Witness in the Wilderness (Sermon)

“Witness in the Wilderness”

Isaiah 51:1-6 and Revelation 21:1-4

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church


Listen to me,
    you who look for righteousness,
    you who seek the Lord:
Look to the rock from which you were cut
    and to the quarry where you were dug.
Look to Abraham your ancestor,
    and to Sarah, who gave you birth.
They were alone when I called them,
    but I blessed them and made them many.
The Lord will comfort Zion;
    he will comfort all her ruins.
He will make her desert like Eden
    and her wilderness like the Lord’s garden.
Happiness and joy will be found in her—
    thanks and the sound of singing.

Pay attention to me, my people;
    listen to me, my nation,
        for teaching will go out from me,
        my justice, as a light to the nations.
    I will quickly bring my victory.
My salvation is on its way,
    and my arm will judge the peoples.
    The coastlands hope for me;
    they wait for my judgment. 
Look up to the heavens,
        and gaze at the earth beneath.
    The heavens will disappear like smoke,
    the earth will wear out like clothing,
    and its inhabitants will die like gnats.
But my salvation will endure forever,
    and my righteousness will be unbroken.

(Isaiah 51:1-6 — CEB)

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the former heaven and the former earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. I saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. I heard a loud voice from the throne say, “Look! God’s dwelling is here with humankind. He will dwell with them, and they will be his peoples. God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more. There will be no mourning, crying, or pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:1-4 — CEB)

         Isaiah’s audience are the Israelites exiled in Babylon. After thirty-nine chapters mostly dedicated to itemizing Israel’s sins, Isaiah 40-55, or Second Isaiah, contains the prophecy of Israel’s release. And this section begins with those memorable words: “Comfort, comfort my people.”

Through the prophet, God says, Your current situation is going to change. You’re going home! To those stuck in Babylon, Isaiah’s words probably sound like wishful thinking, or maybe some religious zealot seeking attention. And, since almost all the Israelites in Babylon had, by the time of their release, been born into exile, one can also imagine the prospect of deliverance feeling unsettling to many people. They would be leaving the only home they knew. And isn’t it a human thing often to prefer the wilderness we know rather than the wilderness we don’t?

         Like a gardener preparing depleted soil, the prophet has to prepare the people’s weary hearts. He has to remind them who they are, whose they are, and what home really is.

In today’s text, Isaiah says, “Look to the rock from which you were cut and to the quarry where you were dug.” Like stars and planets hewn from one colossal and purposed explosion of spirited matter, so, too, were the Israelites chipped from the same ancestral quarry.

Isaiah’s image of being quarried and cut isn’t random. Between the first verse of chapter 40 and today’s text in chapter 51, the prophet spends a good deal of time disparaging the idols of Babylon.

Idols are sculpted images created by craftsmen, says Isaiah. And what good are they to people who have been created in the image of God?

You are the descendants of Abraham and Sarah, he says. You are among those counted when Abraham looked up at the heavens and God told him, Count the stars if you can, and trust that your descendants will be as plentiful as the stars in a clear night sky.

God’s promise to Abraham occurs while he and Sarah are in the midst of their own wilderness. They’re homeless, childless, and aging. Yet they trust that God is leading them to a place rich with new beginnings, family, and belonging. They trust that God is leading them home.

Experiences of exile and exodus—the dis-orientation of wilderness—are endemic to the life of faith, because they’re endemic to human existence. There’s just no such thing as a human life without wilderness. And when we’re wandering in some wilderness, the prophets challenge us also to imagine ourselves in a place where God is about to reveal something new.

“Pay attention to me,” God says to Israel. There will be comfort in your ruins.“[I] will make your desert like Eden and [your] wilderness like the Lord’s garden.” Everything you see will, eventually, disappear, says God, but my love for you, my presence with you, and my making-things-right for all Creation will never end.

John declares a similar promise in Revelation 21 when he speaks of “a new heaven and a new earth.” Just as God promised a family and a home to Abraham and to Sarah, and just as God promised deliverance to the Israelites exiled in Babylon, so does God promise “a new heaven and a new earth” to early Christians who are trying to follow Jesus while living in the wilderness of Caesar’s relentless brutality. 

We dare not gloss over that reality. Too many people die in the wilderness. And maybe that’s why Isaiah brings up Abraham and Sarah. Sometimes wilderness is as far as even the great ones get. Neither Abraham nor Moses really crosses the finish line. Abraham, The Father of Many, has only one child with Sarah, his co-recipient of God’s promise. And Moses dies before reaching the land to which he is leading the Hebrews.

Christa Tippett hosts a podcast entitled On Being, and recently, she interviewed Christian preacher and teacher Barbara Brown Taylor. During the conversation, the topic of wilderness came up, and Tippett asked Taylor about the role of wilderness in the human condition. Taylor responded saying that one benefit of a wilderness experience is that “your ego will get a major thump. I think of wilderness,” she said, “as where you get a feel for your true size.”*

In the whole that conversation, I heard Taylor saying that wilderness is where we remember, through shared suffering, that we are created by a Creator who is best understood as relationship. And we are most authentically God’s people when we recognize our need for one another, our need for fellow travelers in the wilderness. In that recognition, each of us confronts our incompleteness apart from the community. And while that can thump an individual’s ego, it also reminds us that we’re always part of a larger community and a larger story.

I think Isaiah wants the people in Babylon to remember that God has created flourishing gardens out of wilderness wastelands before. The prophet wants the people to dig deep into the quarry of their collective memory and recall that while God seldom prevents suffering, God never abandons the people in their sufferings. Isaiah seems to want the people to say, Hey, we’ve been here before. All will be well because God is faithful.

The “true size” of an individual and of a faith community is never determined by any status or privilege, but by the extent to which we embrace our blessedness, even in the wilderness, and offer ourselves as a blessing. Thus does God say, “They were alone when I called them, but I blessed them and made them many…Happiness and joy will be found in her—thanks and the sound of singing.”

         Suffering in community with others, and living as a source of “happiness and joy”—isn’t this the call of a community that follows Jesus? Isn’t this John’s “new heaven and…new earth”?

To be a faithful and biblically-grounded community does not mean that we bind ourselves to a static set of beliefs and insist that others do the same. To be a faithful and biblically-grounded community means that we live as a people of humility and joy, people possessed by a passion for God’s justice, that is for mercy, kindness, peace, equity, and welcome for all whom God loves.

So, whatever wilderness may look and feel like right now for each of us, and for all of us together, isn’t it faithful to both Isaiah and Jesus to open ourselves to our wilderness experience as people who need each other, and who are fellow travelers in a much deeper and wider narrative?

And isn’t it radically faithful to God, and faithfully subversive to all the Babylons and Romes of the world to say, We’ve been here before? Wilderness never gets the last word. Even now, God, who is faithful, is birthing a new Creation. And even if we don’t get to see it ourselves, we will not give in to hopelessness.

By loving as we are loved, by living gratefully, generously, and justly, we will inhabit, here and now, God’s new heaven and new earth.

*All references to the On Being conversation between Tippett and Taylor can be found here: https://onbeing.org/programs/barbara-brown-taylor-this-hunger-for-holiness/#transcript

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