15th Dec Advent 3
As with previous passages from Isaiah there is more than one focus, and more than one expected fulfilment here, but to understand it we need to do a bit of background digging first. It is generally accepted that our book of Isaiah is actually the work of three different authors, writing at three very different times in history and into three very different situations. However, it is not as clear cut as being able to say that chapters 1-39 date from this period, 40-55 from this, and 56-66 from another. In fact this passage from chapter 35 looks far more as though it belongs in the middle section: its language and message are far more appropriate to that era.
These middle chapters, written by someone we only know as ‘Deutero-Isaiah’ (now there’s a great name for your next kid!), were addressing a bunch of people who were living in exile, far from home, under an oppressive regime, and in what they regarded as a highly pagan society. So not unlike C21 Britain feels for Christians then. The message in a nutshell is this: things are going to get better. In fact they’re going to get better in lots of ways: the land itself will blossom, nature will be at harmony, healing and refreshment will be available, and God will ‘come’ with saving power to rescue and restore those who have become faint and weary from their exile.
I’ll leave you to draw your own parallels with the toughness of life today, and the hope of heaven made real by the first coming of Jesus and to be worked out fully at his return. Passages from the middle chapters of Isaiah are among some of the most comforting in the whole Bible, and like me you probably can’t hear them without wanting to burst into song with some lovely bits of Handel’s Messiah. But we must notice one more theme in this passage, a theme which occurs again and again in Deutero-Isaiah’s writings. The theme is that of separation or distinction.
There are some lovely promises here, but they aren’t for everybody. ‘Only the redeemed will walk there’ says v 9. ‘The unclean will not journey on it’ v 8 tells us. In fact the Bible is riddled with this kind of language. For me or against me, children of wrath or children of mercy, darkness or light, friendship or enmity with God … and we find it deeply offensive in our multi-cultural world to think that God might not welcome everyone and anyone, as long as they’re not really nasty like Hitler or someone. But this inconvenient truth invites us into a major theme of Advent – self examination and penitence. Are we feeble, fearful and about to give up? Do we know our need of healing? Or are we proudly assuming we’ll be fine because God wouldn’t dare do anything horrible to us? Advent isn’t good news for everyone, any more than Jesus’ first coming was.