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In the Desert, a Healing Spring -- Isaiah 58:1-12 (First Sunday in Lent)

In January, not long after Advent, the Worship Team gathered to start thinking about Lent. One of our main goals was to envision together a theme that might shape our experience of the Lenten season this year. We began with prayer and scripture, and then we talked a little bit about what Lent means to each of us – our journey with Jesus toward Holy Week and the cross.

Then, we opened up conversation to talk about where we are this year – to talk some about the life of the church – what we are experiencing together. Folks of course mentioned the pastoral transition – the loss of a beloved pastor, as Joanne Whitt retired – the uncertainty of moving into an unfamiliar future. We were in the midst, then, of remembering and celebrating the lives of Lila Rittenhouse and Diane Baumsteiger, so we talked about grieving the loss of those we love. We talked about the hardship that folks face living in a very expensive Marin County – as rents rise, and the housing supply is short. We talked about the full range of life’s transitions – particularly for senior adults – as folks downsize, and contemplate moves. And we talked about this congregation’s engagement in climate emergency, and how overwhelming it was feeling. We talked about our work in the world, and how the congregation was preparing to move more deeply into our study of racism, and to think hard about work we can do to help repair the harm that racism has caused.

We got all those things up on the board, and then we sat for a minute – in holy silence – because those are holy and tender and serious things. Our conversation then brought us to this theme – In the Desert, a Healing Spring– as we realized that in the joy and love of our life together – we are also experiencing plenty of parched places– desert places – in our lives and in the world. Desert places, thirsting for a healing spring.

As we come to Isaiah 58, the folks there are experiencing their own desert places. Scholars think that this was likely written as the people were returning from exile.[1] Seventy years earlier they had ben conquered; Jerusalem and the Temple had been razed to the ground; and they had been taken into captivity in Babylon. But then, seven decades later, the Babylonian Empire is conquered by the Persian Empire – and the Persian king lets them go home. And so here they are, returning to the rubble of their lives, crawling over the rubble, trying to rebuild the lives that they – or their parents and grandparents – once knew. They are a hurting people.

And when I remind myself of that when I read this Scripture, I always wonder – Why is the prophet yelling at them?

So here’s the thing. They’ve come back to the rubble – and they start to rebuild. But they start to rebuild the structures that they’ve known in captivity. They rebuild the systems of oppression that they knew in Babylon – that they knew even before Babylon – the systems of oppression that got them into trouble in the first place – systems where some are held down low, so that others might be raised up. To be sure, they are people who are hurting – but some people are hurting more. The poor are hurting more. People are starving; people are living in the streets, in the rubble, without shelter; people are cut off, even from their own families.

Rather than using their freedom to rebuild a new and better world, they return to old ways. What they do is they put all their attention into getting religious practices right – as if that were the way to get God’s attention –without thinking much about the life that they are living together. They fast, while they forget to feed the hungry. They rend their garments, while folks go without clothing. They are living lives that are beside the point.

They are a people who are both hurting and causing harm. And what they need, for all that, is healing. The prophet is yelling at them to get their attention. God wants to bring healing for all that – for all the ways that they hurt, and for all the ways that they are harming each other. God’s healing and saving power is that big. And God is ready! Shout it