I’m a Missouri pastor who has served for the past three and a half years as a pastor in California. Recently, I have learned, for the first time, what it means to live in the midst of a drought. Having grown up in the Midwest, I’ve never once wondered what would happen if rain never came. When April arrived, so did the rains. It was like clockwork.
As a Missourian, I’ve never been asked to conserve water. I’ve never had conversations about the current depth of the Sierra-Nevada snow-packs. Lakes never dried up. Farmers rarely worried about the amount of rain their crops would receive.
More than this, our state watched in horror as, just up valley from my home, an entire community was devastated by wild fires. When we drove through this town a few weeks later, we saw a community devastated. We drove through neighborhoods with entire houses gone. Burned completely to the ground. The fire was so hot cars were stripped down to just metal. Glass and plastic were completely consumed.
I learned something very quickly about life lived in the midst of drought. As much as we conserved, as much as we strove to be good stewards of the liquid resources we had, it would all be worthless if rain didn't come quickly. Because life does not simply come from the dirt. Without water, our dirt had become dry, barren and rendered nearly useless.
Simply put, without rain, and without a good snow pack, it doesn’t matter how wonderful the dirt beneath our feet is. Vegetation will never grow. Life would eventually become impossible.
Just as this passage evokes memories in me, this prophecy would have been a particularly powerful image to the Israelites. As famers, they would have been intimately aware what would happen if rain didn't fall.
Juliana Claassens said it well when she said,
“The metaphor of rain and snow would have been particularly effective for people accustomed to arid conditions. The prophet's audience would most likely have understood the vital importance of rain and snow to transform dry land into conditions able to sustain the vegetation necessary for human survival. Rain and snow ensured food for the next year as well as the seed that would secure subsequent crops (verse 10).”
Coupled with this knowledge of the land, these words were spoken to a conquered people. These Israelites were in the midst of the Babylonian exile. They had seen their city ransacked and destroyed, they had been ripped from their families and they had watched their homes and memories destroyed by a bloodthirsty army.
This was a people who desperately needed a promise. More than that, they needed a reminder of the promise that already existed. The promise of restoration, of life, of a messiah. They needed to be reminded that they rain was coming.
They needed hope.
The prophet Isaiah wasn't talking about the rain. Not really. He was talking about this emerging hope and about the promise of something that Israel had long ago forgotten. God’s promise to deliver them a sign. A messiah. Completion and restoration.
It was about a Kingdom which would one day emerge and a kingdom which could not be overtaken. A Kingdom without end. A Kingdom free of thorn bushes, a Kingdom free from injustice, a Kingdom which would declare the glory of the Lord across all of creation. It was a reminder that, while that felt like an impossibility, the word of the Lord, like the rain, would come and it would be bringing life.
This was an important reminder for Israel, and it is for us today. It is important because we can seek to find hope in so many different places. In our resources. In our military strength. In our skill as a laborer. In our land. In our possessions.
But Isaiah reminds us that hope in the soil is hope misplaced. Because, without the movement of the rain (the Spirit), life will never come from our efforts. Without the spirit we’re simply moving dirt from one place to the other.
For the Israelites, the hope they were working towards was the hope of a messiah.
But while this prophecy was directed at Israel, it has deep ramifications on the modern church, as well. Like the Old Testament Israelites, we too are looking forward to a promise. Like the Israelites, we too can feel as though we’re a people in exile. We can see our familiar “landmarks” taken down. Our families split. Our churches closed down.
But like Israel, we’re a people looking forward to a promise.
John the Revelation paints us this picture.
Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” (Revelation 21:1-5)
Isaiah reminds us to not trust in our own ability to work (farm) the land. To remind ourselves that we’re not the source of light. That we’re not a people in control of the future.
It’s our simple job to move when God moves. Farm when the rains come. And know that where the spirit of the lord is, there is life- and it is life abundant.
In seasons of drought, it can feels as though the rain is never going to come. But Isaiah, and Revelation reminds us, that we can trust God. For his words are trustworthy and true.