Winters and Deserts

Isaiah 35:1–10

It is definitely winter. There is ice on the car windscreen, needing to be scraped off by those who must get up early for work. There are dustings of snow that are becoming daily more frequent. The heating breaks down, of course. You need to remember where you leave your hat and gloves, and to close the curtains by four o’clock.
As I sit down to write on Thursday morning, the country braves this winter weather to go to the polling stations. And it is clear that for everyone who votes for the candidates who don’t win, the election result will seem like winter of a different kind. For there are many kinds of winter, I think; remembering the crowded cremation at which I’d officiated the day before. Winters of bereavement and sadness, winters of unemployment, as the factory gates clang shut for the last time, or the office furniture is cleared out and sent to the auctioneers. And a card arrives as I type, to say that Alan died this year, and Barry is now permanently in a care-home. Winters of pain and suffering. Winters of defeat.
Have you watched any of those nature programmes about winter above the Arctic circle? Where for weeks it never gets light all day? Snow and ice and gloom entrap everything in a dark desert of bleakness, and anything that can hibernate will do so. Humans hunker down. Animals and birds have to be hardy, and develop thick, camouflaged coats and white, winter plumage.
Or about the programmes showing hot, desert lands, where you can die in a day for want of a drink? Where sand or salt or broiling sun can kill the inexperienced; and even the locals’ lives are precarious? Here again, survival is a struggle, and the only animals and plants that you find are those which have adapted to the extreme conditions.
We know only too well that many people live in deserts, much closer than the Arctic Circle or the Sahara. People for whom each day is a struggle to survive. Where the only people who will speak to you today will do so from the television screen. Where the Christmas goodies in all the television commercials might as well be for sale on the moon. Where dinner today will depend on what they have in stock at the food bank. Deserts and winters of many kinds, where survival is a struggle, and hope is hard to hold onto.
Isaiah speaks his words to desert-dwellers and winter-livers such as these. Spring is coming, he says. The rains are on their way. Hold onto hope: God will come to save you.
Sometimes, the nature programmes show what happens when the snow melts, and fields of white are suddenly carpeted green or gold or crimson or violet. Where seeds, long dormant, burst suddenly into life. Sometimes they show what happens when the rains come, and the desert blossoms, and animals wallow and quench their thirst in abundant water, and get on with their lives once again.
But such poetry is easy to write. Our hands are weak, we say. Our knees are feeble. Our hearts are fearful. We look at falling congregations, and theological colleges closing, and charities reining in their work, and people living their lives all around us without any place for God. We look at the way of the world and the terrible things that are reported on the news day after day after day, and the shortages and sufferings so many must endure; and the desert seems to stretch as far as the eye can see and the winter offers no respite.
‘Here is your God’, says Isaiah, ‘coming to save you.’ And it will be like the desert bursting into life. Streams of water, the burning sands becoming pools and wetlands. And there will be a highway here, a safe and easy road for God’s people. There will be singing, he says, whilst sighing and sorrow will flee away.
Yet often, when hope seems hard to hold, we close our eyes. This seems like the best way to cope with a desert or a winter. We stop our ears to cries which are too heart-rending to hear. We fall silent under the weight of pain and evil.
The thing about a desert, though, is that the rains are not an alien invasion, bursting in from outside. The thing about a winter is that it always ends in springtime. The seeds are already here, needing only a little water, or a little warmth to encourage them into life. They wait. Poised, expectant, ready.
If God will open our eyes, we too might see seeds. If God will open our ears, we might hear the song of angels. If God will open our lips, we could sing songs of joy. For the television reports the story of an old man alone, without even a Christmas tree to cheer his home. But then it shows the group of college students, who have heard his story, as they bring him a Christmas tree and sing him Christmas carols. The newspaper tells of an ex-president’s wife tweeting encouragement to a young climate activist belittled by the current president. Also this last week we hear of a convicted murderer rushing to subdue the terrorist who has murdered his friend.
Yesterday. Another card arrives, a photograph of new-born Jack, dressed in a Father-Christmas outfit. Though Jack’s grandfather died back in the summer, he knew of Jack’s impending arrival, and foresaw the joy and hope he would bring to the family to lighten their winter sadness. And now he’s here, and he’s bonny!
And on Thursday, the children of Whitfield School decide to carry on anyway with the guitar piece they’ve learned for the nativity play, even though the teacher is too sick to be here, because people will be coming to listen, and you can’t disappoint your public. And they help tell the Christmas story once again, recalling us all to simple faith, abundant love, and hope made visible in the birth of the Christ-child.
Yes, the desert is real. Yes, the winter is tough, and yes, sometimes life is a matter of survival for many. But the seeds of hope are all around us too, already beginning to germinate, already beginning to burst into life. When you find such seeds, share them around, spread them widely, broadcast them, as Isaiah does; that all may see the glory of the Lord, and the majesty of our God.
© Jon Russell 2019