For those who want a change from the Gospel
S Luke – Isaiah 35:3-6
Uncharacteristically I’ve chosen to go with St Luke today, rather than Trinity 19. I’m not big on Saints’ days – I’ll tell you why in a moment – but it seemed appropriate as new and even more confusing lockdown regulations have just been announced and we have as many hospitalisations as we had when lockdown was first introduced back in the Spring. Dr Luke would be having a field day if he were alive now!
As always our lectionary gives us a mere snippet of the passage which really ought to be read at the very least from verses 1 to 10 (sorry to sound like a cracked record on this – it’s almost as though we’re trying to get away with as little Scripture in our services as possible). In the next fortnight I’ll be teaching my students at the Lincoln School of Theology about exegesis, and the importance of asking the right questions of a passage. So let’s begin with two: where? and when?
Isaiah answers the first very clearly: the desert or wilderness (v.1). The setting for this passage, described by two Hebrew words in parallel is a vast place of desolation, parched and arid. These words are used in the OT as deep symbols, just as we talk today about finding ourselves in the wilderness. It’s a place where we can feel alone and abandoned, where we can easily get lost, a place which is scary and evil. Nothing grows there, and there is neither food nor water to sustain us, but dangerous animals lurk threateningly. In later thought it is the place where demons live, where Jesus himself went to be tested. But it is also a place of encounter with God, where wisdom may be gained and God’s care and provision experienced. Many Christians who have suffered would testify to the value of the desert in their spiritual growth.
It is into this arid landscape that the glory and splendour of God are going to appear. That will make all the difference, to the land itself, as dryness gives way to fruitfulness and beauty, and to the people, who will find healing and restoration. The blind will see, the deaf will hear, the dumb will shout praises, and the lame will dance for joy.
That’s the ‘Where?’ question, but what about ‘When?’ Suddenly Isaiah goes very quiet. We just don’t know, and probably neither did he. All this wonder and joy will come to pass, but we have not a clue when, exactly.
This is a passage, therefore, for people who are suffering and have no idea how long this is going to go on for. Isaiah gives no predictions, not even a clue, but at the same time he is absolutely clear that things will change. You may or may not share our Prime Minister’s unshakeable belief that together we will beat this virus, but Isaiah’s confidence is not based on wishful thinking or the Blitz spirit: he knows that God is going to show up, and he alone will turn wilderness weeping into joy and jubilation.
But all that is by way of background: we’ve hardly touched the verses actually set in our lectionary. And there we find a bit of a surprise. I wonder how you read verses 3-4? Is this God speaking to you, telling you to buck your ideas up? Did you find those verses comforting? Well I’m afraid that isn’t what the text says. It isn’t a comfort – it’s a commission. You – God’s people – are to get out there and start telling feeble-handed, weak-kneed, frightened people that there’s no need to fear, because God is coming. When? No idea, but he is. He’s coming to save you. These are not words of comfort to scared and weary wilderness dwellers. They are words of challenge to those who live with others in the wilderness but can see beyond its boundaries. The sand and the sun have not blinded our sight; the sickness and desolation have not robbed us of hope. We believe and trust in God.
Maybe this, then, is why this OT reading is coupled with today’s Gospel, the sending out of the 72 to teach and heal. The reason I’m not that keen on celebrating saints is that while I understand we’re supposed to look to their example and be encouraged to emulate them, in real life I reckon they do more to de-skill us than inspire us. I’ve heard quite a few sermons which have left me feeling ‘I could never in a million years do anything like that!’ Can I get an ‘Amen’ to that? Too much sainthood can leave ordinary Christians like us feeling even more useless. But Isaiah’s message to us today is surely an encouraging one – you, who are living with all your friends and family in the same wilderness, not knowing how long this is going to last, can think differently about it. You can be those whom God uses to strengthen others. Not because you have some great insight into when God is going to act, but simply because you believe he will.