Springs in the Desert

by Dr. Mark Achtemeier

 Isaiah 49:8-13
Hebrews 4:12-13

Covenant Presbyterian Church
Madison, Wisconsin

October 8, 2011

We are gathered here today to ordain a wonderfully gifted Christian man to the ministry of the Word and Sacrament. Scott’s steadfast faith and pastor’s heart and devotion to Christ and the church have been a source of personal inspiration for me and many others. I give thanks to God, Scott, that your gifts will now be fully available to the Presbyterian Church, and to John Knox Presbytery, and to all the individuals whose lives will be touched by your ministry. This is indeed a joyous occasion.

Many of us wondered if this day would ever get here, and what a blessing it is to be witnesses of its coming! Many of you have worked and prayed diligently to make this day a reality. But lest we think this is all about us, I think it important to take a step back and reflect on what God is doing in and through this happy occasion.

Indeed the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.[1]

From the very beginning of its existence, the church has borne witness to holy occasions when the Word of God blazed to life, judging the thoughts and intentions of many hearts, overturning established assumptions, bringing light and life where formerly only darkness reigned.

In the earliest days of Christianity, the Word and Spirit of God kindled a fire in the hearts of Jesus’ followers about the despised and unclean Gentiles. Standing apart from biblical law and condemned by it, these Gentile outsiders were so unclean that Jesus’ followers wouldn’t even eat with them. But God’s Word and Spirit helped the church see these despised outsiders as beloved children of God. The result was a new reading of Scripture, and the joyous movement of a reviled and ostracized people into the fellowship of Christ’s body the church. The Word of God is powerful!

In the late Middle Ages God’s Word blazed to life in the heart of a troubled monk named Martin Luther. The result was a new reading of Scripture and the release of millions of anguished souls from a thousand-year captivity to guilt and fear and condemnation into the clear light of God’s grace and mercy in Christ. The Word of God is powerful!

In the history of our own nation, the Word of God blazed forth in the hearts of abolitionists and prophets and reformers. The result was a new reading of Scripture and captives emerging from bondage, former slaves set out on the long road toward freedom and dignity and equality. “The Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword!

Such revolutions are not the product of human devising. At the height of the Reformation a friend of Martin Luther’s found him sitting idly one day over a drink. ‘Dr. Luther,’ said the friend, ‘look at everything that’s happening, look at the crisis that’s upon us. Don’t you think you should be working?’ Luther sat back in his chair, looked at his mug, and said, “Here as I drink my little glass of Wittenberg beer, the Gospel runs its course![2]

The Gospel runs its course. What a remarkable privilege to be living in a time when once again the Word of God has come to life as good news for the broken-hearted! The Holy Spirit is abroad, blowing across the landscape of our established convictions and setting many hearts ablaze.

These changes are supported by the work of many scholars, but their origin is not the scholar’s study. How many of the changes leading to this day have been Damascus road events, holy occasions when ordinary life and ordinary assumptions are caught up short as the Risen Christ begins to speak. .

The Spirit moves and hearts are changed. And when that happens we are able to go back to the Scriptures and see all those things we missed earlier. We employ all the classical guidelines for interpreting Scripture: We read the Bible in its historical context. We interpret Scripture by Scripture. We follow the Rule of Faith and let the fullness of the Gospel illumine individual passages. Following Calvin we interpret biblical Law according to the purposes of the Lawgiver. Joining with the ancient church we read every text in accordance with the Rule of Love.

When read the Bible as our tradition has taught us, we have found God’s Word blazing to life and all these paths converging on the gracious conclusions that bring us here today. Jesus tells us that when we interpret the Bible rightly, we shouldn’t expect to come away bearing only the old understandings: “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.[3]

This new treasure we have found in the Scripture seems so obvious to many of us, but we have to remember it is not obvious to all. There is nothing unusual about this. Almost always when the living Word has blazed to life there has been conflict and heated opposition. Almost always there have been committed Christians defending the status quo based on long established readings of Scripture. In the wisdom of God, change does not come quickly or unanimously. And so in our own time, Christ grants us an important opportunity to the bear witness to his love which binds us together even in the midst of our disagreements.

For that reason we must all be very patient, and very respectful, and very gentle with our sisters and brothers who take a different view of this day than we do. They, like we, confess the Lordship of Christ. They, like we, fervently desire to follow Jesus in obedience to the Scriptures. For a time, in the mysterious providence of God, we are finding something very different in the Bible from what our neighbors find there. It is a distressing and puzzling situation, but far from unusual. And it gives us opportunity to testify that the faith we hold in common is vibrant enough and faithful enough to sustain our fellowship until that joyful day when all our differences are overcome  in Christ.

Until that day arrives, however, let us be mindful of the particular role that Scott and we have been granted to play in God’s plan. Our passage from Isaiah today describes what happens when the Word of God goes out to do its work. The result is release for the captives, hope for the outcast. Isaiah paints a moving portrait of one such occasion when the Word of God has done its work. He speaks of newly liberated exiles setting out on the long and difficult journey that leads toward home, toward grace, toward blessing. It is a slow and arduous trek across a barren wilderness, but they do not journey alone:

They shall feed along the ways, on all the bare heights shall be their pasture; they shall not hunger or thirst, neither scorching wind nor sun shall strike them down, for he who has pity on them will lead them, and by springs of water will guide them.[4]

I think this passage provides a fitting picture of the hope and promise contained in this day. I believe God will use the life of John Knox Presbytery as a spring of clear water, a source of renewal and refreshment for a tired and weary Presbyterian denomination that is struggling to find its way through a wilderness of rapid change.

Scott has led the way with this, going out of his way time and again to forge bonds of respect and caring and understanding across the lines of separation and disagreement. Other people have responded in kind, so that with rare exceptions, the life of this presbytery has been marked by kindness, mutual respect and forbearance grounded in the love of Christ. This little group of Jesus’ followers provides compelling testimony to a grace of God that is powerful and life-giving even in the midst of deep disagreement.

I also believe God will use your ministry, Scott, as a life-giving spring of water for sustaining weary exiles who have been alienated from the church of Jesus Christ and are seeking a way back home.

I recently read an essay by a woman named Chely Wright, a Kansas farm girl and a country music singer. She writes about being a gay person growing up in the church, calling to mind third grade kickball games where the kids would pick up sides before playing. Inevitably there would be that one awkward, uncoordinated kid who always got picked last or not at all. “[E]ventually,” she writes, “that kid would stop hoping to be chosen for either team…”

And eventually that kid would probably develop an aversion, perhaps even a life-long, deep loathing for the game of kickball. It’s a protective mechanism that humans employ to preserve the most tender parts of their psyche. That’s what it feels like for an LGBT kid in a place of worship.  That kid is repeatedly given the message that he or she will never, ever fit in and be acceptable to God or to the congregation.[5]

Chely Wright was pointing a loaded gun into her mouth when God spoke to her over and above what the church was saying. That Word from God touched her heart and started her on a long journey toward wholeness. Today she writes, “It is my deep belief that someday I will meet my maker and I will be asked who I am and what I did for others. Everyday, I am working hard, preparing my answer to be, ‘I am a gay, Christian, farm girl from Kansas who sang Country Music and I did the very best I could do — to know God and to share God.'”[6]

Scott as we gather here today, you and I both know there are thousands upon thousands of Chely Wrights out there, beloved children of God who have been ostracized and alienated from the faith. They have learned through bitter experience to associate the name of Jesus with hostility and rejection and condemnation.

I rejoice in the sure hope that your gifts and your ministry will nurture and strengthen many people in the faith. But I am especially hopeful that your ministry will bring healing good news to all the Chely Wrights who have been rejected and alienated from the Christian faith. What we do here today won’t solve the problem. But I pray your ministry may at the very least provide a spring of water in the wilderness for sustaining and refreshing those weary exiles on the long journey back to the God who loves them.

I sometimes wonder if there really is hope for many such journeys to take place. There is a passage in Isaiah just after the one we read today where the exiles are wondering the same thing. “My Lord has forgotten me,” they say.[7]  Their alienation seems too hopeless, their darkness too deep, for these dreams of restoration to have any meaning for them.

God’s response is powerful. I was with a person the other day who needed to remember a phone number, and while I was searching my pockets for a scrap of paper he simply wrote the number on the palm of his hand. It’s a messy but effective system these hand-note-takers have.

Well God’s response to the exiles who have lost hope is to show them his hands: “See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands,”[8] he says. God has not forgotten these alienated children. There, written on God’s hands are the names of every anguished soul, every broken spirit.

Scott I rejoice that today we ordain you to the ministry of the Word, and I am confident that you will both proclaim and embody the deep love which that Word conveys for all of God’s exiled and brokenhearted children. You will not always see immediate results, but that loving, powerful Word of God will not return empty. It will accomplish the purpose for which God sends it. Good new will come to all the exiled souls.

They shall feed along the ways, on all the bare heights shall be their pasture; they shall not hunger or thirst, neither scorching wind nor sun shall strike them down, for he who has pity will lead them, and by springs of water will guide them.

May God make your ministry a spring of life-giving water, Scott!

In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.


Dr. Mark Achtemeier has served the Presbyterian Church since 1984 as a minister,
author, speaker and theology professor.
He may be contacted at  [email protected].

Hebrews 4:12

Quoted in Helmut Thielicke, The Waiting Father, trans. John W. Doberstein (New York: Harper, 1959), p. 90.

Matthew 13:52

Isaiah 49:10


Isaiah 49:14

Isaiah 49:16