With the words, “This text shouldn’t be here,” my colleague Barbara Lundblad begins a thoughtful presentation on Isaiah 35. After all, as she points out, it’s not just that this text doesn’t address anyone by name. It’s also that it almost immediately follows a poem that’s full of images of creational disaster: “Edom’s streams will be turned into pitch, her dust into burning sulfur, her land will become blazing pitch … Thorns will overrun her citadels, nettles and brambles her strongholds” (Isaiah 34:9, 13).
Into that promise of environmental devastation, Isaiah says, “The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom. Like the crocus, it will burst into bloom; it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy” (Isaiah 35:1-2a).
This text shouldn’t be here. After all, it’s not just that climate change and human meddling have damaged parts of God’s creation. It’s also that perhaps no American presidential election and its aftermath in recent history has provoked more fear than 2016’s. A number of Americans are fearful of what their new president and his advisors will do to them and those they love. On top of that, people in war-raved parts of the Middle East and refugees throughout the world must constantly live with even deeper-seated anxieties.
Into that, the poet speaks: “Strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way; say to those with fearful hearts, ‘Be strong and do not fear’” (Isaiah 35:3-4a).
Lundblad notes, “Isaiah dares to speak a word out of place. A word that refuses to wait until things improved.” Walter Brueggemann says something similar when he points out, “Israel’s doxologies are characteristically against the data.”
So what’s the 21st century data? The data on the creation isn’t encouraging. The data on interactions between countries, and among tribes and socio-economic groups is pretty grim. The data on the lives of some of us isn’t much better: waiting for test results from the doctor, grieving a loved one’s death, waiting for the next round of lay-offs.
The Old Testament lesson the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday seems hopelessly out of place in the contexts of both Isaiah’s Israel and today’s world. It’s precisely for those reasons, however, that it comes as such gospel. It speaks of a new reality that not only God will someday usher in, but also that shapes the current realities of God’s people of every place and age.
However, before Isaiah 35’s preachers and teachers lunge into breaking down its gorgeous poetry verse-by-verse, word-by-word, image-by-image, a word of caution is in order from my colleague Scott Hoezee. He shared it in his fine December 3, 2013 Center for Excellence in Preaching introduction to this text.
Hoezee notes that since Isaiah 35 contains some of the most beautiful, lyrical, inspired poetry in all of the Scriptures, we can’t improve on its imagery. We can’t stretch this text’s energy or zest. In fact, as Hoezee notes, perhaps preachers ought to “worry pretty seriously that” we “will get in the way, that” we’ll “take those lyric words and somehow make them plain, that” we’ll “transform the poetry into everyday prose.”
On top of that, frustrated English profs-turned preachers and teachers may want to analyze and explain Isaiah 35’s poetic structure like we’d break down a Shakespearean sonnet. We may want to flex our theological-literary muscles by pointing out its A-B-C-B1-C1 structure.
I’d suggest we resist that temptation — unless it’s to use a structure analysis to point hearers to the beating heart of Isaiah 35’s poetry. After all, at the heart of not just this lyrical poetry but also in some ways of the gospel is verse 4’s “Your God will come …”
If we dawdle along the way of getting to this throbbing heart of Isaiah 35, we may get lost in its lovely images. Or in the weeds of its particular verses. Or, perhaps more dangerously, in assuming that this work of recreation Isaiah 35 describes is somehow first of all human responsibility.
Of course, we recognize that God calls us to help God care for everything God creates. God challenges us to care for our own wildernesses, as well as Lebanon’s, Carmel’s and Sharon’s. God calls us to help care for people with physical and mental disabilities like those the prophet describes in verse 5 and 6.
Yet we do those things only under the leadership of the God who “comes” to “save” us (4). In fact, our only hope for the renewal about which Isaiah so beautifully writes is found in our God’s coming. After all, human history is littered with as many failures as efforts to renew the creation. Were it up to us, the wildernesses would remain barren, those with disabilities would receive no real help and refugees would remain isolated from their homelands.
That’s why it’s such gospel that God, as the prophet insists, comes to make all things new with naqam and gamul. Our world is in so many ways characterized by evil and injustice. While the New International translation of the Bible renders what God comes into that world with as, “vengeance” and “divine retribution,” some scholars suggest there’s a stronger sense of the justice with which God comes to do what is right and good, including redeeming God’s people.
Of course, Christians see fulfillment of Isaiah’s words in Jesus Christ. We believe that God came in Jesus Christ to begin to fulfill its promises in his ministry, life and even saving death. Christians also believe that God will come again at Jesus’ second return to completely fulfill Isaiah 35’s beautiful promises.
However, faithful preachers and teachers of Isaiah 35 will want to look for ways to lyrically and poetically describe what God comes to do even now. To describe the affects of God’s coming on a creation that’s groaning in pain and anticipation of that coming. To describe the affects of God’s coming on the bodies and spirits of those who groan in pain and misery. To describe the affects of God’s coming on God’s scattered and alienated people everywhere.
Yet perhaps no vision is either lovelier or more startling than that with which the prophet closes Isaiah 35. “Gladness and joy will overtake” God’s people, he promises in verse 10b. “Sorrow and sighing will flee away.”
At least some of us will experience some gladness and joy during the Christmas season. Our hearts will fill and our throats will tighten just a bit as we gather with some of our family members and friends to celebrate God’s coming to us in Jesus Christ.
But, of course, that joy and gladness is fleeting. It lasts about as long as a snowfall in Miami, Florida. Sorrow and sighing sometimes seem to gobble it up nearly as quickly as it appears.
On top of that, those who preach and teach Isaiah 35 remember that the holiday season that brings joy and gladness to some also brings sorrow and sighing to others.
Sorrow will be an all too faithful companion of people who will have an empty chair at their Christmas dinner table. Sighing will be all too real for those for whom others’ holiday celebrations only heighten their sense of loneliness and longing. Gladness will be for some muted by unidentified serious illness, job unhappiness and financial uncertainty.
Isaiah 35 sings about a coming day when gladness and joy will chase away all sorrow and sighing. For the time being, however, sorrow and sighing seem to rule the day in all too many darkened corners of our homes, communities and world. For now countless hands remain feeble, knees remain weak and bodies and minds just don’t work the way God created them to.
So among the things our coming God calls us to do is to come alongside those for whom weakness is very real. For whom physical and intellectual disability is sometimes nearly crippling. For whom God’s redemption seems even farther away than the most distant planet or galaxy. Our presence with hurt people is a sign to them that God is present among and with them. Our presence is also a sign that God is already preparing a new and better day for all of us.
However, perhaps Isaiah 35’s lovely vision of that new day can shape how we behave on these days. Might it challenge us to renew our commitment to caring for the creation that God will someday renew? Might Isaiah 35 invite us to be advocates for those whose various disabilities limit their ability to advocate for themselves? Might it stimulate us to let the Spirit equip us to be more holy along our own Way to the glories of the new earth and heavens?
Gary Schmidt’s Orbiting Jupiter is the poignant story of Jack and his foster brother Joseph. In one especially lovely scene Jack describes the end of a particularly vicious cold snap’s affect on the family’s herd of cows. Jack’s description of scene’s conclusion sounds a bit like the longing God’s people feel for the fulfillment of Isaiah 35’s promises:
“The sun was out and the sky too bright a blue to look at as the snow melted off the yews and came clumping down. The cows were as restless as spring, thinking there might be new grass out in the fields, even though the snow was still pretty deep.
And Quintus Sertorius would not stay in his stall, so after school Joseph and I took him out of the paddock to let him walk around … Quintus Sertieus snorted and snickered and swished his tail high and did everything he could to tell us how happy he was that spring was coming, even though it was still a long way off.
Sometimes it’s like that. You know something good is coming, and even though it’s not there yet, still, just knowing its coming is enough to make you snort and nicker. Sort of [italics added].”
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 11, 2016
Isaiah 35:1-10 Commentary