Be glad and rejoice!
The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad; the desert shall rejoice and blossom like the crocus;
it shall blossom abundantly and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God.
Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who have an anxious heart, “Be strong; fear not! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you.”
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy. For waters break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; in the haunt of jackals, where they lie down, the grass shall become reeds and rushes.
And a highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Way of Holiness; the unclean shall not pass over it. It shall belong to those who walk on the way; even if they are fools, they shall not go astray.
No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there. And the ransomed of the Lord shall return and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away. (Isaiah 35:1-10 ESV)
For most of you, Christmas is all about cold and grey and, if possible, snow – the need for shelter even if only for animals is important in the bleak mid winter; and also for you Easter’s message of new life makes sense in spring (indeed the word ‘Lent’ comes from the Old English meaning to lengthen – when the days are lengthening in spring as the world revives from the cold); Pentecost is on the border of summer and is most apt when you have tongues of fire around ready to set the church on its unstoppable mission to the world. The northern hemisphere influence over the church year is quite strong – ask someone from the southern hemisphere! So what do you make of Isaiah’s prophecy today where we find ourselves in a wilderness, a dry land, a desert? Doesn’t gel, right? Maybe not, but I hear echoes of the outback in Australia and the hot and often dry summer which makes for a ‘proper’ Advent and Christmas!
At first glance, our text doesn’t seem apt for our context – unless we have a focus on Isaiah – which the Advent readings this year do(!). The promise of relief and help is a message that needs to be heard when the usual news, messages, views are gloom and doom and when, in the stillness of our hearts, we wonder at the
mystery of human evil and the apparent futility of life. Ultimately lack of water means death, lack of hope means death but in the mean time so much of living is hobbled – blinded, hard of hearing, lame and limping in our bodies as they are battered and aged, in our relationships when people turn our lives upside down with sin, in our society when evil attacks us like a pack of wild animals – so that even in our cold climate, the image of the staggering, parched person in the desert resonates with people whose lives struggle with gladness and praise.
Isaiah’s message is a call to gladness and praise! The desert will blossom and bloom and the people will rejoice because God will turn up and the relief will palpable. God is fixing things! We hear that God will bring about his ‘vengeance’, his ‘recompense’, and he will ‘save’ – and we might wonder what he is going to do and to whom. The Hebrew poetry would have us understand these words as parallels – God is going to restore those damaged by injustice and evil – God is going to balance the books between good and evil and settle accounts (the world-wide cry that evil people so often ‘get away with things’ will be shown to be false) – and God will save his people as their saviour-judge – and all of this is good news which revives and strengthens God’s people.
The revival, strengthening, and transformation of God’s people is seen in the recovery of life in its fullness – the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame leap like a deer – which we assume, I suspect, firstly as physical healing but is instead Isaiah’s use of wisdom imagery that in relation to God, people are blind, deaf, and stumbling in the dark. Humanity is in the desert of its own making – we are not victims of God’s righteousness (poor us, God made things so tough no wonder we sin – a common excuse today – in various forms) – human beings are rebellious towards God and we create our own hell – yet God comes and rescues and restores – so we can see him, hear him, and follow him – and if physical healing comes as well then we can be glad and praise God for that too.
And Isaiah doesn’t leave us there in the desert; God certainly doesn’t for his prophecy continues with God’s restoration of the desert with waters cooling the parched land and the creation of the path – the Way of Holiness – on which God’s people walk home. Again the imagery is stark – it is a place of safety – the lions and other ravenous beasts will not attack or destroy for the people are going home – even the foolish will not go astray – and what do they do on this path? They shall be glad and praise God!
This Way of Holiness is not a good moral code. We cannot be holy no matter how moral we might be. Here is one of the biggest confusions throughout the UK (and Australia for that matter) about the Church and Christianity – that is about people ‘being good’. Hence you have ideas like “I can’t be a Christian because I’m not good” or a deeper version is “I don’t want to be a Christian because it’s too boring a lifestyle”. We hear this attitude in modern eulogies or news reports of the dead – that he or she was so ‘kind’ or ‘giving’ – and the implication is that therefore he or she should be in heaven – a good place – if there is one! Holiness is tied up into this mess and what is simply forgotten is that God is the only one who is holy. God makes others holy – they do not become god(s)!! – when he touches them – for holiness is transmitted through touch. God makes people to be in relationship with him – such that they can be close to him – such that God can live with his people, be close to them – such that they can be glad and praise him!
In Advent we think of journeys – God coming to us in the person of Jesus – his incarnation at Christmas – in his glory for all to see at the Second Coming – and now our desert text tells us that God is making things new now! At worship, where we have Holy Baptism, Holy Communion, and the Holy Bible – we have oasis in the desert – we here are on the Way of Holiness – because God is saving us and bringing about life with him – that is why we should be glad in this place and why we should rejoice.
We look forward and know that one day we will share in God’s glory in heaven – it will be glorious and we will be glad and rejoice. There will be an end to sickness, tragedy, disability, sadness, and death for there is a new life that is best described as having no pain, no suffering, no tears, only joy – gladness and praise. This is our future and, through faith, this is our present!
And we today can go back into our lives with gladness and praise – even if things are tough – especially if things are tough – strengthened to keep going – disciplined or should I say – discipled – following Jesus. This has daily effects on our lives – from struggling with our own pet sins to seeking how best to serve those around us in our relationships. The world wants to see God as a magic genii and also wants to see him on its own terms – meeting our needs, giving us pleasure, doing our bidding. Yet Christians on the Way of
Holiness learn only of God through Jesus and him crucified and the life of repentance and ongoing struggle. This is not easy marketing today – come, take up your cross and follow me – but there is no other lifestyle for the redeemed in any desert.
And so we are glad and we rejoice!
- Isaiah 35:1 - 10