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Streams In The Desert



Deserts are dry places. There’s not a lot there. Not much stimulation. Not many signs of life. Deserts cover about one-fifth of the earth’s surface and occur in places where there is less than 50cm per year of rainfall.

There aren’t a lot of vacation spots in deserts and wildernesses. Most of us are not planning vacations in wildernesses this year. Driving through Nevada, or parts of Wyoming or Idaho will not be the favorite part of the drive. Mostly we go through those places to get to somewhere better.

Deserts can be a symbol for people’s lives. When we feel empty, desolate, or weary we can be like deserts.

What dries us up?

Stress and intense pressure dries us up. Anxiety dries us up. Working too hard and too many hours. Suffering. Whether it is physical suffering or mental or emotional suffering. Conflict has a way of sapping our resources.

Grief. Physical limitations.

Going against God will leave a person dry and wasted.

Any of these things can leave our souls and spirits parched and absolutely thirsty.

The name “wilderness” derives from the idea of “wildness”. Meaning something not controllable by humans. It is the wildness of a place that makes it a wilderness.

When life is out of control we can feel like we are in a wilderness, and like a dry, empty, barren place. Joy and gladness are gone. You feel like a dried up rock bed.

Another thing about deserts – they tend to be big and vast. There are no shortcuts out of them.

Isaiah uses the images of the desert and wilderness to describe Judah’s life. Judah was the southern part of Israel, having divided from the northern part of the nation over issues of power and who should be king. Judah has been dried up by bad leadership. It has been dried up by conflict with nations much bigger and more powerful than it. Most of all, it has become a parched desert because of its rebellion against God.

The Lord allowed Judah to be taken away by the nation of Assyria. Their entire national life had been destroyed. It was a desolate, thirsty, barren time for God’s rebellious people.

But Isaiah sees a change coming. Isaiah always preached in very poetic terms. He speaks of the desert and parched land becoming glad and the wilderness rejoicing and blossoming. Isaiah says a day is coming when the wilderness will shout for joy.

It will begin to look like Lebanon, Carmel and Sharon – which were places known for their rich abundance and fertile ground. Prime vacation spots. High real estate.

Why the transformation? Because the desert will see the glory of the Lord, the splendor of our God. Because God will come.

“Be strong, do not fear; your God will come…” it says. And when God comes things are going to happen: the eyes of the blind will be opened, the ears of the deaf unstopped, the lame will leap like a deer, those who were unable to speak will shout for joy.

Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert. The holy land is a dry place. Water is precious. A stream in the desert is a valuable and wondrous thing. A stream in the desert brings life. It nourishes whatever is around it.

Water in the Bible is very often associated with God’s blessing and favor. Water is also a symbol of God’s Spirit.

Also in Isaiah the Lord says:

For I will pour water on the thirsty land and streams on the dry ground. I will pour my spirit upon your descendants and my blessing on your offspring.”[1]

The presence of God is a transforming presence.

In Isaiah’s vision the key to the wilderness blooming is God. “Your God will come.” Your God will show up.

He is the God who does the impossible. Blind people can’t see. Lame people can’t walk. That’s the point. When God shows up things change. Joy and gladness come.

And so for centuries Israel expected God to show up and transform the desert of their lives. They looked for God to restore what had been lost. To transform their political, social, and religious life as a nation, after so much had been lost.

One day God did show up in a man named Jesus. People noticed what he said, how he lived, and what he did.

John the Baptist, who preached in the desert and told people that the Lord was finally coming after their centuries of waiting, sent his disciples to Jesus and asked him if he was the one the Scriptures say will come? The prophets spoke of the coming Messiah. Isaiah said that when God came things would happen like were happening with Jesus. John wanted to know was he the one?

Jesus’ told them to go back to John and report what they had seen Jesus doing: the blind are seeing, the lame are walking, the lepers are being cured, the deaf are hearing. What does it look like, John? Isn’t this what Isaiah said would happen when God came?

One time Jesus met a woman coming to a well to draw water. We are told that this woman, in her quest for love, had had five husbands and was now with a new man. Talk about your life being a wilderness.

Jesus knew the desert of her longings and said to her whoever drinks of the water he gives will never thirst.[2] He wasn’t speaking physically but spiritually. Those who drink of Jesus know where the well of fulfillment is. Believers still thirst for Jesus but they know where – or who – to go to no longer thirst.

Another time Jesus said, “If anyone is thirsty, let him or her come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within that person.”[3]It says Jesus was speaking of the Spirit, who is God with us now.

Our lives can get thirsty. Inside we can feel so dry.

Jesus came and said, “The thirst you have for God and life and love and significance is found in me. I am the Messiah, the Anointed One, from God.”

Sometimes we live in the desert of our longings. We long for love. We long for joy. We long for intimacy. We long for friendship. I mean we thirst for it like a person walking through a desert.

Sometimes the longing of our deserts are so intense we see mirages and we start drinking from places that aren’t streams at all. You know what a mirage is? It is what appears or seems to be water, but really is not. Mirages fool. Mirages are part of the desert, but not real.

In our longing for love we will give ourselves to a relationship that is merely a mirage, but where there is no trust, commitment, or love. We’ll take anybody.

In our longing for joy we will drink from the mirage of more fun and pleasure. In our longing for significance we will keep trying to climb the ladder. In our longing for popularity we will compromise standards.

Money and success will dry up. (I mean look at me.)

Are you in a dry place? Is it your business? Your classroom? Your marriage? Your family? Your life?

You will not experience any joy, gladness or refreshment until the God who has placed you there, the God who knows you, the God who has redeemed you comes to you, and you seek his glory and put him first.

I have experienced the wilderness in times when I get weary and drained and feel I have no resources. Where will one more sermon come from? Where will the wisdom come to counsel this person with huge burdens? Where will the words come to comfort? Where will the time and energy come to go home and also love a family? Where will the vision and leadership come from when I am so tired and dry?

The only thing I know to do is keep going to the well. Keep searching for the stream. I know I need to get God’s words into me. I need to keep putting my life before him as I pray – asking, listening, hoping.

Henri Nouwen, one of the clearest Christian writers on the spiritual life, spoke of spiritual dryness in terms of not being able to feel God’s presence. I would say there are times when we don’t sense God with us. But just because we don’t feel his presence does not mean he is absent. It often means God is calling us to greater faithfulness and deeper searching.

Nouwen said it is precisely in times of spiritual dryness that we must hold on to our spiritual practices. Our spiritual or faith practices are those things that allow us to drink from the streams of water so that we can draw closer to God.

If you want to draw water from a well you need something to get that water. Spiritual practices are the cup with which we can draw the water of Christ.

Another thing about taking a drink from a stream: you have to stop. You have to stop walking or running or rushing and stop. Then you bend down and take a drink. And if you are in a desert, it can really taste good.

When was the last time you opened your Bible and read for your heart. Not for facts and information, but for something from God’s word to speak to your life. Not in a rushed way. Not as one more religious obligation. But where you had space and the quiet and the intentionality to let God’s word just come in and speak however and wherever it might?

When was the last time you spent more than three minutes in prayer, pouring out your heart to God. Not worried about the right words. Just enjoying his presence, taking your life and the lives of others and asking God to come? Having enough space and time to do this?

When was the last time you showed up in God’s house say for four weeks straight? I hope worship brings the water we need for our souls. When was the last time you followed God’s commandment of Sabbath rest for an entire day? Or put on some praise or sacred music and let it fill your soul?

When was the last time you intentionally sought out and drank from the streams of God’s living water? Jesus might have something for you. He might be ready to give you something for which you thirst.

Isaiah says, “Be strong, do not fear; your God will come.”

Isaiah 35 ends with the picture of a highway which represents the redeemed and ransomed of God returning from their long experience in Assyria and coming back to their home in Zion. Zion was another name for Jerusalem.

The people of God coming home. With singing. Wearing joy like a crown on their heads. Overtaken with gladness and joy, while sorrow and sighing flees away.


We all experience dry, desert times in our lives.

Craig Barnes, a pastor, said, “Perhaps the most important thing to remember about the desert is that God never wants anyone to stay there. There is no easy way out, but one of the worst mistakes we can make is to get used to living in the dry places. The only point of going through the desert is to get to the Promised Land, where we are at home with God. And the only way to enter the land is to realize that the thirst we feel is actually a longing for the sacred (for the Lord Jesus Christ). Not just some religion, but a person.”

As we go through the desert we may do a lot of things that lead us away from God. Anything we do that takes us away from God is what the Bible calls sin. Learning to turn in the right direction is one of the purposes for us being in the desert. But our greatest sin is when we give up hope and stop looking for the stream along the way.[4]

And there is only one source for this stream.


In The Silver Chair, one of the books in C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia series, one of the main characters is a girl named Jill who finds herself in a strange land because of her pride and foolishness. She is lost and very thirsty.

She comes upon a stream, but finds that the Lion, whose name is Aslan – who symbolizes Christ – is lying beside the stream.

Aslan growls that she may come and drink, but Jill is not so sure with a lion there.

“Are you not thirsty?” said the Lion.

“I’m dying of thirst,” said Jill.

“Then drink,” said the Lion.

“May I…could I…would you mind going away while I drink,” said Jill.

The Lion answered with a look and very low growl and as Jill gazed at its motionless bulk, she realized that she might as well have asked the whole mountain to move aside for her convenience. The delicious rippling noise of the stream was driving her nearly frantic.

“Do you promise not to – to do anything to me if I do come?” said Jill.

“I make no promise,” said the Lion.

Jill was so thirsty now that, without noticing it, she had come a step nearer.

“Do you eat girls?” she said.

“I have swallowed up girls and boys, women and men, kings and emperors, cities and realms,” said the Lion.

It didn’t say this as if it were boasting, nor as if it were sorry, nor as if it were angry. It just said it.

“I daren’t come and drink,” said Jill.

“Then you will die of thirst,” said the Lion.

“Oh dear!” said Jill, coming another step nearer. “I suppose I must go and look for another stream then”

“There is no other stream,” said the Lion.


People look in all kinds of places to assuage their thirst. Jesus said he is the stream in the desert. He told that woman at the well that those who drink the water he gives them will never thirst. And, indeed, he is willing to give it. We just have to come to him. And everyone is invited.



PRAYER:

God, lead us to streams in the desert.

Give us grace for our needs,

Our need to know your will in Scripture,

Our need of wisdom to guide others,

Our need of daily repentance,

Our need of the spirit of prayer, especially when we have words but no love,

Our need of zeal for your glory, instead of seeking our own ends,

Our need of joy in you and your will,

Our need of love to others.

Amen.

[1] Isaiah 44:3 [2] John 4:14 [3] John 7:38 [4] Sacred Thirst, pp. 14-15

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