This sermon is part of the sermon series "A Man for All Seasons". See series.
I spent many early years in a northern mill town—a town with a heavy reputation. It's a place that made ice in winter and mud in summer, and where mosquitoes were a species of prehistoric bird. The winters were memorable only for their endlessness—long, dark, despotic seasons, where boulders sometimes split from sheer cold, and a cup of coffee poured out into the air would freeze solid before it hit the ground. Oil and spit got thick in that climate, and the ground became hard as marble. The doors and windows on houses grew a rind of frost around the inside edges that had to be chipped off daily. We would all get cabin fever and stir crazy sitting in our homes but could barely endure more than a few minutes outside. Whenever a cold front would break and the temperature would soar to a balmy five below zero or so, we'd spill out of our homes like victors after a great war, giddy and glad to be alive.
Spring seemed never to come. Many a May I watched, trembling with hope and dread, for the first hard bud to pinprick the branch. I'd scour the fields for any sign of life, even if only the hieroglyphs of birdclaw in snow. I'd time the number of minutes of daylight we gained over the day before, and the week before that.
Then one day, usually in late May or early June, spring would suddenly appear all at once. The trees frothed with leaf and blossom. The ground thickened with an embroidery of flowers. Birds whirled and swooped and sang, and colts and calves tottered or gambolled in farm yards. The back of winter finally broke, and warmth, color, and music returned—along with hope.
This is the second sermon in a series on the seasons of the heart. The first sermon was about winter. What I said about the winter of the heart is that in it we experience a wide gap between what we know about God and what we taste and see of God. Our theology says God is loving, faithful, righteous, a God of wonders. But in winter, we feel he's aloof, angry, capricious, a God of bruises. Winter is also when we're deeply alone—even when we're with others, we feel estranged from them. Winter is when we feel the encroaching presence of death. The good news is that Christ meets us in the depth of our wintertime to wait with us, to prune us, to break our self-dependency and deepen our dependency on the God who raises the dead. And as always, he leads us out of winter and into spring. I think Isaiah 35 best captures the experience of the springtime of the heart.
Springtime of creation
Isaiah 35 doesn't speak directly of spring. It describes a rapid and lush spring-like flourishing, an exultation of flower and beast and human, the transformation of a desert waste into a garden paradise. But the desert wastes of the near east and the long winters of the Canadian north are not so different. They share this main trait in common: nothing much lives or grows in them. They're dead zones. Each is a sprawling vastness of barrenness, until God chooses otherwise—that day when, all at once and everywhere, life and life to the full returns. And with it, hope.
The beauty of this passage in Isaiah is that it's both a reality Isaiah describes—he's prophesying an actual desert place springing forth in edenic abundance—and it's a metaphor he employs to capture a spiritual reality. This is what it feels like when God is on the move. He changes desert to garden. He breaks the back of winter, and ushers in spring.
I wonder if C. S. Lewis was thinking of Isaiah 35 when he wrote The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. If you've read the book, you know that when the Pevensie children first arrive in Narnia, they discover a curse is on the land. The curse has a very real manifestation: it's always winter and never Christmas. Winter has become the perennial season. The whole land is plunged into a dark night of the soul. But then the children begin to hear this mysterious, thrilling, earth-shaking news: Aslan is on the move. The Great King is back. He's already at work, and what he's planned will change everything. The sign and symbol of that is that winter gives way to spring. The snows melt; the ice breaks; the cold lifts; the trees blossom.
What does the springtime of the heart feel like? It brims and pulses with joy. Look at the words of celebration in the opening verses of Isaiah 35: glad, joy, rejoice greatly, shout for joy. Spring is a raucous fanfare of jubilation. What's especially noteworthy here is that the creation itself is actually rejoicing—the once parched land, the once barren wilderness, begins the parade. Trees and rivers and mountains and billygoats and ducklings frolic with giddiness.
This is a biblical theme: when God moves, creation itself responds. Just as the creation mourned when Christ was crucified—the darkness at midday, the earth shaking—so it exults when Christ is risen, the ultimate act of spring. If we are silent, the rocks themselves will sing.
Springtime of the heart
Implied in the joy of creation is joy among God's people. When I read Isaiah 35, I think of Romans 8, especially verses 18-21. Paul implies that the creation follows our lead, not the other way around. It waits on cue for us. The people of God experience liberation from bondage first, and then the whole creation takes up the chorus and joins the dance. Isaiah himself says as much in his famous passage in chapter 55: "The mountains and the hills will burst into song before you and all the trees of the field will clap their hands." But what happens first? Listen: "So is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it. You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace." God speaks, spring comes, and you—you—"will go out with joy and be led forth in peace." God's springtime begins with his renewal within you.
The passage says springtime comes out of dryness and wilderness. I'm going to read those as bywords for crisis. Spring springs out of death. It unaccountably, inexplicably, unexpectedly shows up in the least likely of places and times and circumstances. Maybe spring comes out of the death of someone you love—maybe the loss of a job, or a bout of poor health, or a long stretch of emotional upheaval or depression. Maybe a season of conflict in your home or workplace or neighbourhood or church miraculously becomes the fertile group of spring. The crisis makes your heart bitter soil, too hard or too parched to nourish any seed to life.
Then one day it breaks—all of a sudden and everywhere at once—and the only way you can finally and best explain it is that God worked. God acted. God intervened. Aslan is on the move.
Spring brings emotional renewal.
Our passage in Isaiah 35 gives us three vivid touchstones for the springtime of the heart. It is, first, a time of emotional renewal. Emotions that have been bruised out of all courage and joy spring back with vigor. Isaiah 35:2-4 reads:
[The desert] will burst into bloom; it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy. The glory of Lebanon will be given to it, the splendour of Carmel and Sharon; they will see the glory of the Lord, the splendour of our God. Strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way; say to those with fearful hearts, "Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you."
The time of crisis enfeebles us and makes us afraid. Platitudes are galling. False cheer is repulsive. We do not need people telling us to "cheer up" or "snap out of it" in winter. But when springtime arrives, those are the only words that make sense. Then comes the time for hearty exhortation: Be strong. Do not be afraid. Get out and work in the garden. Those muscles gone soft through the idleness of winter can now be built up.
This passage sounds a bit sour at first blush: God will come with vengeance and retribution. If you've ever had an enemy, this does have the ring of good news. Isaiah was writing to a people who endured much from enemies. The chapter preceding this one announces judgement on the nations who have opposed God and, by way of that, God's people. There is a certain satisfaction we're not supposed to admit in knowing that what goes around comes around. But here's what we can admit: we long for vindication. Underneath Israel's thirst for vengeance was a hunger for vindication. Vindication is when the wrong that has been done to us is set to rights—fully, finally, and publicly. The insults we've endured are rebuffed. The wounds inflicted on us are healed. The gossip spoken against us is proved empty and false. Something inside us that has crawled into a hole and curled up to die is suddenly given fresh resolve, a new beginning. Spring is a time of emotional renewal.
Spring brings physical renewal.
Spring is also a time of physical renewal. Look at the list of miraculous restorations proclaimed in verses 5 through 8: the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame leap, the mute speak. These are the very signs of the Messiah's reign. This is the text that Jesus alludes to when John the Baptist sends his followers to ask Jesus if he really is the Messiah. Jesus sends back news that, under his ministry, physical restoration in the vein of Isaiah 35 is taking place (Matthew 11:5ff). This "liberation from bondage to decay" among the sons of God is even felt creation-wide: water abounds in desert places. Jackal dens become duck ponds.
Sometimes we experience this renewal in a very literal way: God may heal us of a lingering, debilitating condition or illness. It also happens in a way that's just as literal but is the overflow of our emotional restoration. Vindication brings a second wind. Your feeble body grows robust. In winter, you want to sleep half the day. You lack energy for simple tasks. You're not hearing well, seeing well. You mumble your words. But when spring arrives, you leap from your bed. You accomplish a whole day's work by noon and feel you're just getting started. You run and don't grow weary.
I've been in winter recently, one sign being I could hardly wake up, and I ached most of the time. People had to repeat things to me, because I wasn't listening as carefully as I should have been. I often had to repeat things to others, because I wasn't speaking as clearly as I needed to. I failed to notice much. I would drag myself around some days as though lame. But I'm starting to feel the old energy and focus and clarity returning. Spring is in the air. Spring is a time of physical renewal.
Spring brings moral renewal.
Finally, spring is a time of moral renewal. If spring is about vindication and restoration, it's just as much about sanctification. Look again at verses 8 and 9:
And a highway will be there; it will be called the Way of Holiness. The unclean will not journey on it; it will be for those who walk in that Way; wicked fools will not go about on it. No lion will be there, nor will any ferocious beast get up on it; they will not be found there. But only the redeemed will walk there.
God gives our hearts and lives a thorough spring cleaning, top to bottom. He comes into our lives and scours the areas where we've compromised, become tainted, allowed a bitter root to grow or some poisonous attitude to creep in, let some dirty habit to take hold or some foolishness to cloud our thinking.
I love this about springtime most of all. I love the way God renews our spirits—the way the things inside me that have become dark and dank and musty are flooded with light, washed, rinsed, and disinfected. Back in the late 90s, I went through one of the most spectacular spring times of my life. I experienced all that I've talked about—emotional renewal that felt like vindication, a second wind that felt like physical restoration. But what was best was the moral cleansing. I had been wallowing in self-pity. I had lost the joy of my salvation, and I had a scab of cynicism on my wound. Then suddenly and all at once, it broke, and God began to renew a right spirit within me. Cynicism gave way to hope and boldness. Self-pity was replaced with sound-mindedness. The joy of my salvation came back in a rush, and I thirsted and hungered after righteousness. I had been given vindication, restoration, sanctification.
There are two images our passage concludes with that sum up everything up I've been talking about. The first image seems out of kilter with the passage as a whole: the image of a highway in verse 8. After all the garden imagery, the image of a highway is jolting, except for this: a highway takes terrain that has previously been difficult, dangerous, and gruelling to cross and makes it easy. Spring is when what has been tortuous, arduous, and perilous, becomes smooth, straight, and safe.
The second image is that of a homecoming. After long exile—a return, a reunion. The sorrow and sighing from winter flee away, replaced by raucous, joyous singing. We're home.
Let me end with the two disciplines that are needed in springtime: ploughing and planting. Isaiah has nothing to say about these here, but in keeping with the logic of our analogy, spring's two principal activities are to plow and to plant—to break up the hard soil in order to take full advantage of God's renewing work, and to sow seeds that will bear fruit.
The season of renewal is a gift; we can't manufacture it in any way. It is also an opportunity; we can make the most of it, or we miss it entirely. Spring gives us a window in which, if we steward the moment well, we will reap a harvest later on. If we don't, we may not get a second chance.
If you're in springtime or just coming into spring, by all means enjoy it. Just don't squander it. There are a few fields God would have you plow and a few seeds he would have you plant. Maybe he's calling you into a new ministry or deeper engagement in a ministry. Maybe this is the moment to get serious about a relationship that you've only dallied with until now. It may be the moment to make that bold career move, or to launch into that ambitious project you've dreamed about. Go ahead and try. What's to lose, except the moment itself? It's a highway, so you may as well open throttle.
Mark Buchanan is an Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology at the Ambrose Seminary in Calgary, Alberta.