See the Desert Oasis
A sermon based on Isaiah 35:1-10
December 12, 2010 – Advent 3A
I'm sure that most of you are familiar with the poem, Footprints in the Sand. In it a man dreams that he's walking along the beach with Jesus at his side. This walk represents his walk through life. As he dreams he sees two sets of footprints along most the way, but when things got rough in life, he only saw one set. In his dream he turns to Jesus and says, "Why'd you leave me when I needed you most?" And Jesus responds with the punch line: "I didn't leave you during those rough times, I carried you."
Now the setting of the poem is at the beach, where everything is calm and quiet and peaceful. But I've always thought a better setting would be in the desert—somewhere like the Sahara. The environment seems much more fitting, more like this life—tough and hostile. What problems could you face, walking along a serene beach with a beautiful sunset? But the desert, now there's an environment that you'd experience some pretty serious lows, when things would get tough, when, so dehydrated you can barely walk, you'd need someone to carry you.
It's through such a hostile desert environment that we travel with Isaiah this morning. As we continue on our journey to the manger, we go through the desert, but there in that hostile land, we see a spectacular sight! This morning we see the desert oasis! It's a spectacular place and there's a spectacular way to it! Listen now to Isaiah 35 beginning at the first verse…
The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom. Like the crocus, 2 it will burst into bloom; it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy. The glory of Lebanon will be given to it, the splendor of Carmel and Sharon; they will see the glory of the Lord, the splendor of our God. 3 Strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way; 4 say to those with fearful hearts, "Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you." 5 Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. 6 Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy. Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert. 7 The burning sand will become a pool, the thirsty ground bubbling springs. In the haunts where jackals once lay, grass and reeds and papyrus will grow.
I. A Spectacular Place
Two weeks ago we talked about the hostile conditions atop Mt. Everest, with little oxygen and sub-zero temperatures. Today, we travel through another hostile environment with Isaiah: The desert. The Kenai Peninsula averages about 19 inches of rain per year. In contrast, the Sahara Desert in Northern Africa averages less than 1 inch a year. For that reason it consists of mostly rock and sand; very little will grow there. Because of the lack of moisture in the air, nothing blocks or traps the sun's heat, so temperatures easily rise well above 100 degrees during the day and below freezing and night. It is a barren, dreary land. And God uses the desert as a picture of his judgment against sin…
In the previous chapter of Isaiah (34:8-11, select phrases) God says that the good fertile land would become a sulfurous burning wasteland: "For the Lord has a day of vengeance, a year of retribution… [the] streams will be turned into pitch, her dust into burning sulfur; her land… will not be quenched night and day… From generation to generation it will lie desolate; no one will ever pass through it again. 11 The desert owl and screech owl will possess it…
This was a prophecy about Israel's neighbor, but soon Israel herself would resemble a desert. Their lives would become dry and dreary. Their capital city would be destroyed and the temple would lie in ruins. Their king would be captured and blinded, their sons killed in battle, and those who survived would be carried off into captivity.
Why did all this happen? Because they had become like deserts themselves—spiritually dried up and dreary, morally unfruitful and hostile, rejecting God's promises and his prophets! God had to discipline his children before they were lost to hell—which is exactly what they deserved. And yet, in God's grace, even as they were about to be turned into a desert, he promised them a wonderful oasis.
And what a spectacular event Isaiah describes in chapter 35! The dead and barren desert would suddenly spring to life, blossom and bloom! Now that in and of itself isn't all that spectacular. Many cacti do bloom each spring. But notice how the desert blooms: "Like the crocus, it will burst into bloom… The glory of Lebanon will be given to it, the splendor of Carmel and Sharon…"
Crocuses aren't desert flowers. They grow in woodlands and meadows. Lebanon was known for its cedar trees, Carmel for its oak trees, and Sharon for its beautiful meadow flowers. None of these plants or trees grow in the desert.
Picture it. Without the hard work of irrigation, without long miles of plumbing, water suddenly appears in an instant. Springs bubble up, rivers and pools suddenly appear and flow through the desert. The rocks break apart as tree roots plunge into the ground. The sand is quickly covered with grasses and reeds that grow in marshes, then flowers cover the fields. And in an instant, where the land was dead and barren and dry, it's now moist and fertile and lush. What a beautiful oasis would appear!
When would all of this happen? Verses 5 and 6 coupled with our Gospel lesson make it clear. Isaiah writes, "Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy. Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert." In our Gospel lesson, John the Baptist wondered "Is Jesus really the promised Messiah?" And Jesus responds by referring to this passage: "Look at the evidence," he suggests. "The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor." (Matthew 11:5)
When Jesus came, he rescued the people from their dry, barren, empty wasteland of a life and brought springs of living water. He rescued them, not from the Romans, not from their poverty, and not just from their physical pain or disease, but from their sins. Jesus, the Living Water (cf. John 4:13), provided a refreshing oasis in the middle of the desert. And he does the same for us…
Let's face it, life can become like a desert for us too, can't it? After the death of someone you love, life can feel empty and barren. When love dries up and relationships are broken, when health rises and falls like the temperatures in the desert, when you lose a job and money is as hard to find as water in the desert, or even when nothing in particular is wrong, but your energy is all dried up, boredom and depression set in, we're left feeling like a desert—burnt and brown and broken down.
And to make matters even worse, not only is this world a hostile desert-like place to live, but we ourselves, by nature, are like deserts. We are barren of fruit or flowers with nothing good being produced. We're spiritually dead with no life in us and no ability to come to life. Like a forsaken land, we deserve to lie desolate from generation to generation. We deserve hell for all of eternity.
And on our own, there's nothing we can do to improve our situation. The phrase "burning sand" in verse 7 is literally "glowing sand" in the Hebrew. The NIV translators understood this to mean glowing hot. But others have suggested it's glowing in appearance, but when you get close, it's nothing but sand—a mere mirage.
We can run to find relief from our burning thirst, but every oasis we run to turns out to be nothing more than a mirage. We may seek comfort in our finances, our nice stuff, our human relationships, a drug or a drink, but we wake up the next day to find ourselves still in the desert, only thirstier than we were the day before. There is no lasting relief in these mirages. They offer no hope.
There's only one place to find relief: In Jesus. "Everyone who drinks this water," he said, "will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life." (John 4:13-14)
Imagine being lost in the desert, dying of dehydration, wandering from mirage to mirage, getting your hopes up time and time again just to have them dashed to the ground every time. When you finally give up with no strength to move on, you lay down in the sand to die. But then someone comes to carry you to a lush oasis with cool sweet water! What relief you would have! Your life would be saved.
Imagine the relief of the blind, the lame, the deaf, the mute, the sick that Jesus healed! Imagine the relief that came when they learned that their sins that made their live so barren and dry had all been forgiven. You don't have to imagine it, friends. You have that relief. Your sins—even those sins of running from one mirage to the next—are all forgiven! And you have the oasis of the gospel right in front of you! You don't need to search for it. God comes to you and shows you the way to this spectacular place! Isaiah describes this spectacular way to the oasis in the desert, picking up at verse 8…
8 And a highway will be there; it will be called the Way of Holiness. The unclean will not journey on it; it will be for those who walk in that Way; wicked fools will not go about on it. 9 No lion will be there, nor will any ferocious beast get up on it; they will not be found there. But only the redeemed will walk there, 10 and the ransomed of the Lord will return. They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads. Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away
II. A Spectacular Way
Typically if you want to cross the desert, you have to plan ahead well in advance. You need a camel who can go for days without a drink, you need shade and protection from the harsh sun, blankets for warmth at night, and plenty of fresh water to drink. Let's face it, crossing the Sahara would be a tough journey—about as tough as climbing Mt. Everest. The way wouldn't be easy.
That's the way most travel was in Isaiah's day. Even the paved roads were hard to travel on. They were bumpy and narrow and with only one route from point A to point B, the thieves and robbers knew where to attack. The wild animals knew where to find their prey. Travel was tough and it was dangerous.
And that's how many people view the journey to the oasis of peace with God in this desert of life. "You want peace with God? Great!" they say, "But it's going to be a tough journey. Here's what you have to do: You need to clean up your act. You need to stop sinning. You need to improve every aspect of your life. In short you need to become a saint and then you can have peace with God."
The truth is we do need to be perfect to enjoy peace with God. That's why Isaiah says "The unclean will not journey on it… wicked fools will not go about on it." So if perfection is a requirement to go on this road? Who has any hope?
Driving back to Raleigh from a vacation in Wisconsin I once missed a toll booth in Chicago and drove through the "Speed Pass" lane. So, at the next toll booth I asked what to do. The guy in the booth didn't say, "Don't worry about it. It's just 50¢." And he didn't offer to pay the toll for me out of the goodness of his heart. He told me how to send my 50¢ (plus a $5 processing fee) in by mail when I got home.
The toll to travel on God's highway is perfection. And that's a price that's too steep for any of us to pay. No matter how determined we are to cross the desert of life and make it into heaven, we can't make it on our own. We will die trying. No amount of sacrifice, hard work, or cleaning up your act will ever do it. But that's exactly why God built a highway for you and Jesus paid the toll.
Jesus said, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." (John 14:6) And what a way he is! He did all the work for us! He sacrificed his very self, living a perfectly selfless life, never sinning, not even once, for us. He endured hell on the cross—an environment far more hostile than any desert—the very torment of being cut off from God—for us. And by his holy precious blood and innocent suffering and death he paid the toll for us.
Now we live on this superhighway, where travel is easy. It's ten lanes wide and in spite of all the traffic on it, there's no slowing or stopping us. The highway travels right over all the rough, barren difficult terrain. There's nothing we need to do to get to heaven! It's all been done for us! And this highway is safe. "No lion will be there, nor will any ferocious beast get up on it; they will not be found there."
Even though "the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour," (1 Peter 5:8) that's all he can do. When we're on the Way, trusting in the forgiveness Jesus won for us on the cross, he can harm us none. He's judged the deed is done. Nothing and no one can rob us of the peace we have with God through Jesus. It's smooth sailing on this highway!
And so, we rejoice, even though we're still traveling through the desert. Because we know that in spite of the problems with our jobs, with our health, with our relationships, with the routines, one day soon we will arrive at our eternal oasis. We will "enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown [our] heads. Gladness and joy will overtake [us], and sorrow and sighing will flee away."
Though we may feel parched and dried out and burnt up now, we know that soon we'll leave this desert, just as God promises in Revelation 7(:15-17) "God… will spread his tent over [us]. …Never again will [we] thirst. The sun will not beat upon [us], nor any scorching heat. For … [Jesus] will lead [us] to springs of living water."
And so, right now we rejoice greatly and shout for joy! We are strong and do not fear because our God will come to save us from the pain and hurt and struggles we face. He cares about you; not just for your soul, but also for you body—that's another reason he did those miracles. So trust that he is working all things for your good. Trust that he is taking care of you, carrying you, even if it seems like he's abandoned you in the desert and you only see one set of footprints.
You've been ransomed and redeemed and the way to heaven is now an easy road—Jesus did it all for you! And having been filled with the Living Water, share that water with others in this desert. Strengthen the feeble hands that shake in fear at what tomorrow brings. Steady the knees that give way, wobbling like Jello at the thought of death and the judgment to come. Share the Living Water that they too might find relief in this desert of life by the cool, refreshing oasis that God has prepared. In Jesus name, dear friends. Amen.