FIRST READING ISAIAH 41:13-20 ©
I, the Lord, your God,
I am holding you by the right hand;
I tell you, ‘Do not be afraid,
I will help you.’
Do not be afraid, Jacob, poor worm,
Israel, puny mite.’
I will help you – it is the Lord who speaks –
the Holy One of Israel is your redeemer.
See, I turn you into a threshing-sled,
new, with doubled teeth;
you shall thresh and crush the mountains,
and turn the hills to chaff.
You shall winnow them and the wind will blow them away,
the gale will scatter them.
But you yourself will rejoice in the Lord,
and glory in the Holy One of Israel.
The poor and needy ask for water, and there is none,
their tongue is parched with thirst.
I, the Lord, will answer them,
I, the God of Israel, will not abandon them.
I will make rivers well up on barren heights,
and fountains in the midst of valleys;
turn the wilderness into a lake,
and dry ground into waterspring.
In the wilderness I will put cedar trees,
acacias, myrtles, olives.
In the desert I will plant juniper,
plane tree and cypress side by side;
so that men may see and know,
may all observe and understand
that the hand of the Lord has done this,
that the Holy One of Israel has created it.
The Jewish exiles returning from Babylon will have known all about desert landscapes, but the promise here of desert fruitfulness is surely not literal. The “desert” is the whole situation of the returnees: a wrecked city, lands and houses taken over by others, resentment from those who had escaped exile; weakness in the face of enemies and so on. Isaiah announces that God who can bring life even to the desert, will bring life to their fragile community, making them spiky towards enemies and fruitful in their communal life. Water, the giver of life in barren places is the symbol of Godf’s goodness to his people.
From the time of the exodus onwards, God’s ability to provide the water of life in desert conditions was part of the faith of Israel. Jesus used water as an image of eternal life. The Desert Fathers and Mothers, 3rd, 4th century CE, retreated to the desert to find God’s way. Here is a story that illustrates their way:
Abba Moses was asked by the commuity to share in judging a brother who had broken discipline. He arrived dragging a bag filled with sand but with a hole in it. They asked him what on earth he was doing, and he answered, “I come to stand in judgment on a brother and my sins are running out behind me.” The brother was forgiven.
There’s water in the desert, there’s fruifulness.
There’s also a sense in which those whose lives have never been in a desert place, don’t fully know the new life God gives from deep within themsleves and through others.
Matthew 11:11-15 ©
Jesus spoke to the crowds: ‘I tell you solemnly, of all the children born of women, a greater than John the Baptist has never been seen; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he is. Since John the Baptist came, up to this present time, the kingdom of heaven has been subjected to violence and the violent are taking it by storm. Because it was towards John that all the prophecies of the prophets and of the Law were leading; and he, if you will believe me, is the Elijah who was to return. If anyone has ears to hear, let him listen!’
John had announced the coming of the kingdom is his role as the new Elijah. But that announcement has led to Messianic Jihadis encouraging violence aganst the Romans. Now, Jesus says, in his ministry the kingdom emerges quietly, peacefully and by persuasion. Those who share it are greater even than the great prophet.
Those working for peace amongst nations who believe violence is the solution to almost all problems, belong to the kingdom of heaven.