Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 11, 2022

Isaiah 35:1-10 Commentary

Sometimes as a preacher you are pretty sure that the best idea you could have would be simply to read the passage and then sit down.  Or just read it again.  And sit down.  But for goodness sake, don’t start to let your own pedestrian reflections clog up a passage so full of wonder!

That’s pretty much my reaction to Isaiah 35: I can’t improve on this imagery.  I can’t increase this chapter’s energy and zest.  In fact, I worry pretty seriously that I will get in the way, that I’ll take these lyric words and somehow make them plain, that I’ll transform the poetry into everyday prose.  I worry that Isaiah’s inspired words are like standing in front of a majestic mountain but that anything I could do with those words would be like placing people in front of some Thomas Kincaid painting of a majestic mountain.  It’s just not the same!

Isaiah 35 is pretty close to the exact center of this sprawling prophetic book.  I don’t know if I’d dare say it is the book’s high point but it’s close.  Even last week’s wonderful Old Testament Year A reading from Isaiah 11 somehow does not quite reach this chapter’s electric current of joy and hope.  Contained here is good news on the renewal of all creation—everything that is currently dangerous or life-threatening in creation (all that is chaos and not cosmos) will become tamed and made better.  There won’t be dead patches of earth or burnt-over regions but only lush and verdant places whose beauty will take our breath away.  We will travel safely on the Way of Holiness, cheering one another on and regaling one another with good news.

Indeed, the final lines here are astonishing: we are told that we’ll wear crowns of joy because “gladness and joy will overtake” us.  We will be overtaken by gladness, consumed by joy, captured by happiness!  For now we have at best tiny inklings of what this will be like.  But we have all experienced now and then that sudden rush of joy that comes from seeing someone we love but who we did not expect to see at a particular moment—maybe it’s your daughter who has been living in France for five years but who, unbeknownst to you, flies home to be at your 50th birthday party.  Suddenly she walks into the restaurant where the party is being held and you are flooded with—overtaken by—joy, as if joy were a tsunami of goodness that suddenly washed all over you and swept you away in a tide of gladness.  Joy fills up your entire body and mind.

The writer J.R.R. Tolkien once coined a delightful term: eutastrophe.  It is the opposite of the more common term “catastrophe.”  We know what it can be like to be filled with terror, dread, and horror if we witness a catastrophe.  We can recall the weeping sorrow filling the voice of the radio announcer who broadcast live as he watched the airship Hindenburg burst into flames before his very eyes.  Or we can remember the tingles that went up and down our spines and the weakness we felt in our limbs when we watched jets fly into the Twin Towers on 9/11.  But when a eutastrophe occurs, we are equally flushed with good things: we get dizzy with joy, filled with happiness, delirious with excitement!

The day will come, Isaiah says, when that experience will characterize our everyday living.  “Joy,” C.S. Lewis famously wrote, “will be the serious business of heaven.”  Indeed, joy will landscape the entirety of the New Creation.  It will be tangible and palpable such that sighing and sorrows will, as the prophet says, have no choice but to flee away.  Sadness will get chased out of the New Creation the way mice will flee a room full of cats.  Sorrow will dissipate the way a strong wind can blow every cloud out of the sky so as to leave behind nothing but a blue sky so achingly beautiful as to make tears leap to your eyes.

This is all wonderful stuff.  Again, as preachers we just need to let this passage sing.

But as preachers there is one other thing we can do, and doing this means taking a cue from the passage itself.  Because in verses 3-4 Isaiah addresses those who are for now weak, worried, and afraid.  The fact is that in Advent as at any time of the year, we preach to plenty of people for whom the dream of a New Creation is not just a dream, it’s a distant dream, a dream that seems so remote as to count as something that may finally be unhelpful even to think about in the here and now of our rough-and-tumble world.

Even as Isaiah 35 has to take a little timeout to acknowledge the presence of the hurting and doubtful among us, so we as preachers need to take Advent and Christmas timeouts to recognize that not everyone in the “holiday season” is festive.  Not everyone wells up with tears when they sing “Silent Night.”  Some people are in a bad space.  Some people are sad, and the hoo-ha of the glittery holidays only makes matters worse.

It’s our holy responsibility to come alongside such weak ones and hurting ones and to point them to a better day, to the fact that our God has come to us in Christ and will come to us again.  We do this not in some light and fluffy, feeble way.  We do not wave off as unimportant whatever is making life difficult for now.  But we do offer the true counsel and reassurance that our God sees us in this distress—that’s why the Son of God was made flesh: to know us quite literally from the inside out—and that the day will come when he will make all things new and well.

And that healing work of God will take place not in some far-off wispy world the likes of which we can know nothing about for now.  No, healing, saving, redeeming work will take place right here in this world.  We will know joy here and we will be overtaken by gladness here and will sing our praises to God for all his wonders of creation and redemption.

As Christians, we can go a step beyond anything Isaiah was able to say by remembering that not only will the glory and splendor of our God come, it already has.  Glory and splendor took on flesh and bones and lived among us already.  The glory and the splendor of God’s One and Only has already been here and was already raised to a newness of life that assures us that everything Isaiah predicts will happen because we now know that in Christ it already has happened.

As we noted in the sermon commentary for last week from also Isaiah 11, these prophetic passages in Advent remind us that for all our enthusiasm and eagerness in Advent to crank up joy and light in our churches, the fact is we tend to think too small.

In fact, we cannot exaggerate what the Advent of God’s Messiah is all about!

Visit our special Advent Resource page for additional preaching ideas for the upcoming Season of Advent and Christmas!  

Illustration Idea

As Frederick Buechner once noted, happiness pops up pretty much where you would expect it: graduations, weddings, award ceremonies, births.  But joy is more unpredictable.  Joy can and often is present at also happy occasions but it is just as likely to show up at funerals and in the wake of great national or international tragedies.  Joy’s roots run deep–deep enough not to be torn up out of the soil of our hearts every time a gale force wind howls or when the earth is shaken by evil.  Joy emerges from the deep-down belief that at bottom, in the end as in the beginning, a God of love rules the world and his good purpose will not be thwarted ever.  Joy emerges from the core belief that although sin and terrible events often loom large, they cannot and will not erase the fundamental goodness with which God endowed this creation in the beginning.  Whether or not we can see the proverbial “silver lining” in the face of unhappy events, joy believes that goodness and grace endure and will one day be the all in all for every last creature in God’s new kingdom.

So just because you may not smile all the time, just because you may be the kind of person who seems hard-wired to exude a certain amount of melancholy a good bit of the time, just because we Christians know how to weep as well as we know how to laugh–none of that means we cannot still have joy.  In short, I don’t want to equate joy with having a sunnyside-up personality.  At the same time, however, neither should we miss the fact that if we have deep down joy and delight through our faith in Jesus Christ, that should show itself in many, many ways across the life of this fellowship.  But if we find that as individuals or collectively as a congregation that we are never able to convey a certain jouer de vivre, a joyful élan, a spirit of holy gusto when it comes to celebrating the good and delightful things of creation–if we find that we never do that, then something is wrong with us.

In his book The Longing for Home Buechner describes a scene set in, of all places, Sea World in Orlando, Florida.  One day some years ago Buechner, his wife, and his daughter were sitting in some bleachers at Sea World to watch a killer whale show.  As Buechner describes it, what with the sun glistening off the water, the clear blue sky above, the handsome young people in bathing suits who were running the show, and in the center of it all the exuberant antics of those magnificent whales, suddenly Buechner, his wife, and daughter discovered their eyes were filled with tears.  Why?  Buechner thinks it is because they had caught a glimpse of God’s peaceable kingdom, of the way things should be but mostly aren’t, and the joy if it all nearly crushed their hearts.

In a real way you can’t plan for that type of joy.  You cannot orchestrate events guaranteed to bubble up joy in you.  In its sheer emotive force, in the “bring-tears-to-your-eyes” sense I just described, you also are unlikely to feel this kind of joy all the time.  And so we might join most people in the world in concluding that joy, like laughter and happiness, comes and goes depending on what kind of a day you’re having.

But Isaiah tells us that the day will come when joy will not be a fleeting, on-again / off-again phenomenon—it will overtake and overwhelm us.  Joy will be everywhere!


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