My Lenten reading is the work of one of the greatest poets in the Hebrew language. Pushed to discuss critical issues I am persuaded that Isaiah in its canonical form comes to us from at least two authors, and that 1-39 are pre-exilic and 40-66 are exilic but anticipating the end of exile and the return home. But the book of Isaiah as we have it is itself a work of great literary and theological power. Chapter 35 is one of those dream chapters in which the prophet talks into being a different kind of world and an alternative future. And some of the images in it and in 40-66 are of the essence of spiritual hopefulness and theological adventure.
I have the privilege (I NEVER use that word lazily as pious cliche - always it is chosen with as much humility as I can humbly claim!) - I have the privilege of leading worship in one of our churches throughout the Lenten season. Lent is the time for spiritual re-orientation, or for an internal audit, or to go through a personal appraisal in our discipleship, a kind of continuing persoanl development review that is honest, thorough and forward looking. I think what we need to give up for Lent is our secular worldview. Now both those words are contested - secular versus sacred is way out of date as a meaningful distinction in a pluralist, multic-cultural, post-Christian society where spirituality is no longer disenfranchised just because it isn't theistic. And as for world-view - that sounds too much like meta-narrative and we all know how suspicious we have all to become of meta-narratives.
Even granted those two strident disclaimers, I want to give up that secular worldview that is itself a form of intellectual, emotional and theological exile. Second Isaiah wrote to people for whom life had become wilderness, hope had dried up into a dessicated vague complaceny, and for whom any thought of finding home again withered under the sheer heat of circumstance and the weight of the status quo. How could it be any different? Where outside of political realities of power and economic pressures of oppression and recession, were there realistic possibilities of change. Politics and economics are human sciences that have no sense whatsoever of the transcendent, of realities more ultimate than them, of visions more permanent, or hopes more human, or dreams more desirable than the ones they peddle.
And Isaiah says, "Thus says the Lord...". And from beneath the desert ,water gurgles up in glad contradiction of all the surrounding aridity and banality; and out of the sand crocuses burst into colours of purple, gold and white and we ask where the heaven did they come from!; and across the trackless waste of a culture which has spent the last century or three removing known roads, familiar paths and moral rights of way a new moroway is under construction. That's Isaiah 35, and that's his alternative worldview, one in which change is possible and promised; one in which the transcendent tears open our sealed this worldly way of looking at things. And yes, for all our cultural analysis and social theorising, Isaiah has little interest in arguing about the sacr4ed and secular, because it all belongs to God beside whom there is no other. Forget intellectual plea bargains; this is a prophet who tells it as it is because he believes that is exactly how it is. God makes deserts blossom; gurgling springs in the wilderness are the least of his miracles; and as for the motorway across the barren trackless terrain, the One who will one day declare in the words of the Word made flesh, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life..."
Lent is about remembering that, living into it, and looking for the God of hope.
(The photo is of the spring in Aberdeen Botanic gardens, a hidden source of irrigation that you only find if you listen and look for where the gurgling is coming from!)