A sermon preached at St Swithin’s Lincoln on April 7th 2019
Regular thoughts on the oft-neglected Old Testament Lectionary passages.
We begin by noting two somewhat strange things about this passage. The first is that it reads much more like Deutero-Isaiah (chapters 40-55) than Isaiah of Jerusalem, in whose section of the whole book is it placed. It seems as though this chapter has become detached, although the bigger context demonstrates well why this might be an appropriate place for it. The second strange thing is why on earth our dear friends the lectionary compilers have whipped an odd three and a half verses out of a chapter which makes perfect sense, and which falls neatly into two halves midway through our passage.
In a bigger context still chapter 35 contrasts dramatically with the preceding chapter, an announcement of God’s judgement. Edom in particular is singled out for punishment, and there are vivid pictures of a thriving land reverting to desert under the Lord’s vengeance. By contrast, therefore, the Israelites in chapter 35 are to experience two events: God himself coming among them (v 1-6a) and the nation’s return from exile as the desert once again becomes fruitful (v 6b-10).
One key word which links all these thoughts together is the word ‘vengeance’ in v 4. We usually tend to see rescue and vengeance as two equal and opposite things, which show God as nice and nasty respectively. But the Hebrew word naqam is more nuanced than that: it refers to judgement and punishment by a legitimate authority, and so that justice can be restored for those who have been treated badly. Sometimes you can’t have justice and liberation without punishment: Moses as well as Isaiah knew that.
Like many prophecies there is something of a telescope effect here. Just when are we to expect the fulfilment of these words? On an immediate level the text clearly refers to the return from exile in Babylon, and the language of highways and blossoming deserts is unmistakably linked to later passages such as chapter 40. But the healing of v 5-6 sounds more Messianic and even eschatological. Does ‘entering Zion’ in v 10 refer merely to the return to Jerusalem, or does it seek fulfilment much further ahead in the heavenly city? The Bible often uses this multi-staged approach, and seems to remain deliberately vague. Sometimes the small positives in our lives can point to a much bigger and eternal reality, and hope can sustain us and spur us on in our discipleship.
Note also the language of separation implicit in this passage, as it is throughout the Bible, making life very difficult for universalists. The fearful, the weak, the blind, deaf and lame are to the be recipients of God’s favour, while the unclean wicked fools will be excluded. Only the redeemed, those whom God has rescued, will enter Zion. We need to make sure that through Christ our Messiah we are those who will receive the restitution part of God’s naqam, and not the punishment.
Image: By Rennett Stowe from USA (Desert Flowers Uploaded by russavia) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
This week’s image of the church is one you won’t find in so many words anywhere in Scripture, and yet it is implied on virtually every page. The word ‘pilgrim’ and its relative terms do not occur in my NIV version at all. And yet from that fateful moment in Gen 3 when Adam and Eve are driven out of Eden God’s people have been people on the move. Another landmark of pilgrimage comes in Gen 12 when God tells Abraham to ‘leave’ all that he knows and to ‘go’ to the place yet to be revealed to him. This is the essence of pilgrimage, leaving, journeying and, eventually, arriving. It is interesting that in the Bible arrival is often synonymous with ‘rest’: Hebrews 4 talks about this particularly. So a good definition of church which works well for me is that we are a bunch of people on a journey to the new heavens and earth, and inviting others to join us as we go. As a model of church this one has a lot going for it: it is dynamic, not static; it is purposeful, and it is evangelistically focussed. For those with the right mindset it can be an exciting, exploratory journey, with new possibilities and no opportunity to get bored. Some however find this model a bit exhausting, perhaps those who prefer a holiday lying on the beach in the same place they go every year rather than cruising the Caribbean or climbing Kilimanjaro.
I can remember years ago hearing a charismatic speaker talking about the frequent accusations of ‘triumphalism’ levelled again the renewal movement. ‘I don’t believe in “triumphalism”’, he commented, ‘but I do believe in triumph!’ Since then my definition of ‘triumphalism’ has been ‘wanting your triumph too early before it’s ready’. I think there is something similar going on in church circles: so often we want our rest too early. Next time I’ll be looking at church as ‘haven’, the idea that church is a safe place amid the storms and ravages of life. By definition pilgrims do not play it safe, do not settle down, do not retrace old ground, but keep moving forward, setting their faces towards the new Jerusalem whatever hardship might await them on the way. Perhaps the greatest definition of a pilgrim lifestyle is that of Paul in Phil 3:12-14:
Not that I have … already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13 Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: forgetting what is behind and straining towards what is ahead, 14 I press on towards the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenwards in Christ Jesus.
So what would a ‘pilgrim’ church look like? It would first and foremost be adventurous, never playing it safe. It would be, in the immortal words, ‘purpose-driven’, and it would have about it a sense of wonder and excitement. It would know how to celebrate, not just because of the ultimate destination but also because of the little staging posts safely reached along the way. It would attract younger people and men, and it would be gloriously life-affirming.
Sounds good to me!