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Good morning everyone. My name is Rob Sturdy. I’m the Anglican chaplain at the Citadel and it’s a real joy to be with you here this morning. I’m a graduate of the Citadel from 2003. That’s where I came to know Jesus. That little chapel at the Citadel is the chapel that actually recommended me for ordination and I have been ministering since then. So it’s a joy to be back there and serving that community. It’s a joy to be here with you this morning. As you can imagine, college students are great contributors to the work of ministry, but there are some things they cannot contribute like money, or at least they cannot contribute very much of it. And so we are dependent absolutely upon the generosity and charity of others. If you’d like to know more about that I’ve left some of these out in that hallway where you can hear a little bit of what we’re doing and see a little bit about what we need. But God did not commission the ministers of the gospel to give fundraising sermons, and so that’s not what I’m going to do with you this morning. I’ll be in Isaiah 35:1-10.
Vladimir Propp is a Russian folklorist, and he said that many of the greatest and most enduring folk and fairy tales begin with what he called nedostaca or nexvatka. These are Russian words that are roughly translated as lack, or insufficiency, or want. You might think about Jack and the Beanstalk. How does Jack and the Beanstalk begin? Well, it begins with a widow who is very poor and has a son she has to provide for, and their daily bread comes from selling the milk of their cow at the town market. What happens to the cow though? One day it ceases to produce milk. They are plunged into utter poverty–the beginning of the story is want. What about Snow White? Not the Disney version, but the real version. Does anybody know how it begins? A mother’s longing to have a child. She wants a daughter. It begins with a want. Think of Beauty and the Beast. Does anybody know how this one begins? A little girl wants a rose, and so her father goes questing for a rose in a land without roses and he finds them growing in the garden of a castle that just happens to be inhabited by who? The Beast. As he is plundering the garden, he gets captured by the Beast. It’s not just that we begin with a lack of a rose, but he loses his freedom and his daughter loses her freedom. All great stories begin with a lack, with a want, or with a need.
Now the best stories endure because there’s something about them that’s universally true–true in every time and every place with every people. That’s why they endure. That’s why they’re timeless. So much has changed since the Brothers Grimm put pen to paper to write down these stories: we have had two world wars, we have sent a man to the moon and brought him back, which is amazing. Everyone in the room has the opportunity to have a camera in their pocket right now. With that camera you can surf the web. If you don’t like this sermon, you can pull up a better one. So much has changed. They would be bewildered at this world, but they would recognize some things. You know what they would recognize? They would recognize that the world you and I are living in is still a world of want and desire and hunger and lack. You and I, we have different longings. Some of us long for a lover. Some of us long for fame. Some of us long for money. Some of us, like my young men and young women at the Citadel, are longing for the day when they can distinguish themselves on the battlefield or in the civic world. They want to do something great, and they will. We all have longings, and these longings–just like in those old stories–propel us on quests to satisfy our desires.
The big difference between the world we live in and the world of the fairy story is this: rarely, even when we get our hearts desire, even when we get what we always wanted, rarely is it what we thought it would be. There’s still that desire that remains; there’s still that hunger that remains; there’s still lack. When you turn to the reading for today, Isaiah 35, the prophet Isaiah says a time is coming when hunger and lack and longing are going to come to an end.
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.
500 years before the birth of Jesus, Isaiah announced there is a time coming when he said that the desert and the parched land are going to be made glad and the wilderness will join in blossom. He said, there’s a time coming when feeble hands would get strength. There’s a time coming when the fearful will be made courageous. There’s a time coming when those who are blind will be able to see. There’s a time coming when those who are deaf will be able to hear. There’s a time coming when the lame or going to be able to leap. Again, there’s a time coming, he said, when the haunts of the savage and predatory animals be turned into gardens, and there’s a time coming when the burning sand is going to be made cool.
Strengthen the weak hands,
and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who have an anxious heart,
“Be strong; fear not!
Behold, your God
will come with vengeance,
with the recompense of God.
He will come and save you.”
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then shall the lame man leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the mute sing for joy.
For waters break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert;
the burning sand shall become a pool,
and the thirsty ground springs of water;
in the haunt of jackals, where they lie down,
the grass shall become reeds and rushes.
What is that other than the end of longing and the beginning of satisfaction? What is that other than the end of wanting and the beginning of having? There’s a day coming. That’s what I want to talk with you about today.
The wilderness of the soul
We’re going to begin where Isaiah begins; we begin in the wilderness. The wilderness is the image par excellence of want and need and hunger, because there’s nothing to drink in the wilderness, and there’s nothing to eat in the wilderness. In fact, the wilderness was such an inhospitable place that God’s people, after they were freed from slavery in Egypt, longed to go back because there was more safety in slavery than there was in the wilderness.
Now that’s not the only image that Isaiah uses. There’s a lack of strength in verse 3; there’s a lack of courage in verse 4; there’s a lack of sights and hearing in verse 5; there’s a lack of mobility in verse 6. We could go on and on. There’s an experience of need, you see, and Isaiah is addressing this need on two levels. He’s addressing it on a literal level–we are talking about people who are literally blind, people who are literally deaf, and people who are literally poor and impoverished. They don’t have money in their pocket. He’s talking about them; but he’s not only talking about them. Oftentimes in the Bible, especially in the miracles of Jesus, one of the things you’ll notice is that when Jesus heals a blind man it often begins a conversation about spiritual blindness. When Jesus heals a deaf man it often begins a conversation about spiritual deafness. When he raises the dead, it often begins a conversation about our need to be made alive, spiritually, not just physically. Yes, he’s addressing the literal needs of people, but he’s also opening up the door for you and I to think about the spiritual wildernesses and haunts of our own soul.
So I think when Isaiah is talking about the wilderness he’s also talking about what the American poet and philosopher and essayist Henry David Thoreau was describing when he said that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” I think he’s describing what Bernard Levin, the English journalist and broadcaster, was describing when he said that “countries like ours are full of people who have all the material comforts they desire, together with such non-material blessings as a happy family, and yet lead lives of quiet, and at times noisy, desperation, understanding nothing but the fact that there’s a hole inside them and that however much food and drink they pour into it, however many motorcars and television sets they stuff it with, however many well balanced children and loyal friends they parade around the edges of it…It still hurts.”
Now that’s the wilderness, you see. Isaiah is saying that there’s a time coming when the wilderness, in all of its manifestations, is going to be coming to an end. The desert and the parched land is going to bloom. The wilderness will blossom. Feeble hands are made strong, fearful hearts are made courageous, the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame are made to leap. There is, says Isaiah, a day coming where there will be a sudden and dramatic and irrevocable change in the fortunes of the wilderness. That’s what he’s saying.
You know who J.R. Tolkien is, don’t you? He’s the friend of CS Lewis, TS Eliot, Charles Williams, and many, many others. Of course you know him because he wrote The Lord of the Rings. He said, it’s true that all great enduring stories begin with this hunger, this lack; but the great stories never end on that note. The great stories end with satisfaction, consolation, yes, the happy ending. And he said that this satisfaction doesn’t come about in the same way that a man who’s hungry is satisfied at dinnertime. The hungry man knows that dinner is coming at 6:30 and he expects to be satisfied; but that’s never the way these stories work, because in these stories, there’s always a witch that casts an unbreakable curse. There is always a hero that’s flung into an impenetrable dungeon; there is always a child whose fate is sealed. The best of stories bring you to a place where the last thing you expect is satisfaction or consolation. But, Tolkien said, the best ones have a sudden, joyous, unexpected turn of events, and there’s no word in the English language, he said, that can describe that sudden joyous turn of events so he made one up. You want to know what it is? It’s a weird word. He called it the eucatastrophe.
Now some of you already rolling this around your mind. What’s it mean? Well, I’ll tell you. We’re going to have Holy Communion in a moment, the Lord’s Supper, also called the Eucharist, and it means thanksgiving. You heard that in the word eucatastrophe, and the other word you hear is catastrophe. Well, here’s what happens: in these stories, there is a sudden turn of events that is catastrophic to the which who casts the unbreakable curse. There’s a sudden turn of events that is catastrophic to the impenetrable dungeon. There’s a sudden turn of events that is catastrophic to the fate that sealed the doom of the child. Now that’s good news, isn’t it? That’s why Tolkien called it a good catastrophe. A catastrophe worth giving thanks for, a eu-catastrophe. Isaiah is saying there’s a eucatastrophe coming and it’s going to be catastrophic for the wilderness, but it’s going to be good for you. It’s going to be a eucatastrophe.
Take and eat
500 years after Isaiah said that the day is coming, a man came, and his name was Jesus. What does Isaiah say? He says, God is coming. God is coming. God is coming to do this. God is coming to bring about the eucatastrophe. How will we know when he gets here? The blind will see. The deaf will hear. The lame will leap. What is happening as Jesus is wandering about in the Galilean wilderness? The blind are seeing; the deaf are hearing; the lame are leaping. What’s that mean? It means God has come, doesn’t it? That’s what it means. As he’s addressing these literal wilderness experiences, isn’t he also addressing the spiritual ones? Doesn’t he say to the woman at the well my water is different than yours? I’ve got water that you don’t know much about. I’ve got water that if you drink from it, you’ll never be thirsty again.
What’s that mean? Isn’t that the end of the wilderness? Isn’t that the end of wanting and the beginning of having? What does he say to his disciples? I’ve got food. I’ve got food you know nothing about. I’ve got food you eat, and you’ll never be hungry again. It’s the end of wanting and the beginning of having. This journey of satisfaction of our longings comes to a conclusion on the night before Jesus dies on the cross, where he says “this is my body, given for you. Take and eat.” Take and eat.
There’s a link between the satisfaction of spiritual hunger and the forgiveness of sins. Have you ever thought about this? Do you know what it is? I’ll tell you. When someone hurts you, or when someone wrongs you, you have two options. You can punish them or you can forgive them. Relationally, punishment oftentimes looks like the withholding of yourself from the person who hurt you. I’m not going to call them back anymore. I’m not having lunch with them anymore. They’re not on the Christmas card list anymore. They hurt me, and because they hurt me, I’m going to withhold myself from them. Now that’s one option you can take: punishment. Forgiveness is the other option.
The other option
What does forgiveness look like practically, tangibly, when the rubber hits the road? You give yourself back to the person who hurt you. What is Jesus doing on the night before he dies to the people who wronged him and hurt him, but the people who still long to be with him? What does he say? I’m not going to withhold myself from you. Take and eat. And what does he do the very next day? He withholds nothing. He gives them everything he has, and because he gives everything he has, they can be truly satisfied.
It was Augustine who said we’re restless people until we find a rest in God. You’ll be eternally restless until you find your rest in God. Many of you know that, but many of you may also be nursing this fear. I know many of my young men and young women at the Citadel are nursing this fear that on the great day when all the secrets of the hearts are made known and all the deeds are shouted from the rooftops–on that great day, because of what I’ve done, God is going to withhold himself from me. This hunger that I have, this restlessness that I know will only be satisfied in him, will never be satisfied–forever. A lot of them are nursing that fear, and you might be nursing that fear. But listen, what does he say? Take and eat. I’m withholding nothing, because you are forgiven. You’ll be satisfied. Friends, that’s the eucatastrophe that ends the wilderness experience of the human heart.
Now, let me just apply this in two quick ways and then we’ll stop. Isaiah says when the change comes–It’s strange, go back and look at it later, 35: 1-10. It’s very strange. There’s a great day coming, then eucatastrophe, and immediate change–but then there’s a highway that you have to get on and walk. What does that mean?
And a highway shall be there,
and it shall be called the Way of Holiness;
the unclean shall not pass over it.
It shall belong to those who walk on the way;
even if they are fools, they shall not go astray.
No lion shall be there,
nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it;
they shall not be found there,
but the redeemed shall walk there.
And the ransomed of the Lord shall return
and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain gladness and joy,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
Well, it means that there is an immediate reversal of fortunes. But it also means it’s kind of lived out in a process. Does that make sense? Some of you are Christians. I hope many of you are Christians, and you have entered into the eucatastrophe. You’re being satisfied in Christ. You have come to some idea that God is not going to withhold himself from you. He’s given Himself to you, but now you have to get on this highway and you have to live it out, and you will be on that highway until the second advent of Jesus when your desire for him and his desire for you bring you to the end of all things together. On that highway, what I know will happen to me and what will happen to you is that you will stumble, and you will make mistakes, and you will screw up, and when my young men and young women screw up and make mistakes, they go into hiding.
They quit coming to chapel. They quit coming to visit me. The reason is that the shame and the guilt has driven them away and they’re afraid somebody’s going to drop the hammer on them. So I have to remind them constantly, he’s not going to withhold himself from you. There’s not a hammer waiting for you. What a great reminder that you have in just a few minutes, when we take Holy Communion together. No matter what you’ve done this week, if you’ve come forward, you will hear “this is the body of Christ given for you,” which means this: there’s nothing you have done this week that will make God hold back from you. Nothing. And that’s what keeps us on the highway, the hope that God’s at the end of it. That’s one for those of you in Christ.
Some of you here are visiting. I don’t know why you’re here. I know it’s the holiday season, and I know that parents can do amazing guilt trips to bring you to church when you really didn’t want to be here. Maybe some of you heard there was free coffee but you didn’t know you had to listen to a sermon first, I don’t know; but you’re here, and I just want to leave you with this thought: C.S. Lewis said if we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world. I think he’s kind of right and kind of wrong. Do you ache? Are you hungry? You were made for another world–but where I think he goes a little off is, you’re not going there; that other world came to you when the Son of God took on flesh. You see, it’s not just that you desire something; it’s that he desires something as well. “For the joy set before him,” Hebrews says, he endured the shame of the cross. You know that joy was? Whether you know him or not, that joy was you. You can have that other worldly satisfaction today, simply by putting your trust in Jesus to satisfy.