Saturday, March 21, 2020

Desert Spaces Lenten Series | The Deliverer Who is the Way Maker in the Wilderness w/ Scott Brill

" ... God is the country we’re looking for, that place where true consolation of our migration is found ... Conversion is joining this caravan, not setting out alone ... this community is a tent city, a refugee camp on the run ... If these tent cities remind us of the tenuousness of the migrant family that is the body of Christ, they also remind us that the migrant soul is one that is aware of its dependence and is animated by hope." + CRC Philosopher James K.A. Smith, On the Road with St. Augustine: A Real World Spirituality for Restless Hearts

But now, this is what the LORD says ... “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are Mine." + Isaiah 43:1

Sermon Scriptures | Isaiah 43:18-25

Sermon Manuscript | Ways in the Wilderness / Streams in the Wasteland by Scott Brill

This is the strangest sermon I’ve ever given. I’ve preached in a lot of different locations and contexts, but I don’t think I’ve ever preached “remotely” before. And this is the strangest context for a sermon that I’ve ever experienced. In the nearly 60 years that I’ve been alive, I’ve never seen a moment – both nationally and globally – like this one. At times, it’s seemed like a bad dream; an unreality that we will soon awake from, grateful as it fades from memory.

And yet, here we are. In this moment. Which is real. A moment in the wilderness. When Mike picked the wilderness as a theme for our Lenten journey together, I’m sure none of us had any idea of what kind of wilderness we would actually end up journeying through together in these 40+ days. As I saw Andy Crouch post on Twitter: “I never anticipated giving up this much for Lent.”

It’s also been one of the most challenging sermons I’ve ever put together, as I’ve struggled with what words to put down on paper that will be honest, faithful, hopeful, and draw all of us to look to Jesus in this moment. It feels like a tall order. So I’ve just decided to take the passage that we chose ahead of time, reflect on it, and try to discern what God might have for us in this text for this moment. May He take these inadequate words of mine and multiply them by the Holy Spirit.

Let’s start with a little bit (maybe a lot) of context for this passage: the second half of Isaiah (40-66) is a series of prophecies/sermons to the people of God (Israel) in exile. And exile was a crushing reality to Israel. In 597 BCE the Babylonian army had captured Jerusalem. The place of God (the Promised Land) which contained the structure where the Presence of God dwelt (the Temple) was now in the possession of a foreign power. And most of the people of God (Israel) were uprooted from their land and temple and sent away to a strange land – isolated from all that was familiar and reassuring and that reminded them of God’s love and care for them.

It was a devastating, disorienting series of events that called into question the practice of their faith.

It also echoed back to the seminal reality in the life of God’s people: The Exodus. Roughly a thousand years previously, God had delivered his people in rather dramatic fashion. Fleeing an Egyptian army that was the most powerful in the world and with their backs up against a sea, God had made a way when there was no way – through that sea on dry land to the other side. And He had disarmed and shamed that foreign power when they had threatened Israel. Why was he not repeating His actions now, to step in and save them from this intense disruption and suffering at the hands of the Babylonians?

It’s actually helpful to look at the two verses that precede Isaiah 43:18-25 to get a little more context:

16 “This is what the Lord says— 
He who made a way through the sea, 
a path through the mighty waters, 
17 who drew out the chariots and horses, 
the army and reinforcements together, 
and they lay there, never to rise again, 
extinguished, snuffed out like a wick: 
18 ‘Forget the former things, do not dwell on the past …’”

The word that Isaiah is given for the people starts with a reminder from God that He is that very same God that delivered His people in the past.

But now He seems to say: “don’t look back on that event – look forward instead. I’m going to do a new thing. Instead of ‘making a way’ by turning sea into dry land in order to save my people, I’m going to ‘make a way’ by taking an arid, dry, lifeless wasteland – a wilderness – and turn it into an oasis, full of water.”

Why is this important? Because for generations, the people of God have tended to look back on the ways that God has acted in the past. But God gives us a promise of future salvation – not just past action. Same God; but different ways of working in different contexts (more about that in a few minutes).

By using the wilderness imagery, God (through Isaiah) may also be reminding His people of what happened after that dramatic Red Sea rescue. Instead of a quick ticket on the express train to the Promised Land, they ended up in – of all places – a wilderness. For forty years. Wandering around in a place where no one can live for very long, depending daily on God for food and water. Constantly tempted to doubt God and His provision. Really wondering if the God who brought them out of Egypt and delivered them in such a powerful way wasn’t just going to leave them out in the desert to die. And wondering if they might really have been better off back when they were an enslaved people.

Those same “wilderness stresses” seem to be coming up for the people as they face Exile. I suppose one of the ways they could have reacted might be to “double down” on their faith practices. But God says otherwise here. Verses 23-24 are quite the indictment: “If you were serious about asking for my help, you could have leaned into your liturgy. It’s not that demanding. Instead, you seem to have turned inward. The only thing you’re working hard on is your own selfishness…”

It is a common reaction, even by faithful and faith-filled people. Stress about our future causes us to seek relief and resourcing apart from God. And to turn against our family and friends and neighbors. And yet at the end of this lament, the promise of God is forgiveness. God seems to be saying: “you may be running in a million different directions, but I am still coming after you. To forgive you. And to do that new thing. In the wilderness.”

So, that’s quite a lot of context. I suppose I should now try to draw some applications or insights about what God is saying to us in this text, in this moment of what feels like a bad dream. I have four of them:

1. God’s character has not changed.

Our circumstances, our expectations for the future (both immediate and long-term), our plans and even our dreams may all have changed. Seemingly swept away in a few short days or weeks. But God is still the same – yesterday, today, forever.

He is, and always will be – in the words of the worship chorus – Way Maker ... 

" ... Way Maker, Miracle Worker, Promise Keeper, Light in the darkness, my God! That is who You are! ... "

... That is who is He is. And He is making a way now in the wilderness – a way of deliverance, of salvation, of forgiveness, of hope, of love. We may not be able to perceive it at the moment. But He is being true to Himself – and true to us.

2. The way God delivers us may not align with our expectations.

That’s OK. I don’t know if you’re anything like me, but I want to immediately try to figure it all out. What does all this mean? But I’m becoming aware that my desire for clarity is mostly a desire for control and a lack of trust. I want to know exactly the what and the why of God’s working so that I can calibrate my expectations accordingly – and then get on with the way I want life to go. I think that God is instead asking me and asking us to hold loosely to our interpretations of the current moment in our individual life and our lives together. And that we should hold strongly instead to God’s promises.

The other thing that we all know happens when our expectations aren’t met is that we get demanding. It is so tempting right now to turn selfishly inward. I guarantee that as most of you are reading this, you are surrounded by a small group of people you have been sinning against and who have sinned against you in the past week.  And even if you’re reading this by yourself, you have evidence from this past week of wanting what you want.

Again, let’s own where we have fallen short with one another. Where we have allowed stress to be expressed in fearful self-centeredness. Let us seek the forgiveness of our Lord and give and receive forgiveness from one another.

3. In the midst of the “new thing”, don’t neglect the “old” or ancient practices.

When everything seems like it’s falling apart, and the “new thing” has not emerged yet, we can still seek God in the “old” shapes and rhythms of our faith. Our “liturgies” if you will. This is part of what God was speaking about through Isaiah in verses 22-24. How are you being invited to call on God? Look for a way to do that, both in the ancient written prayers of the Church and in crying out to God in intercession for Him to bring healing and wholeness and protection – and especially for Him to mercifully turn aside this pandemic.

Also, let’s be reminded of the two “old” sacraments that have always sustained the people of Jesus in their wilderness wanderings. And both of them have their roots in the wilderness journey from Egypt to the Promised Land (and are evoked in today’s passage as well). When the people of Israel were near death and cried out for water, Moses struck the desert rock and out flowed a life-giving stream. Likewise, the stream that flowed out in the wilderness of Golgotha – from the crucified side of Jesus when the soldier thrust his spear there – is the water of baptism that cleanses us again and again from sin as we daily die with Jesus and are daily raised again. 

In our current moment, I would invite you every day to invoke Paul’s “liturgy” from Galatians 2:20: “I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I live, I live by faith in the one who loved me and gave himself for me.”

Also, in Psalm 78 (a psalm that recalls the care of God for His people in the wilderness and their lack of trust in Him) the writer puts these words in mouth of Israel: “Can God really spread a table in the wilderness?” The answer then, and even more so with Jesus, is a resounding “Yes!” That "table in the wilderness" is still the communion table that we share. At the moment, it is a reminder that we are not together, and we cannot share a meal (or The Meal). But God is still feeding us with “the bread of heaven” (Psalm 78:24).

4. The wasteland and the wilderness are not our current home.

While God is cleansing us and giving us food and drink in the desert, He is also reminding us that we are not meant to live here permanently. All of our fear and anxiety, all of our longings, all of the sense that this is not the way life should be – everything that is being stirred up by this crisis: It’s all a reminder that we were made for a different world.

Humanity began in a garden, not a desert wasteland. The true “new thing” that our hearts most deeply long for is the “new heavens and the new earth” that Jesus will bring when he comes again to set everything right. And I believe part of the distress and anxiety that I have been experiencing over the past couple of weeks is an exposing of how much I want to “settle in” to the wilderness, rather than aligning my life with the reality that this world is not my home.

Some of you are aware that Claire and I are in the process of moving out of the house we’ve lived in for most of the past two decades. Part of our motivation is so that there is less stuff that we have to take care of and more time and energy to be available relationally. But downsizing has been hard for me. You’d think that since we’re closer to the end of our “earthly pilgrimage”, I would be able to travel lighter. But I’ve been discovering that I’m more of a settler that I ever imagined.

A book that has been really valuable to me in that process is by James K. A. Smith called On the Road with St. Augustine: A Real World Spirituality for Restless Hearts. Let me share from it with you:

"The Christian isn’t just a pilgrim but a refugee, a migrant in search of refuge. The Christian life isn’t just a pilgrimage but a journey of emigration … Pilgrimage often has an Odyssean itinerary: a journey to a holy site only to later return home … But Augustine’s peregrinus [often translated from Latin as ‘pilgrim’] isn’t on a return journey; he is setting out, like Abraham, for a place he’s never been. We are not just pilgrims on a sacred march to a religious site; we are migrants, strangers, resident aliens en route to a patria, a homeland we’ve never been to. God is the country we’re looking for, that place where true consolation of our migration is found."

And as I close this sermon, I am reminded of how grateful I am for you, Emmaus City Church family. As you are reading this, I wish so much that I could be with you and that we could be together. And I look forward to the day – hopefully soon – when we will be able to worship together again. In the meantime, I can affirm how much you help keep me on the road to my homeland – a wilderness road we are walking together (even if only virtually today). Again, from Dr. Smith:

“It is important that, as peregrini, we are we and not just me, the solo migrant. Peregrinatio is a social event… And like Israel, like migrants everywhere, we could never brave this treacherous road alone. Conversion is joining this caravan, not setting out alone. As one scholar has recently suggested, this community, this societas peregrina, is a tent city, a refugee camp on the run… If these tent cities remind us of the tenuousness of the migrant family that is the body of Christ, they also remind us that the migrant soul is one that is aware of its dependence and is animated by hope.”

Yes, we are so tenuous Emmaus City. We have become so much more aware of our dependence these past days. By the mercy and love of God, may we continue to be animated by hope.

Call to Worship Psalm 107:9

(In desert wastelands ... ) The LORD God satisfies
the thirsty and fills the hungry with good things.

Come As You Are
Crowder, 2014 A.D.

Come out of sadness
From wherever you’ve been.
Come broken hearted, let rescue begin.
Come find your mercy,
Oh sinner, come kneel.
Earth has no sorrow that Heaven can’t heal.
Earth has no sorrow that Heaven can’t heal.

So lay down your burdens,
Lay down your shame.
All who are broken lift up your face.
Oh, wanderer come home.
You’re not too far.
So lay down your hurt, lay down your heart,
Come as you are.

There’s hope for the hopeless,
And all those who’ve strayed.
Come sit at the table, come taste the grace.
There’s rest for the weary, rest that endure.
Earth has no sorrow that Heaven can’t cure.
Earth has no sorrow that Heaven can’t cure.

There’s joy for the morning, oh, sinners be still.
Earth has no sorrow that Heaven can’t heal.
Earth has no sorrow that Heaven can’t heal.

Lord, I Need You
Chris Tomlin, 2011 A.D.

Lord, I come, I confess,
Bowing here I find my rest.
Without You I fall apart.
You're the One that guides my heart.

Lord, I need You, oh, I need You,
Every hour I need You;
My one defense, my righteousness,
Oh God, how I need You!

Where sin runs deep, Your grace is more.
Where grace is found is where You are.
And where You are, Lord, I am free,
Holiness is Christ in me! (Chorus)

Teach my song to rise to You.
When temptation comes my way,
And when I cannot stand, I'll fall on You.
Jesus, You're my hope and stay. (Chorus)

Nothing I Hold Onto (Climb This Mountain)
United Pursuit, 2010 A.D.

I lean not on my own understanding,
My life is in the hands
Of the Maker of Heaven.

I give it all to You, God,
Trusting that You'll make
Something beautiful out of me!

I will climb this mountain
With my hands wide open,
I will climb this mountain
With my hands wide open!

There is nothing I hold on to,
There is nothing I hold on to,
There is nothing I hold on to,
There is nothing I hold on to!

He Will Hold Me Fast
Ada Habershonnew + Matt Merker, 2013 A.D.

When I fear my faith will fail,
Christ will hold me fast;
When the tempter would prevail,
He will hold me fast.
I could never keep my hold
Through life's fearful path;
For my love is often cold;
He must hold me fast.

He will hold me fast, He will hold me fast!
For my Savior loves me so,
He will hold me fast!

Those He saves are His delight,
Christ will hold me fast;
Precious in His holy sight,
He will hold me fast.
He'll not let my soul be lost;
His promises shall last;
Bought by Him at such a cost,
He will hold me fast. (Chorus)

For my life He bled and died,
Christ will hold me fast;
Justice has been satisfied;
He will hold me fast.
Raised with Him to endless life,
He will hold me fast
'Till our faith is turned to sight,
When He comes at last! (Chorus)

This Glorious Grace
Austin Stone Worship, 2013 A.D.

God, I need You, I need You, I need You,
With every breath, every pulse of my heart.
Christ have mercy, have mercy, let mercy abound,
I need You, I need You now.

God, pour out Your grace, glorious grace
That I would be held by Your perfect embrace!
I am undeserving, You are high and worthy,
All of my praise for this glorious grace! 

God we're longing, we're longing to see You,
In Your presence all darkness will fade.
Shine Your glory, Your glory, let glory surround,
We're longing to see You now. (Plural Chorus)

God, Your grace like rising seas
Has swallowed death and sin in me! ...

Glory to our God who saves,
Jesus Christ, our glorious grace! (Plural Chorus)

God we worship, we worship, we worship You
For Your glory, our all in all.
You are worthy, You’re worthy, You’re worthy,
We worship, we worship You.
God we need You, we need You now.

Lenten Prayers of Confession & Assurance
(Based on Psalm 103:8-14, 42:11)

One: King Jesus, today we confess we need to remember ...
All: The LORD is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in unfailing love!

One: He will not always accuse, nor will He harbor His anger forever; He does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities.
All: For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is His love for those who fear Him;

One: As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us. As a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear Him; for He knows how we are formed, He remembers that we are dust.
All: Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for we will yet praise Him, our Savior and our God! 

Pass the Peace | In the Story of God, Jesus declared, "Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you" (John 14:26) during humanity's darkest, most tragic weekend of His death. And then after Jesus was crucified and resurrected, defeating evil and death, He said, "Peace be with you ... Receive the Holy Spirit" (John 20:21-22). Somehow, with Jesus, peace is possible even in our darkest moments. During this time, we desire to share with each other peace that passes understanding, empowered by the Spirit of Christ.

The peace of the Lord by always with you.
And also with you.

Prayers of Preparation for Eucharist
Matthew 26:26-291 Corinthians 11:23-26

Prayer Asking for Jesus' Help
Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me. I want to see. Please reveal to me who You are. Give me ears to hear You, and understanding for the Good News You are saying to me today. Amen.

Prayer for Communion with Jesus and Each Other
Jesus, by Your Spirit, fill us with Yourself, the true Bread and Vine. We turn to You now to unite us, strengthen us, and empower us to be Your Kingdom family of servants and witnesses together until You return and make all things new. Amen.

Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. 
Jesus, dying, You destroyed our death.
Rising, You restored our life.
Lord Jesus, come in glory! 

Lenten Creed
By Patmos Abbey, Order of St. Columba

We believe that our lives are held within
the all encompassing love of God our Father,
who knows our names and recognizes
our deepest needs.

We believe that Christ is the only
begotten Son of the living God,
and that His grace is like living waters
that can never be exhausted.

We believe in the birthing, renewing,
enabling Spirit of God who yearns over
our welfare as a mother yearns for her child.

We believe that God is in the arid desert
as well as in green pastures, and that
hard times and disciplines are also loving gifts.

We believe that our journey has a purpose
and a destination, and that our path leads to a
glory we cannot yet imagine.

We believe that in Jesus' Church we are fellow
pilgrims on the road, and that we are called
to love one another as God loves us.

This is our faith and we are humbled to profess
in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen!

Benediction adapted from Psalm 107:1-2, 4, 9, 43

Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good;
His faithful love endures forever! Let the redeemed
of the Lord tell the story of God to the many you encounter
during this season of Lent, especially those in desert wastelands.
He satisfies the thirsty and fills the hungry with good things.
May many see in our story King Jesus, our Emmanuel,
God with us, and the faithful love of the Lord. You are sent out
by His Spirit to share His Good News in the grace and peace of Christ!

Special sermon video + liturgy notes post: Christ & the Coronavirus Lenten Special | Matt. 9:18-25: Journeying with Jesus to Welcome Unexpected Interruptions

Next sermon + liturgy notes post: Lenten Desert Spaces Series: The Deliverer Who Brings Forth Life in the Year of Drought

Emmaus City Church is a local church made up of Micro City Groups.

A Micro City Group (CG) is a growing group that begins with 3+ people – children, women, and men included – who are befriending, serving, and loving a community together in Jesus' name in Worcester. Micro CGs start small enough that people can know you and value you, but seek to grow large enough (10-30 people) to make an impact in communities throughout Worcester. Each CG gets together throughout a month (i.e. dinners, times of prayer or learning from the Story of God in the Bible, acts of service, parties, etc.) to see Worcester become a city of neighbors and friends that showcase Jesus' love and compassion to all. Those who are cautious or curious to hear and see what it means to follow Jesus are just as welcome as those who believe Jesus is Lord and God and seek to follow Him in every area of life.

Current Micro City Groups: W.R.A.P. | Fellow Travelers | YMCA | Freedom City | Westside Welcome 

To connect with one of the City Groups above, please contact

Christ is all,

Rev. Mike "Sully" Sullivan

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