Once upon a time, God created life in excelsis and fruitfulness gushing, overflowing: plants and flowers exploding in aromas, colors, fruit; land animals scuffling, snorting, bellowing; sea creatures diving and spouting and swarming; birds singing, darting, perching, preening; and people laughing, dancing, running, leaping, building, painting, inventing, discovering (at least for a little while). In the beginning, the world teemed with life: energy, color, shape, beauty, goodness, and it was all spring loaded by the sheer Word of God’s blessing to multiply and grow and expand.
But Adam and Eve listened to another word, to the word of the serpent. They turned from the voice of God their Father. They listened to other voices. Though they, themselves, were made by that Word, in the image of God, they desired to be their own gods, to please themselves, to judge for themselves, to know for themselves. And as they chose to be their own gods, as they chose to turn away from the word of the God who had made them, they were choosing to leave His care, leave His world, leave His blessing and grace.
And so God spoke a different kind of word: “Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee. And unto Adam he said, because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, of which I commanded thee, saying thou shalt not eat of it; cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life…” (Gen. 3:16-17) And so came death, darkness, separation, sorrow, pain, struggle, conflict, emptiness: there would be pain in child bearing; there would be thorns and weeds; and the weight of sin would begin pulling their bodies back down into the ground they were taken from. God sent them out of the garden clothed in the skins of animals, but they were sent out into the wasteland, to the east, into exile, into the wilderness, away from the tree of life, away from the presence of their Father.
The curses clung to the man and his wife. She conceived and bore a son, but the pain and tears of labor soon became the pain and tears of double loss. Abel lay dead on the ground, stillborn, his blood crying out, and Cain was driven farther east, farther into exile. And Eve was effectively barren. Is it better to bear children and lose them or have never born children at all?
And so this is a story full of questions: What is God doing in the ruins? What is the Spirit doing in the wasteland? What is He up to in the loss of children, in the murder of brothers?
The sons of Cain were murderers like their father, and the world filled with violence and bloodshed, and the Lord sent a flood. He turned the world into a miscarrying womb full of corpses, floating, lifeless, a desert in reverse, kids boiled in their mother’s milk.
The water receded, but the curses still hung in the air and clung to their clothes. Nimrod founded a city called Babel trying to hold the world together with his word, trying to bring order, glory, beauty to a world flying apart, but God spoke and confused their languages. He scattered the nations, driving them away from one another, worlds flying apart, separated brothers and families. And then in the ruins of Babel, God called an old man with no children. His wife was barren, and she was old, past the time of women to bear children. They wandered in the wilderness believing the astonishing news proclaimed to them by God that they would become the father and mother of millions. It must have seemed like a mirage, like a thirsty dream in the desert. They laughed in disbelief, and yet they clung to God’s words in faith. God turned their laughter into a son named Isaac, but then Isaac’s wife, Rebekah, was barren too. And then when she finally gave birth it was another set of fighting brothers. Jacob was forced into exile, hardly better than a migrant worker for fourteen years, toiling by the sweat of his brow for a woman named Rachel who also turned out to be barren. And one of Jacob’s sons, Judah, had a wicked son whose wife was left widowed, childless. One son, then two sons dead and an empty womb; childless.
What is God doing? There are too many barren wombs, too many women left childless, too many deserts, too many foreign lands. You can’t miss this. What is the Spirit doing in the ruins, in the wasteland, in the east? What is God doing?
That family of barren women went down into the land of Egypt, and just when it seemed they were hitting their stride, a new king arose who began to manipulate and oppress. People hardly noticed how the fruitful land of Goshen was slowly becoming a wilderness, how the Nile in all of its glory was becoming a miscarrying womb. But despite the words of this serpent, this new Babel builder, Yahweh spoke again and tore the Egyptian world apart. The Lord came down and confused the languages of creation. The sky, the waters, the weather, creeping things, the whole world came flying apart, confused, and Israel was vomited out of Egypt onto dry land, a desert.
But bread was scarce. Water was unpredictable. There were serpents and scorpions from time to time and raiding armies and storms. A whole generation fell there in the wilderness, thousands of dry lips and dry bones covered in the dry sands.
And the stories continue: forty years in the wilderness, and then just as the land begins to flow with milk and honey, there are new oppressors: Philistines and Canaanites, like termites and bees and locusts swarming. The prophet’s concubine is raped, Hannah is barren, Eli’s sons are killed in battle, the Ark of the Covenant goes into exile. Then there’s Naomi: Bethlehem means house of bread, but there was no bread there. Her husband moved their family out of the land, to Moab looking for work, looking for food. But he died and then his sons died too. And Naomi became a widow and childless. She was the land: unfruitful, ruined, barren, all dried up.
What is God doing in the wilderness? What is the Spirit doing in the death of a husband, the loss of work, fruitless toil, work that seems to bring so little return? What is God doing in the ruins, in the wasteland?
Decades turned into centuries filling up with more stories about the curse: there are children born dead, sons cut off in youth, widows with dying sons, hungry widows with no food left in the house, prophets proclaiming droughts, prophets in the desert begging to die, and the vine of Israel seems to be slowly wilting, slowly crumbling, and the locusts keep coming. The desert winds and sands blow in the form of the same old sins: brothers killing brothers, children dishonoring fathers and mothers, cities built in blood, trying to hold the world together, trying to squeeze life out of the ground, trying to draw water from barren wombs, empty cisterns. And invading armies swarm, devouring the vine, devouring life, plagues and confusion, God speaking, tearing Israel’s world apart. There was no food, no water, and people starved to death. Dying, dehydrated, delirious, some mothers even ate their own children.
The curse was so heavy, so thorough. Always thorns, always pain, always laboring, trying to give birth, trying to be fruitful again, but always death, always loss, always famine, always ruins. And so Israel was always desperate, always hungry, lusting for food, starving for love, thirsty. What won’t someone do for water? Of course, she slept with the nations, of course she set up their shrines and idols. Of course, she’d try to pay her bills however she could. But the words of the nations and foreign kings were never any better. Their swords and shields and money promised protection, promised safety, promised security and fruitfulness. But they never delivered. It never panned out like they planned. They were always mirages in the desert. She always came up empty, alone, hurting, used, and confused, with nowhere to turn. She was scattered among the nations, driven into exile, into the east, a woman widowed and childless, left for dead, used up, worthless.
What is God doing in the wasteland? What is God doing in the pain, in the agony of loss, in regrets that crush? What is God doing in the impossible? In abuse? In rape? In starvation? In loneliness? In exile? What is God doing?
Of course we can retrace these stories and see glimmers of hope in them all. We can see the children born after many years of barrenness. We can see the widows provided for and protected after great heartache and loss. We see the manna in the wilderness, the rock flowing with water. We can see Seth born to Eve after the loss of Cain and Abel. And then men began to call on the name of the Lord. Miriam sings. Deborah sings. Hannah sings. We see these brief moments of sunlight piercing through the black, grimacing storm clouds, sorrow turned into song. But always there is death. Always there is still pain. Always there are thorns. Always the dry ground wins. Always the wombs are emptied, dried up, and dry bones appear. Always the curses.
Always there is a voice crying in the wilderness, the voice of Hagar, the voice of Hannah, the voice of Naomi, the voice of widows, the voice of Elijah, the voice of John. They’re crying in pain, they’re crying in sorrow, but they’re always also crying with a defiant hope. They’re crying not merely because it’s what you do when it hurts. They’re crying not merely because that’s what you do when you’ve lost everything. They’re crying because they know somehow that there is Someone who hears. They are crying because they know that God is listening.
The voices cry in the wilderness, “Prepare ye, the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” You see, there is a kind of sorrow that leads inextricably to death. It’s hopeless and despairing. But there is another kind of sorrow in the midst of the ruins, in the midst of the wasteland, in the wilderness, that says, “Prepare the way of the Lord. This is the way through!” This defiant, tear stained face cries out: “The Lord will not cast off forever. Though He cause grief, yet will he have compassion according to the multitude of his mercies. For he doth not afflict willingly, nor grieve the children of men. To crush under his feet all the prisoners of the earth” (Lam. 3:31-34).
And God did speak again. In the midst of the ruins, in the midst of the toil, in the midst of the desert, in the wilderness of Israel, God spoke into another womb. And when He spoke, He explained what all the exile was for, what all the barrenness was for, what all the emptiness was for. He had told them through Moses, who had said, “And thou shalt remember all the way which the Lord thy God led thee these forty years in the wilderness, to humble thee, and to prove thee, to know what was in thine heart, whether thou wouldest keep his commandments, or no. And he humbled thee, and suffered thee to hunger, and fed thee with manna, which thou knewest not, neither did thy fathers know; that he might make thee know that man doth not live by bread only, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of the Lord doth man live… as a man chasteneth his son, so the Lord thy God chasteneth thee. Therefore thou shalt keep the commandments of the Lord thy God, to walk in his ways, and to fear him” (Dt. 8:2-6).
It was always the Word of God giving life, holding life, breathing life. It was always the Word of God speaking children into barren wombs, calling deserts to bloom into gardens, speaking the world into existence. It was always the Word of God that gave bread in the wilderness, that spoke water from the rock, that opened the heavens for rain. But God’s people kicked and thrashed and demanded to be their own gods, to find their own food, to listen to other words. And so they always chose death. They always chose pain, always chose exile and barrenness. But God in His mercy, God in His love, God in His unfailing goodness comes again and again and again. He comes and breathes life into the dry bones. God is always willing, always working turning even judgment into mercy.
And so His Word comes and breathes Unending Life into the virgin’s womb. The Lord speaks and His Word turns the harlot Israel into a spotless virgin. The Lord speaks and His life overflows, and the wilderness becomes a fruitful garden. And Mary sings, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my Spirit rejoices in God my Savior! For He has regarded the low estate of His handmaiden, for behold, from this time forth, all generations shall call me blessed. For He that is mighty has done great things, and holy is his name. And his mercy is upon generation after generation, to them that fear Him. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the imaginations of their hearts. He has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted them of low estate. He has filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he has sent empty away. He has given help to his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy; as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his seed forever” (Lk. 1:46-55). And when that Child was born, men began to come back out of the east, out of exile.
This Advent and Christmas, remember the gospel of the wasteland. Remember the good news of the God who hears your cries in exile, in barrenness, for mercy, for grace, for healing, for children. But even more importantly remember the good news of the God who has already spoken into the wasteland. Remember that His Word, the Scriptures, the Bible spoke you into life and is your food, your living water, your safety, your wisdom. And the same God who spoke that Word, who spoke that story, is the One speaking you, telling your story, telling the story of this world.
That Word became flesh and went down into the ground, crushed by the curse, to take away the curse. So that now the curse cannot stick. The curse cannot haunt. The curse cannot cling. No stone could hold Him, no army could keep Him there. And now that is true for all who trust in Him.
Regrets do not hold you. Guilt cannot keep you. Fear cannot imprison you any more. Your sorrow does not define you. Your pain does not confine you. If you are in Jesus then all of the emptiness, barrenness, and pain of the wasteland has become the grave of Jesus and the stone has been rolled away. For God’s Word cannot be broken. It never returns empty, void, fruitless. Though our stories are frequently a swirl, a storm, difficult to make out. There is one who Shepherds the Wind by His Word. There is one who calms every storm, who speaks a peace that passes all understanding that is able to guard even hearts and minds from every fear, every hurt, every pain. And that Word is Jesus crucified for you, for your sins, for your failures, for your rebellion and rejection of His Word, and now you are clean. Now you are a virgin. Now you are forgiven. Now you are a garden of fruitfulness by His Spirit.
When you trust in the crucified, buried, and risen Jesus, you begin to see your wilderness, your ruins, your emptiness not as impossibility but as God’s possibility. You begin to see the ruins in our world, in the lives of others, in our nation not as impossibilities but as God’s possibilities. You begin to cry in the wilderness to get ready for God, and your cry is a lot like a song because You already know that God fills the hungry with good things. And you know this because your mouth is already full of His grace.
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.
Note: This is the second half of the second sermon in the series Looking for Jesus.