For those who want a change from the Gospel
Advent 3 – Isaiah 35
A couple of weeks ago our vicar asked during a sermon how one might sum up the message of the whole Bible in five words. He suggested just two ‘But God’. This would certainly have resonated with the early Acts speeches, where the phrase comes again and again: You crucified Jesus, but God raised him from the dead. Our God is a God who reverses human sin and evil, folly and mischief, who rescues us from the consequences of our sin and stupidity and brings order again out of the chaos we have created. This is a major theme of Advent, as we rekindle hope in dark times, and await and pray for the return of Jesus as judge and general sorter-out of our world. But what might that actually look like? I have often referred to a kind of summary passage from Rev 21: a new heavens and a new earth will mean that death or mourning or crying or pain will be over and done with. But this chapter of Isaiah puts a bit more flesh on the bones, and talks about five different spheres of healing which will come about with the return of Jesus, although of course Isaiah was not prophesying about Jesus, but almost certainly about the return of the people from exile in Babylon and the restoration of their fortunes in a world of international oppression. As we have said before, Isaiah’s hopes for the people did not work out as he might have expected, and we are still waiting for our return from exile to the home where we really belong. But let’s look at the text through the lens of our Advent season, and see what hope it might engender in us.
1) The Environment
You don’t have to be a Christian to be concerned about the deforestation of our planet, climate change, and all the other fears which have almost become a religion in our times. Activists glue themselves to motorways or hang up in bridges, and environmentalism is taught in our schools with all the fervour with which Christianity was taught in the past. I’m not a climate-change sceptic, but I am a bit sceptical about our human attempts to reverse anything much. The city of Jerusalem was naturally pretty well-watered, but you can imagine the exiles in the desert of Babylon thinking of their torn down and abandoned homeland as parched and dead. Promises of crocuses and cedar trees can be a powerful image of restoration, but for us the image has passed from being a metaphor into an ecological reality. Of course we must all do what we can, but the passage reminds us that our world is ultimately in the control of God, and is his to restore, a truth often underplayed by Christians today.
2) The Fearful
Isaiah’s second promise is for those who have become fearful, and for whom the events of life have taken their debilitating toll. We are living through a mental health pandemic every bit as real as the Covid one, and any who have suffered from mental illness will know just how physically it can affect us. But there is something else here, I think. God will deal with their fear by vengeance and retribution. This speaks of physical, human enemies, not just psychological ones. The exiles will have known more than their fair share of bullying and oppression, and God promises healing through the removal of their enemies.
3) The Sick
Healing will be physical as well as emotional, and I note with interest that the kinds of issues which are the subject of God’s healing intervention are what nowadays we would call disabilities. Again Isaiah is probably using these terms as metaphors for the political health of the nation, and the disabling sense of powerlessness which comes from captivity, but in our days when the Western Church has all but lost its Spirit-given ability to heal, and in which disability is celebrated, we may need to remind ourselves of God’s deeper agenda for wholeness.
Verses 6b and 7 may be a reprise of v.1-2, but they may also take us somewhere deeper, in fact back to the creation itself. As a result of human disobedience nature became hostile to the human race: anything from weeds to wasps became a nuisance or worse to us. Isaiah holds out before his readers a vision of a renewed creation where humans, animals and plants live harmoniously together. This motif lifts the story out of being merely a prediction of rescue from exile, and places it within the eschatological tradition of a perfect world.
5) The Lost and Sorrowing
Finally Isaiah takes his readers to a highway which again is more than just the desert road back to Jerusalem. Those who choose to walk in the way of holiness and obedience to God will find their way home, and will return with great joy to the place where they really have belonged all along. They will be untouched by the ravages of hostile nature and wicked people, and their bliss will be an eternal one.
Isaiah, and his hearers, could not really see much beyond the joy of their homecoming to the city of Jerusalem, but Advent gives us a longer perspective, as we reread his words in the light of our eternal home. Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus!