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Edward F. Markquart

Series A
Making the Deserts Bloom

Advent 3A     Isaiah 35:1-10

When the Messiah comes, the deserts will bloom.

One nice thing about living on the western side of the mountains here in Washington is that you can always drive across the mountains to eastern Washington and see the desert. We all have had that experience, where we start of this side of the mountain where it is raining, of course, and we start driving up over those mountains. As you get into the mountains, it is very green, with moss and trees and ferns. The underbrush is so thick you couldn’t walk through it. You get to the top of the mountains and there is some snow, and you cross the pass, and you notice that something is different. The trees aren’t so numerous. The underbrush isn’t so thick. Gradually, as you come off the mountain, the land becomes drier and drier and pretty soon you start moving out into the desert. As you drive across the desert, you start to notice a couple of things. You notice those gigantic wheels that look like they are about ten feet tall. And you notice those pipes between the wheels. Wherever there are wheels and pipes, you notice that there is water spraying from those pipes and the land all around the irrigation pumps is green. Irrigation is a wonderful miracle as you see the beauty of the blossom and grow.

Now…before there were irrigation pipes, someone had a dream, a vision, visual image of a desert blooming. Before there were irrigation pumps, someone dreamed of divine possibilities for the brown, parched, barren land…that it could blossom like a garden. The dreamers imagined that blossoming desert could happen, and from their hopes, their imaginations went to work and they asked, “How can we make this desert bloom?” To ask such a question meant that they had visions of hope, visions of divine possibilities, visions of glory. Visions of fields and waving wheat in the wind. Then, after their imagination of possibilities, it took an immense amount of hard work. After the hard work, it took a great deal of patience. And after several years of hard work, finally…a miracle happened right before their eyes.   That is, the desert began to bloom. It is always wonderful to watch a miracle unfold, but it is always better to help a miracle unfold. Hmmm.

When the Messiah comes, the deserts will bloom.

I think of another example of blooming deserts. I think of the land of Israel a thousand years ago.  About a thousand years ago in the land of Israel or Palestine, they cut down all the trees. Why would they cut down all the trees? Because a thousand years ago, the Turkish government was the most powerful in the world and the Turks had a law that for every tree, you had to pay a tax. If you had to pay a dollar tax for every tree, obviously, you are going to cut down all the trees. So in the land of Israel, they cut down all their trees. What happens when you cut down all the trees? You change the climate. As soon as you cut down all the trees, you don’t have moisture gathering and condensing and eventually you have the beginnings of a desert. That is what happened in the land of Israel. At one time, the land was flowing with milk and honey and gorgeous trees. They cut them all down, and the land became a desert during the next four to five hundred years. What is that famous saying that “the mills of God grind slowly, but they do grind.”  Cut the trees and the deserts eventually come.

But, beginning in 1948, the Jewish nation was again established. That in itself was a miracle for the Jews, to have their own land after so many centuries of not having a land. The Jews said: “Let’s change our land.”  So in 1948, they started to plant trees; they started to irrigate; and they started to change their climate. … Any time you have a miracle, it means that there were visions of hope. Their imaginations became active and they asked an important question, “How can we make this desert bloom?”  They had to have their imaginations and visions of hope. Then, it took an immense amount of hard work and finally patience. The desert didn’t blossom overnight with no work and patience. Gradually, and gradually, and gradually, a miracle was born. It is grand to see a miracle, but it is ever better to be part of a miracle.

When the Messiah comes, the deserts will bloom.

Third story.  There is a Sahal desert in Africa. Right now, as you know, Africa is experiencing one of its worst droughts. Back in 1973 and 1974, the Sahal desert was really bad and we learned the word, “desertification.” Desertification means that the desert is growing, expanding, and enlargening. That means there will be massive hunger and starvation for those twenty-two nations in that part of the world. You wouldn’t want to be living there along banks of the Sahal desert. The land was overpopulated; the cows, sheep and goats ate all the grass and denuded the ground. The people cut down the trees for firewood. Anytime that you get rid of all the grass and cut down all the trees and grow cash crops, and don’t rotate the land, the land is going to become a desert. A desert is growing in that part of the world.

Gradually, people say to themselves and each other, “We’ve to change that.” Hope is born. Visions of hope are born. Imaginations go to work and ask the question, “How can we stop this desert from growing? How can we make the edges of this desert bloom?” The people started to plant thousands upon thousands of trees. It also requires patience because it will take thirty to forty to fifty years for those trees to grow. As the trees grow, gradually, the climatic conditions will change.  It is a pleasure to watch the deserts bloom. It is grand to see a miracle, but it is even better to be part of a miracle enfolding.

This same process of desertification has happened in the land of Haiti, where our sister church is. I once saw a TV special where the camera was way high above Haiti, and you could see where the land had been denuded and now even the ocean beaches were becoming brown deserts with no life, plants or fish in them.

When the Messiah comes, the deserts will bloom.

It is with these images that we approach the Old Testament lesson for today. If you add up the several of the Bible verses from Isaiah 35, the Word of the Lord says, “When the Messiah comes, the deserts will bloom.”

What was the historical situation that caused the prophet Isaiah to write these words about the blooming deserts? The year was 700 B.C., and life had become like a desert to the people. Life is like that; life can become a desert, as many of you so well know. Life had become brown and burned out, dead and dry, with blowing sand.

What happened? The people were now in captivity. Their capital city had been incinerated. Their religious temple had been destroyed. Their sons had been killed. Their king had been blinded by the enemy. Their cities and farms had been burned, and they had been in captivity for nearly fifty years. The people were feeling burnt and brown and broken down. It was then that the prophet Isaiah wrote these incredible words: “When the Messiah comes, your desert will bloom.” The prophet said, “I will make your wilderness a pool of water and your dry land, I will make into springs of water. I will put trees in your desert: the cedar, the acacia, the myrtle wood. I will plant trees in her desert, and I will make her desert like a Garden of Eden and her wilderness will be like the garden of the Lord. So shall it be when the Messiah comes. When the Messiah comes, your deserts will begin to bloom again.”

Life can be like that. Life can be like a desert where life is dried up, burnt and brown. Such as after a death of a husband, wife or child. Life can become very dried up. Inevitably, it always happens after death. Life, then, becomes dried up like a desert.

Or, such as after years of marriage with a love between a man and a woman, and that love slowly dries up and their marriage becomes like a desert.

Or, such as during an illness like multiple sclerosis or like cancer. During severe illness, life can feel much like a desert.

Or, some of those accidents that leave people crippled or paralyzed for life. It happens and life feels like a desert, so dried up and dead.

Or, such as the time when a person loses a job and the loss of income and you don’t know where to turn because there seems to be nowhere to turn.

Or sometimes in periods of loneliness and depression, when the walls talk back to you and you have lost your energy and life has lost its challenge.

Or, such as this time of year, during this Christmas time. Christmas time is the worst time of year for people who feel that life is like a desert. I know many people who are praying for Christmas to be over. Christmas begins two or three days before Thanksgiving, and these desert people further wilt under the Christmas pressures to be happy. Are you aware that Christmas time is the number one time for suicide and depression? Why? Because for many people, life is a desert, and life seems even more deserted at this time of year. Life can be like a desert for each one of us.

This is illustrated by a story that I read and would like to share with you. It is a story about a woman in her mid forties. She came to visit a senile old lady at a nursing home. I imagine her over at Good Samaritan home nearby. The woman in her forties comes into the room and says to the senile, old lady in her eighties, “How are you?” Long pause. “Just fine,” the old lady responds. Long silence. Five minutes of silence. The old lady asks, “Where did the leaves go?” The woman in her forties responds, “It’s fall; the leaves have fallen.” Long silence. For two hours, the movement of words is ever so slow. A short comment punctuated by long periods of silence. The old lady asks, “Do you have a daughter?” “Yes, my daughter is twelve years old.” Long silence. “Do you have any sons?” the old lady asks? “Yes, our boy is sixteen.” Long silence. “What is his name?”

“Mark. He is such a tall boy, almost six feet four.” “My, he is a tall boy.” These two women talked back and forth with silence, with long periods of silence in between.  It was like the forty year old was a visitor to a shut-in, following through with her Christian love and duty.  It finally came time to leave and the younger woman said, “I must be going now.” The old lady asked, “Do you live far away?” “O yes,” was the reply, “almost three hundred miles away.” The two of them went together to the outside door, the older woman being pushed in her wheel chair by the younger woman. The old lady said, “This has been nice. You are pretty. Come see me again.  But, but, but I don’t know your name.” The middle-aged woman choked back the tears and said, “My name is Lorraine.” And then for a moment, there was a blinding flash of recognition in the old lady’s mind, then shame, then sorrow, then nothing. The younger woman turned and ran to her car, tears streaming down her face, glad that her mother had called her “pretty.”

Life can be like that. Life can be like a desert.  When love and love tragically dries up. When God seems so very far away. When love seems so very far away. When the marriage is dead. When the husband is dead. When the mom is dead. When the energies have died. Life can become like a desert. In fact, somewhere along in your life and mine, life will be a desert for you. Inevitably, sometime, somewhere, someplace, each of us will walk a desert path.

The Word of the Lord is this: “When the Messiah comes, your deserts will bloom again.”

In the New Testament, the Messiah came. Jesus came to earth and found all kinds of people whose lives had become like deserts. Jesus helped those people’s lives to bloom again. Let me give you some examples. The prostitute. She was a woman whose life was a desert for her, as is true of all prostitutes, past and present. The prostitute heard his words, “Your sins are forgiven. Go and sin no more.” Jesus healed her.

Or, the story of the prodigal son. The prodigal son had gone to the far country, and his life was a total mess. His life had become a wilderness, a desert, parched and brown. Dead. He came to his senses and finally back to his father who put a ring on his finger and a coat on his back and killed the fatted calf for a grand celebration. Suddenly, the prodigal son was the celebrated son. His life was blooming again.

Or, the woman who had five divorces, five epochs of her life at the worst and Jesus came to save her, to help her.

Or, the centurion, whose son was falling into a fire with epileptic seizures.

Or Zacchaeus, the crook.

Or Matthew, the tax collector.

Again and again and again and again and again, when Jesus came into people’s lives, their lives were like deserts and when Jesus left them, their deserts were blooming once more. It is absolutely true: when the Messiah comes into your life, Jesus helps the deserts of your life and mine to bloom again.

People always ask, “How did he do that? How is it that he works the miracle and helps the deserts bloom?” It always begins with water. You gotta have water to make the deserts bloom. It begins with living water. Jesus said, “I am the living water. Whoever drinks of me will never thirst again.”  What does that mean, to drink the living water? To drink the living water means to have the Spirit of Jesus come inside of you. His forgiveness. His patience. His kindness. His moral values. His goodness. To drink the living water is to have the Spirit of the Living God come and live within. That is the most important thing that could ever happen to your life and mine.

At first, you drink a little bit. A sip.  A sip of the living water. Then you try a swallow. Then you drink a cup. Then a large glass. Then a bucket. And pretty soon, you don’t even know what is happening, but there are rivers of living water flowing into you and rivers of living water flowing out of you.  Where did all that water come from? The deserts begin to bloom when we experience the living water of God’s Spirit inside of us. When the living water is inside of us, we begin to dream dreams and imagine possibilities.

The next step is for your imagination to go to work. That is the next thing that always happens. Your imagination goes to work. The imagination goes to work and asks the big question, “How can this desert blossom?” Just like it took loads of imagination to make the deserts in Eastern Washington bloom and just like it took loads of imagination to make the deserts bloom in Israel, so it takes imagination to make our deserts bloom. … And the imagination asks this question: “God, what can you and I do to make this situation better? What can we do to make our situation better?” You ask that question rather than make the questions, “God, what’s wrong with me? God, how come I have such a rotten place to live in? God, how come I have such a crummy life?” When you finally move beyond those questions and feelings; when you finally begin drinking the living water, you ask another and more important question, “God, what can you and I do to help my desert bloom? To help the deserts around me to bloom?”

When you finally ask that question about life, things start to happen. Then? Then, it takes hard work. To make the deserts bloom in eastern Washington, Israel, Kenya, or Haiti, it takes hard work. Anyone who doesn’t think that miracles take hard work doesn’t understand the nature of miracles. People often say, “God, you do it for me. Do it for me, God. Come down here and do the work for me.” That reminds me of my children at certain times in their young lives, “Come down and do the work for me, so I won’t have to work so hard.” Such people don’t understand that miracles take hard work. It always takes hard work to make a desert bloom. I have never seen a desert bloom without hard work. Not one. Nor have you.

Then, it takes patience. A great deal of patience. I see people go over to eastern Washington and look what happened to the miracle in that desert, and then come back to their own farm and question, “Now how come my farm isn’t blooming like that?” In eastern Washington, it took thirty, forty, fifty years for that desert to bloom, yet some farmers come back and say, “I want my farm to bloom in one month or one year.” It takes patience for a desert to bloom.

Let’s see. Living water. Imagination. Hard work. Patience. Miracles do happen because it is true. When the Messiah comes, the deserts will bloom. When the Messiah comes to your life and mine, those deserts will start to bloom again. Amen.

Advent/Christmas Gift:  If you as a pastor have found the sermons from this website helpful in your preaching, please consider giving a gift to Lutheran World Relief as an expression of your appreciation. Contact and mention Grace Lutheran Church in Des Moines, Washington, the congregation which has given Pastor Markquart time to make these sermons available to you free of charge. Pastor Markquart served on the Board of Lutheran World Relief for twelve years. He believes LWR is both effective (great partnerships with 150 indigenous partner agencies located in 50 countries) and efficient (administrative overhead of about 10%) in its work to combat hunger and injustice around the globe. 

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