Return to Sermon Archive
December 16, 2001
Isaiah 35: 1-10
Half Walls in the Desert
Last sabbath I preached upon Dry-Stone Walls, this Sabbath on a Half-Wall World, so you might think that I am "all walled up" if you will forgive the pun. I promise to find a new metaphor next Sabbath, but bear with me today.
Maria Said, journalist, was excited when she first learned she would be spending some time in the African desert working in international development. She imagined living in a small hut of her own, with a palm tree to the side. Perhaps a little desk surrounded by mosquito netting where she could write and work, living not unlike Kristen Taylor Scott in "The English Patient," or Meryl Streep in "Out of Africa." She had a vision of the desert akin to today's Scripture from Isaiah, especially the opening lines: "The wilderness and the solitary place shall be glad for them; and the desert shall rejoice, and blossom as the rose. It shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice even with joy and singing." (35:1-2).
The reality was much different. In her own words: "For two years, I shared my home with more than thirty children, four freedom fighters, a government bureaucrat, a wife-beater, a Red Cross worker with a taste for liquor, a number of prostitutes, a madman, and all the customers of the tea shop next door."
When she first arrived, she found that no housing had been arranged for her, no private hut and no personal palm tree. A townsman showed her an empty place, a room with half walls, that is walls that reached only to the level of her head. A room with half-walls is a room in which you hear everything. It is a room with lots of exposure, lots of community and lots of opportunities to connect. Maybe too many opportunities.
Maria said, "Traditionally, the desert calls mystics into its presence, and its vast silence allows them to confront the chaos in their hearts. But my half-erected home forced me away from the solitude I found so comfortable and placed me amid the chaos that occurs in the space between people."
This is the way Maria spent the next two years - celebrating half-wall holidays. Many adjustments were required. Maria soon discovered that her lofty and idealistic notions of "community" and "neighbor" had come down to earth and taken on concrete form. In this kind of community, no time-outs were allowed. No private moments to take a deep breath, reapply the makeup, or brush down loose ends were available. The rough edges of day-to-day life did not get smoothed over in a half-wall world; They got rougher. Such exposure is painful, but important to personal and spiritual growth. Maria was forced to recognize that she was neither as nice nor as neighborly as she had always assumed.
During the Christmas holidays, we may have a false sense of community. We think we have lowered the walls of isolation, unconcern, and disinterested privacy. Our sense of neighborliness is satisfied when we drop a few coins in the bell-ringer's bucket, or contribute to the Christmas Food Drive, but the walls are still firmly in place, separating us from the world Christ came to save.
We Americans love our privacy. We enjoy retreating to the haven of home at the end of a hectic day. We do not like panhandlers in our face as we shoulder our way through the crowds on the streets. Most of us believe that our quality of life would improve if we could spend not more time in the community, but more time at home.
At the same time, we long for community and connectedness, and it is this tension between the need to be alone and together that God resolves in Christ. God lowers the walls, and calls on us to do the same, saying in v3 "Strengthen ye the weak hands, and confirm the feeble knees."
God encourages his people by saying both that he will be with us and that he will protect us. Thus v4, "Say to them that are of a fearful heart, Be strong, fear not: behold, your God will come with vengeance, even God with a recompense; he will come and save you."
Ironically, one of the oldest biblical descriptions of the power of God to restore creation is the seemingly destructive metaphor of God the Divine Warrior. Perhaps the best expression of this metaphor can be seen in Isaiah, chapters 34-35. In this image, God leaves the heaven to come to earth to fight on behalf of those who have earned God's favor and against those who have incurred God's wrath. Many times the Divine Warrior is pictured fighting for Israel (Psalm 18), but as the prophet Amos (5:18-24) points out, sometimes Israel itself is the target for God's wrath.
In either case, consequences result when God makes contact with the created order. As God marches forth, nature suffers cataclysmic disturbances. In Isaiah 34, when God wars against the nations, it is said that "the mountains shall flow with their blood" (v. 3); the stars and planets, or "all the hosts of heaven, shall rot" (v. 4); livestock will die along with the human offenders (vv. 5-7); streams will turn to tar; soil to sulfur (v. 9); and the land will lie waste for generations (v. 10).
But the destruction caused by God's march into battle is only the first half of the metaphor. In Isaiah 35, the second half is seen. Once God's aims are accomplished and God's vengeance is satisfied, nature is restored to the order God desires. Nature is made better than it was before. The desert not only blooms, it runs over with new sources of water (vv. 6-7) so that the whole environment is changed.
Isaiah also describes another important development. No longer is the desert a trackless void in which travelers can easily lose their way. Now there is a highway that leads straight to Zion. God's people are led along this miraculous highway, back to the heavenly city that had once been their home. And like the orders of nature, the people themselves are also better than they were before. All their physical infirmities have been healed (vv. 5-6) and their fears disappear before the knowledge that God's vengeance is expressed for their benefit and not their harm (vv. 3-4). Here the prophesied curse of ears that do not hear, eyes that do not see, and minds that do not understand (Isaiah 6:9-10) is replaced with a promise of bodies whole and strong and minds that dwell in the will and promise of God.
"Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened," promises the prophet, "and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy" (vv. 5-6). Once we have opened ourselves fully to God, and laid our lives before God in complete candor and honesty, then we find that unexpected and life-giving healing occurs. Our eyes are opened and our ears unstopped. We can now walk in the highway of God and sing of Gods love.
No Public and Private
Maria Said discovered that it is much easier to be a hypocrite when life is divided into public and private. In a community united by half-walls, however, there is little room for pretense, for false appearances, for deceptions, for self-serving fantasies and dreams. She found that in the desert, the physical nearness of people imposed vigilance on her speech and actions. She could not be charming in public and nasty in private, because every private outburst was a matter of public record.
In this kind of close community, times of joy and comfort emerge. Maria reports that in her half-wall world, one of the women who lived next door became her best friend. When the dust storms came and the lights blew out, the woman would place her candles on top of the wall so that the two of them could share the light. On nights when she worked late, Maria passed bowls of American-style food over the wall and listened as the woman and the tea shop customers tried to identify and swallow the strange meals. Each night, they would whisper over the wall and wish blessings for the next day. The woman called Maria "sister" and made her a part of her family.
Maria found real community. The question for us is: How can we replace a pseudo-sense of community--one that focuses only on festive events and cheery sentiments--with a community that embraces people who are suffering and grieving at this time of year? Can we peer over our walls of privacy, self-concern, and personal gratification, and make an honest connection with a neighbor, one in which truth is told and real struggles are shared?
The talk these days is about the disintegration of "community," and no wonder: One in two marriages break up, leaving disillusioned children of divorce suspicious of intimate commitment. Industry's growth tears people out of lifelong neighborhoods. High mobility and downsizing move us like nomads. Yet Internet chatrooms are standing-room-only. We yearn for a place of belonging.
Douglas Coupland poignantly voices this yearning in the novel Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture. "All looks with strangers," says the main character, "became the unspoken question, 'Are YOU the stranger who will rescue me?' Starved for affection, terrified of abandonment, I began to wonder if sex was really an excuse to look deeply into another human being's eyes."
We desperately need and long for deep connectedness with others. But we seem to be complete failures at finding it. In reality. [Chris Rice, "Only jerks allowed," Sojourners, March-April, 2000, 42.]
Perhaps the lesson is that before we can find others, we have to find God. God is constantly committed to the breaking of barriers. Without God, we do not have that commitment. We enjoy our isolation too much. It is belief in God that forms the glue of our connections. "I have to remember that I stand before God in a room with no walls," reflects Maria Said, now that she has returned to the United States. "He calls us to reach out to our neighbors over the half-erected walls, and be seen."
But in the real time of day-to-day living, our agendas get in the way of our connections. I heard years ago of an interesting experiment that was conducted to ascertain what factors enabled people to act lovingly and what factors worked against the same thing. A seminary professor recruited fifteen volunteers from his class to meet him at his office at two p.m. When they arrived, he handed out sealed instructions.
Five of the envelopes instructed the recipients to proceed across the campus without delay. They were told, "You have fifteen minutes to reach this place. You have no time to spare. Don't loiter or do anything else, or your grade will be docked." These five were coded "The High Hurry Group."
The next five were instructed that, anytime in the next forty-five minutes, they were to make their way across the campus. "You've plenty of time," they were told. "But don't be too slow." They were coded "The Medium Hurry Group."
The last five were told that, anytime before five o'clock that afternoon, they were to report across campus, and there they would receive further instructions. This group was known as "The Low Hurry Group."
Unbeknownst to any of these students, the professor had arranged for some drama majors at Princeton University to be situated alongside the path they had to take. The young actors simulated great human need. One was sitting with his head in his hands, crying and wailing. Another was lying face down, as if she had had some kind of seizure and was unconscious. All fifteen of the students had to make their way past these obviously needy persons.
None of "The High Hurry Group" stopped to see what they could do, although all five of them aspired to be Christian ministers. Two of "The Medium Hurry Group" stopped to try to help. All five of "The Low Hurry Group" made attempts to be responsive. [John Claypool, Stories Jesus Still Tells (New York: McCracken Press, 1993), 107.]
Now you might say the professor wasted a lot of time and effort proving the obvious--that people who are not stressed out and overwrought and overdone, have the time and energy to help people in trouble. But that was his point. The world gives us an agenda, and we struggle mightily to keep that agenda, not matter what, and sometimes we wind up sacrificing things that mattter to keep an agenda that does not matter. Jesus calls us to a different way of living, to a connected way of living. People are the agenda. People are what matter.
The House With No Room
Perhaps you have heard the fable about a peasant, his wife, and their tiny cottage. The place was simply too small. They never had guests because they had no room at the table. They could not raise a family because they had no place for children to sleep. There was barely room for the two of them in that house, and they were starting to get in each other's way and on each other's nerves. They needed a bigger house.
Well, as the fable would have it, a wizard arrived to grant their desires.
"You shall have a bigger house," he said, "but you must do as I tell you."
"First," he instructed, "you must bring all your chickens, ducks, geese, and fowl into the house with you. Next, bring in the dogs and the cats and the pigs and the cows and the horses and the goat." Well, the peasant and his wife pushed, and they shoved, and they squeezed them all tight--and still the wizard demanded more.
"Now," he proclaimed, "invite all your neighbors, and all of their animals. Put on a feast for them, and by tonight you shall have your big house."
It did not seem possible that the entire neighborhood could fit into the overstuffed cottage, but the invitations were sent and soon the banquet had begun. It was a noisy and crowded affair, but a festive one. Eventually, every neighbor, beast, and fowl had been welcomed, wined and dined. When all had finished and bade their farewells, the peasant and his wife collapsed in happy exhaustion and put up their feet to rest. It was then that they noticed how spacious their home had become. They had room to stretch out and relax. The wizard had granted their wish.
What the wizard granted them was a new attitude toward the space they had. They actually had plenty of room in their house to raise a family, have a feast, make all the human connections that fill life with joy and delight, but they had reasoned themselves into a corner and believed that they did not have room, so they had withdrawn from their community into themselves. The wizard broke the cycle. What the wizard really showed them was how to reach out to other people.
That is what Christ shows us--how to reach out and connect. That is what Christmas is about. That is what Christ is about. We are to put a candle on the ledge and share the light! Amen.
Said, Maria. "Half-walls between us." Re:generation Quarterly, Spring, 1999.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2000 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified, 01/11/02