Advent in Year A of the Lectionary’s cycle of readings is a poetry lover’s delight. From the images of mountains and military in Isaiah 2 to the plants and animals and a little child in Isaiah 11, we now come to the images of a trackless desert transformed into a verdant paradise with a superhighway running straight through it.
I love the desert southwest of America; it’s my favorite place to vacation in the winter when it is frigid and frozen in my home state of Michigan. But I enjoy the beauty and warmth of the desert from the comfort of an airconditioned condo or from the seat of a golf cart with a cold drink in the cupholder. The desert is a very different place for a Honduran refugee plodding through cacti and sagebrush following a rough path and carrying a jug of stale water for herself and her family. Or for a Jew returning to the Promised Land from Exile in Babylon
Depending on what route the Jewish returnees took, that journey was 500 miles as the crow flies, straight across a blazing desert. Or it was between 1000 and 1600 miles if they followed a more northerly route that kept them closer water supplies and civilization. No matter how they went, it was a daunting journey for the strongest men, let alone the weak and the disabled. The mere prospect of such a walk would give “feeble hands, weak knees, and a fearful heart” to even the most eager pilgrim.
Many of your listeners on this Third Sunday of Advent will relate to being in a desert. Some have been sick for a long time or are chronically disabled. Others are far from home, alone in a foreign place, while still others have been wandering in a wilderness with scarce resources and nowhere to go for help. All of these folks have “sorrow and sighing” in their hearts and on their lips all the time.
For all of these folks, Isaiah 35 offers a beautiful picture of hope and joy. At the heart of it is the simple promise of verse 4, “Your God will come… to save you.” That’s the message of Advent every year, and Isaiah 35 gives that promise a particular color and texture and flavor. When your God comes to save you, he will transform your desert into a garden and create a highway from exile to home.
David McKenna summarizes the various dimensions of this transformation with these handy titles:
From Wasteland to Garden, verses 1-2
From Weak to Strong, verses 3-4
From Lame to Leaping, verses 5-6a
From Drought to Delta, verses 6b-7
From Wilderness to Highway, verses 8-10
When you are going through a desert experience, it is almost impossible to imagine what hope looks like. The poet prophet uses lovely pictures to stimulate our imagination. Imagine the desert itself rejoicing because its once barren landscape has burst into life: a carpet of colorful crocuses covers the ground, the soaring cedars of Lebanon and the mighty oaks of Carmel replace the scrub brush, and the roses of Sharon dot the formerly colorless ground. In this impossible transformation, the glory and splendor of God himself will be displayed. As the heavens declare the glory of God and the skies proclaim the work of his hands (Psalm 19), the transformed desert is a testimony to the power and grace of God. As a result, “all nature sings and round me rings the music of the spheres.”
The prophet now uses this spectacular transformation to encourage those with feeble hands, shaking knees, and fearful hearts. “Be strong, do not fear; your God will come….” The next words will strike some of your listeners all wrong: “he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you.” In a day when we emphasize grace for all, this seems out of step with the gospel.
But our reaction may reveal our privileged lives. Most of us have not been ravaged, robbed, raped, and kidnapped as the Jews had been. For those who cower in exile or trudge through a desert, the promise that God will make it right is a comforting word. We shouldn’t read “vengeance” and “divine retribution” as acts of angry revenge, but as the action of a just God making the wrong right. Victims can only hope that will happen one day. Isaiah says it will.
What’s more, the coming of God to save will bring health to those who have live with disabilities and disease: “Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer and the mute shout for joy.” Some scholars take this in a spiritual sense; those who are deaf to the gospel and unable to move toward God will be enabled by grace to repent and believe. That may be, but it is surely not accidental that when God came to save his people in the person of Jesus, Jesus physically healed people. That wasn’t incidental to his ministry; it was a tangible sign that the day spoken of by Isaiah 35 had come. Indeed, Jesus himself quoted these very verses when John the Baptist asked if Jesus really was the Messiah (Luke 7:22).
Returning to the picture of a desert in bloom, the prophet explains how that could happen. The God who controls the waters above the earth and the waters in the earth will abundantly water the dry land with artesian wells gushing water, streams in the desert, bubbling springs, and oases with pools of water. There will be so much water that “in the haunts of where jackals once lay, grass and reeds and papyrus will grow” as they do in the far-off land of Egypt. Is that a subtle way of saying that even as Israel once escaped Egypt and journeyed through a wilderness to reach the Promised Land, so Israel will escape Babylon through a desert and return to the Promised Land?
That second return will be different, says the prophet, because they will not wander in a trackless waste. There will be a highway straight through this verdant desert. One can imagine the Exiles asking, “But how can we get there from here?” It’s a question we all ask when we can’t see a way through our troubles and the Enemy sows despair by whispering yet another lie, “You can’t get there from here. You’re stuck, you’re lost, there’s no hope for you.”
Don’t listen to the Hopeless One, says the prophet, because “a highway will be there; it will be called the Way of Holiness.” That title might point to the qualifications for those who would travel this road. “The unclean will not journey on it; it will be for those who walk in that Way.” This is the highway that only “the redeemed and the ransomed of the Lord” will walk.
But those words also point to the fact that this road has been constructed by the Holy One of Israel, who will redeem and “ransom captive Israel.” This is a limited access highway, but you don’t gain access by being good. You get on the highway to heaven by being saved by a Good God. It is the Way of Grace that one can walk by trusting him who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
How we can we get home from our “distant country?” How we can we survive and navigate our desert places? Only by trusting the One whom the demon possessed called, “The Holy One of God (Luke 4:34).” We don’t have to pay a toll to get on the superhighway, because that price has been paid. Not accidentally, Isaiah 40 says that it is the Lord himself who will travel this highway through the desert. He walked the Way of Holiness, so that we could too.
Isaiah 35 began with the desert shouting for joy and it ends with the joy of the redeemed. Because their God has come to save them, “They will enter Zion with singing, everlasting joy will crown their heads. Gladness and joy will overtake them and sorrow and sighing will flee away.”
We’re not there yet, so Advent is a season of waiting, expectation, anticipation, especially for those who still have much sorrow and sighing. But this lovely picture in Isaiah 35 assures us that the God who came to save us will come again to transform our deserts and lead us home. “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning.”
I rarely use personal stories in sermons, but I’m going to give an example here that might be useful as you think of illustrations for this rich text. Recently I was lost in the desert of legal paperwork. Applying for a loan to provide for my mother’s long-term care, I encountered one obstacle after another. It was like the carnival game “Whack A Mole.” I would get one contract signed and think, “There, I’m done.” And then a complication would pop up. And another and another. I got to the point of saying, “How can I navigate this trackless waste? I don’t think I can get there from here.” Hope faded and joy was hard to find.
But as I began to work on this Sermon Commentary, the lovely language of Isaiah 35 focused my mind on those wonderful Advent words, “Your God will come to save you.” And then he did, in the person of a traveling Notary Public, a humble, compassionate, aging Christian who had heard me preach years ago. He showed me the way through the desert. And I am singing for joy. I wouldn’t say that “everlasting joy” has crowned my head, but at least I’ve had another foretaste. For the moment, “sorrow and sighing have fled away.”
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 15, 2019
Isaiah 35:1-10 Commentary