Summary: God makes our desert a garden; He turns our exile into homecoming.
MY MOTHER DIED when I was twenty-six. She was only fifty-seven. A few years before her death, she was diagnosed with cancer of the larynx. She fought it bravely, but, in time, it overtook her, and all too soon, by our accounts, she died.
We had a service led by an Air Force chaplain at a local funeral home, and we traveled in solemn procession to the cemetery, where, as they say, we laid my mother to rest.
I was a student in seminary at the time, and the next day I returned to class and tried to keep my mind on my studies. A few weeks after my mother’s death, I began to notice some unusual physical symptoms. I won’t tell you what they were; they are a little indelicate. But I will tell you: I was a little frightened, and so I did what I hardly ever did at that time of my life. I made an appointment to see a doctor.
The doctor, of course, examined me, did some tests, and then he sat down with me “Mr. Butterworth,” he said, “I’ve looked over your test results, and I have to tell you: I don’t find anything wrong.” I didn’t say so, but I didn’t believe him. He was the doctor, to be sure, but I knew that something was wrong.
The fact is, my whole world was wrong. My mother had always been in it, but now she wasn’t. And I needed her. I needed her comfort, her assurance. I was a grown man, but I still needed my mother. The doctor, I could tell, was an efficient man, busy with the demands of an exhausting medical practice. I was aware of the fact that he didn’t have time to talk with me. But I asked him anyway. “My mother died a few weeks ago,” I said. “Do you think that could have anything to do with it?”
He looked at me blankly. With all his knowledge, it was a question he wasn’t prepared to answer. He was all about exam rooms with stainless steel furnishings, diagnostic testing, standard procedures, accurate diagnoses, and carefully kept medical records. But he wasn’t inclined to cross the threshold into the messy terrain of a heavy heart, weighed down by grief.
I did not fault him. To tell the truth, I didn’t really expect him to answer my question. As he predicted, the symptoms soon disappeared, and my fears of some dread illness disappeared with them. But I did learn something from that day in the doctor’s office. I learned that, when you’re weighed down with grief, you need to talk about it, and, because you need to talk about it, you need someone to listen.
In Isaiah, chapter 35, there is a wonderful description of what God promises to His hurting people. There are two images He uses to comfort us. One is that of a desert transformed into a garden. “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,” He says; “the desert shall rejoice and blossom like a crocus” (v. 1). If you have gone through a loss recently, you may be feeling like you’re in a wasteland that stretches in every direction as far as the eye can see. There is no comfort to be found. It’s like having gritty sand in your clothing and the intense heat of the sun beating down upon your weariness. There is no refreshment to be found. You long to find just past the next rise an oasis where water is abundant, and the landscape is filled with the color of flowers and vegetation. You long for life once more.
The second image is one of a group of travelers. They have been exiled far from home in a strange and terrifying land. But now they are on their way back to the familiar surroundings of they life they once knew. “The ransomed of the LORD shall return,” Isaiah says, “and come [home] with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away” (v. 10). Sounds inviting, doesn’t it? O how we long for sorrow and sighing to flee away! In your season of loss, you may feel stranded, exiled even, displaced and homesick. You yearn for singing and gladness. You long for a comeback, a way to come back to the joy you once knew.
These two images form a sort of sandwich around the middle of the passage. And in the middle part, God discloses how he will transform our deserts into gardens and our exile into a homecoming. Again, there are two things to notice. One is something we are to do; the other is something we are to believe.
What are to do is share our sorrows. We are to listen as others talk, and we are to talk as others listen. It’s a novel idea, isn’t it? There is an old proverb that says, “A sorrow shared is half the sorrow.” In times of distress, we need each other. So God says to us, “Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who have an anxious heart, ‘Be strong; fear not!’” (vv. 3-4a).