Isn’t he just condemning everyone to hell just like your run-of-the-mill street preacher?  At least everyone that doesn’t look, act, and think like him?

          Well, no, actually.  Certainly there is a message in John’s preaching that calls people to a moment of decision.  A moment of turning their lives around (that’s the meaning of repentance), a moment of choosing a different destination for the journey.  But hidden away in that message is a profound message of hope.

          You see, John’s task wasn’t to turn the whole world around, but instead to “prepare the way of the Lord.”  To prepare a highway in the desert for our God as Isaiah chapter 40 says.  John the Baptist was to prepare a place in the hearts, minds, and souls of the people so that the message that Jesus, the coming one, could find a willing place to dwell.

Our Hope

          It’s in Jesus, not John, then, that we find our Advent Hope.  Jesus, the light of the nations and hope of the world remains our own hope for salvation, our own hope for a better life.  Jesus becomes the destination through the process of repentance.  We turn from our old lives focused only on ourselves and we adjust our trajectory to an inclusive vision that includes loving God and loving neighbor.  We make that vision of the peaceable kingdom our own.

          We look forward not with a wish.  Not with a distant feeling of what if.  No—we look forward to the day THAT WILL BE the case.  That’s true hope.  It’s not a wish.  It’s not something we’ll run into “if we’re lucky.”  No, it’s certain, it is sure.  Why?  Because it is God that makes the promise.  And God can be trusted.  That’s one definition of faith, afterall…Trusting in God’s promises.

          When we do so, there is no room for despair.  Hope is the true antidote for the tunnel vision we see and the feeling that the world is going to hell in a handbasket.  It’s appeared to be going in that direction before.  And yet always, God pulls through to move history forward to its conclusion.  A certain conclusion in which heaven and earth become united.  A place where peace and justice reign.  A place where Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not.  A day when he will wipe every tear from our eyes, and we will mourn no more.  A day when we see God face to face.

The Table

          Until that day, we need to constantly remind ourselves of the surety of the promises of God.  That’s one reason that John Wesley insisted that the early Methodists take communion as often as they could.  For Wesley, this table that we gather around is one means by which we experience God’s sustaining grace.  A grace that fuels our hope in the promises of God.

          As we now gather around the table, let us remind ourselves and one another that the promises of God are sure.  That the New Covenant made in the blood of Christ assures that our journey will not end in the wilderness and desert even if we must traverse it, but there our journey ends in the New Jerusalem.  Let us prepare our hearts to receive him this Advent season so that when he comes again, he finds us ready.