This sermon is the third in an Advent series on “Spanning the Space Between.”
Isaiah 35:1-10, Matthew 11:2-11
I recently saw a photograph of last spring’s “super bloom” of California wildflowers. It looked like someone took a palette of paints and dumped them over the desert hills — purples, oranges, yellows, blues. Supposedly the bloom was so colorful that it could be seen from space. To make it even more crazily colorful, millions of painted lady butterflies showed up because of the bloom, filling the skies. I had never seen anything like it, and it made me upset that I hadn’t taken the opportunity to see this super bloom in person. Because super blooms don’t come around very often! You need a long rainy season but not just that. Super blooms tend to be more super after several years of drought because some seeds need to lie dormant for awhile to truly erupt into a super bloom. As one writer said, “Hard, undesirable conditions over many years seem to pave the way for the stunning explosion of a super bloom.”
Perhaps the author of Isaiah is describing just such a super bloom in the desert around Israel in the passage we heard: “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing” (Is. 35:1-2). That sure sounds like a super bloom to me! A highway will go through the midst of this super bloom, Isaiah says, a highway upon which the exiled people of Israel will return. They will be walking, skipping, and singing with joy as they travel through the super bloom en route to their long lost home. Those who before had difficulty walking will be leaping; those who before couldn’t talk will be singing; those who before couldn’t see or hear will be able to see the leaping and hear the singing. This journey will be a repeat of the journey of the exodus, only this time the wilderness through which they are traveling will blossom and flourish with watery life. On the exodus journey, the people almost perished for want of water, and Moses had to do the neat trick of striking a rock with his staff to get a trickle to come out. But alongside this highway will be streams and springs of water. There will be so much water that swamps will form. Kind of like what’s happening now, with all our rain! In the words of Isaiah, “the burning sand will become a pool” (Is. 35:7).
The prophet here is, of course, not speaking of a literal highway that will go through the desert. Isaiah is speaking of a holy way of life, the Sacred Way. (Insight from article above.) He’s talking about a way of living righteously — in right relationship to Creator, creation, each other and ourselves. He’s talking about a holy way of life that makes a crazily abundant life possible for all of creation. Jesus picks up this metaphor of the Sacred Way in the passage from Matthew. John the Baptist, he says, is the messenger who is preparing the way for Jesus who is, himself, the embodiment of this Sacred Way. That’s why we refer to Jesus as “our Way, our Truth, our Life.”
When John, rightfully, wonders if Jesus is the one they’ve been waiting for, Jesus doesn’t offer some kind of theological argument about why he’s the one: “Because I am the third person of the Trinity descended from the Father and co-existent with the eternal Word, begotten not made.” Instead, Jesus says to those asking on behalf of John: “Go and tell John what you hear and see” (Matt. 11:4). Jesus’ actions and their consequences are the proof he offers to John of who is is. Those who can’t see now receive their sight (and I encourage you to hear this metaphorically as well as literally), those who can’t walk now do, those who can’t hear now hear — does that sound familiar? — the dead are raised, lepers are cleansed and the poor have good news brought to them. How do we know if someone is following in this Sacred Way? If healing and abundant life and good news for those marginalized are the result. Following in the Way brings about a super bloom, a crazily abundant way of life!
These are dangerous, frightening times to live in. Every day, I read another article about How. Bad. It. Is. And… what I find incredibly hopeful is that we know the Sacred Way that leads to life, the Way that leads to right relationship with Creator, creation, each other and ourselves. We know this Way because the prophets of Israel have called us to it for centuries; we know this Way because Jesus announced this way of life and enacted it; we know this Way because throughout the centuries faithful people of all religions and spiritualities have born witness to it through their lives — especially Indigenous Peoples who have born witness to the Sacred Way of life for centuries now while the rest of the planet lost its way. We know this Way because there are people right now who are embodying this Sacred Way and experimenting with new ways to live it out in our time. Many of them are sitting in this congregation today!
It can be really overwhelming to contemplate all the changes in agriculture, energy generation and usage, our economy and politics that have to happen to keep this planet inhabitable. But what I find so hopeful is that we already know the way to make these changes, and there are already people living those change. We know the Way already.
I saw an incredible documentary called “Tomorrow.” It’s a French film that exploded across that country when it came out in 2015. Made partly by crowd-funding, “Tomorrow” won prizes, was more popular than Hollywood movies in French theaters and has started a solutions-oriented movement to address climate change in France and other countries.
“Tomorrow” does talk about the “Big Bad” of climate change in the beginning. It makes the case for How Bad It Is. But then it goes on to showcase all the ways in which ordinary people across the world are walking the “Sacred Way” by growing food differently, producing energy differently, educating children differently, running their economies differently, doing government and politics differently, It highlights the Finnish way of educating children; I actually cried a little when I saw this segment because I so wish my son could have been in a school like that. It shows the San Francisco way of doing effective citywide composting and also shows the Oakland way of investing in vibrant local economies. It highlights towns in England that print their own currency and a village in India in which a local democratic process has led to inter-class solidarity against the unjust caste system. Those are just some of the stories.
One of the most inspiring stories for me, among a movie full of inspiring stories, was — of all things! — about an envelope factory in northern France. It answered the question I’ve often wondered: If our whole economy is built on perpetual growth — which is what is killing our planet — how can you create wealth and employment without being forced to grow and without consuming dwindling resources and producing waste? Well, you build an envelope factory where the stockholders don’t get dividends. Instead, all dividends are reinvested in the company. You work with a supplier that plants four trees for every tree that is cut down to make envelopes. You make lighter envelopes so less trees are needed to make them. You sell all of the paper waste produced in making the envelope to companies that recycle it. You make envelopes using water-based inks made with natural pigments, which means you can use water and soap instead of toxic chemicals to clean the machines that make the envelopes. The water used to clean the machines is rain water collected on the factory’s roof, and the excess water from cleaning the machines is poured into bamboo fields surrounding the factory. That bamboo is cut and dried and used to heat the factory. You get your electricity from solar panels on the factory’s roof, which also has bee hives on it and is, also, a “green roof” — meaning it is completely covered with vegetation. This vegetation provides soundproofing and insulation for the factory below. In addition, the green roof actually consumes the micro-particles emitted by the diesel trucks that drive to the factory. The factory’s manager said that it took $11 million to put all this in place, but over the last 20 years, the factory has saved $17 million because of these investments. Oh, and the workers are treated well. The income disparity between the highest and lowest paid worker is 1:4; it’s 1:100 in most French factories and much higher here in the U.S.
I highly recommend watching this film as a Christmas gift to yourself. And stick with it. One reviewer said that, especially at the beginning, the film at times felt like “one Snapchat filter or hand-drawn font away from full-blown hipsterism.” It gets better. The film shows the super blooms that are possible when we walk in the Sacred Way of right relationship. And it shows that we already know how to walk in this Sacred Way. The ingenuity and innovation and creativity of people walking along this Way is incredible. It’ll make you proud to be a human again. And the way that nature regenerates itself so quickly when we walk along this Way is miraculous. (Another documentary — “The Biggest Little Farm” — also shows the regeneration of nature in a way that is so hopeful. I recommend it also!) Truly, the burning sand can become a pool.
My friends, we have been living through some hard, undesirable conditions now for many years. We are living in a parched land. There’s been a drought of good news, a drought of justice, a drought of right relationship. Perhaps as more and more of us wake up to the consequences of our current way of life and as more and more of us wake up to the possibilities of walking the Sacred Way, the healing rain will pour down, and we will experience the stunning explosion of a super bloom. The desert of our hearts and our cities will blossom and flourish with life. The thirsty ground of our souls and this land will gush forth in springs of water. Maybe it be so, our Way, our Truth, our Life. May it be so.