The Way Home
| Isaiah 35
|Sun, December 12, 2004
Rev. Ed Searcy
|A Sunday ago we pondered the odd truth that we cannot get to Jesus - or to Christmas - without being confronted by John the Baptist. The four gospels all begin not with Jesus, but with John. John is the announcer and the preparer. The gospel always and everywhere begins with his stump sermon: “Turn your lives around - because here comes the kingdom of heaven!” This desire to turn - this longing for conversion - is the necessary precondition for all who would follow Jesus. Repentance is the sign of a gospel people. In fact, I daresay, one of the first things one would hope to discover in a congregation’s life is a longing to change - and to be changed - so as to be fit for life in the kingdom of God. A deep desire for conversion is essential. Without it, says John, there can be no “fruit worthy of repentance” ... and if there is no fruit then the tree itself will be cut down and thrown into the fire (Matt 3:7-10). A church that is not seeking its own conversion is a church that will be judged unworthy. So says John. So we said a Sunday ago. The gospel begins with John and with turning and with judgment.
The gospel begins there. But it does not end there. The texts move on. They open up more of our pilgrim journey home, home to the kingdom of God that is closer than we imagine. The Advent texts address us as exiles who reside in a strange culture, far from home. We imagined that getting to Christmas is all about preparing our homes for the arrival of a baby. It turns out, instead, that Advent is a season in which we hear the call of God to leave the familiar behind and to venture on the Way to the kingdom come. This is the “Way of the LORD” that John comes to prepare. It is not so much a way for the Lord to come to us, as it is a way for us to follow on our journey home. This is the way that Isaiah preaches about in this morning’s text ... and what a sermon it is.
Isaiah preaches an incredible gospel of hope to a despairing people. Their collective life has been judged and found wanting. They have lost everything. The fire that John the Baptist announces for the unrepentant has swept over them and their land and their way of life. They cannot imagine that life can be redeemed, can be made worthwhile, can be saved. Despair is the ‘Seasonal Affective Disorder’ of every exilic community. Going home becomes an impossible dream. And the more impossible the homecoming, the greater the temptation to relinquish citizenship in the kingdom of God and to take up full citizenship in Babylon. After all, if we are not going home, why bother to teach the children and grandchildren the ‘mother tongue’ or the once familiar customs of another land? And anyone with any sense can see that going home to God’s world is not going to be possible. The journey from a culture hooked on consumption and competition to the place and time where God reigns - where none are left behind or forgotten or trampled or neglected - is too long, too arduous, too dangerous.
But Isaiah insists otherwise. He looks at the bleak landscape that lies between us and our true home and sees something else: “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. Isaiah sees the impassable death valley triad of trouble: wilderness, dry land, desert. Arid creation. Nothing fertile. Is he naming the earth’s wounded ecosystems? Is he describing the landscape of the North American church? Is he glimpsing our parched lives? Yes. Yes. And yes. But he does not see a bleak future. Isaiah announces blossoms and gladness, joy and singing. “Like the crocus”, he says, “it shall blossom abundantly”. The crocus is the first surprising sign of life to emerge from the frozen, barren prairie. Notice how this single line of Isaiah’s poetic sermon has become a shorthand for the gospel. Early translations of this text called the flower not a crocus but a rose. And Christian preachers pointed to Jesus - born in a manger and raised from the tomb - as the first flowering of God’s kingdom come, first sign of hope for a new season after a long season of endings. From those sermons comes a beloved carol: “Lo, how a rose e’er blooming from tender stem hath sprung ... It came a blossom bright, amid the cold of winter, when half spent was the night.”
This fertile, abundant future is cause for the transformation and renewal of a people caught up in despair ... despair that otherwise leads inevitably to chronic apathy and chronic fatigue. Isaiah proclaims the good news, saying: “Strengthen the weak hands and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you’. Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.” Isaiah announces God’s insurgency. God comes “with vengeance, with terrible recompense” to save despairing exiles from disability and dysfunction. Now the people can see and hear again, they are mobile and agile once more. Now a mute and despondent people can suddenly be heard singing for joy.
Isaiah does not give guidance on how to strengthen weak hands or make firm the feeble knees. He does not provide physio-therapy instructions. He simply tells those who hear him to “say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong, do not fear! He is your God’.” Isaiah offers three imperatives: strengthen, make firm, say. This is what is required of he waiting community. It is to prepare for the journey that is about to take place. Strengthen hands and knees and hearts for the adventure that lies just around the corner. God is at hand. Right here. Making a way through once impassable, impossible terrain. The future that seemed so closed and fixed and fated is about to open up to reveal an unexpected path. Everything in Isaiah’s sermon rests on this deep, passionate trust in God’s future that is now at hand. There is nothing in Isaiah’s poem that points back or remembers when. There is nothing in Isaiah’s sermon, for that matter, that points to the present to say ‘here’ or ‘there’. It is all set in the future tense. Everything is going to happen. Nothing has happened yet. Twenty four times in these ten verses the English translation uses the word ‘shall’ - “shall be glad, shall rejoice and blossom, shall see the glory, shall be opened, shall leap like a deer”. This daring future orientation arises out of the most desperate of situations. We might have expected a promising future to emerge from a golden age of faithfulness. But the amazing hope of Jews and of Christians breaks into a world shrouded with despair and defeat. This radical hope is the treasure of good news that has been entrusted to us.
This is the good news that John the Baptizer announces. He prepares a people who now live back home in Israel for a new pilgrimage. It turns out that Isaiah’s prophecy of homecoming is not only about a physical return to the Promised Land from Babylon. The “Holy Way” that the prophet foresaw is also a renewed path of faithfulness - a path carved through the wilderness of sin by a Messiah who will save his lame people from blindness and deafness. John and Isaiah are radical prophets of hope. They boldly declare the impossible - that, incredibly, God is up to something new. Both Isaiah and John gamble on this future hope and invite us to do the same: “Prepare the way of the Lord. Turn your living around. Strengthen weak hands. Make feeble knees firm. Say to the fearful: ‘Be strong’.” God is moving toward us from tomorrow. Organize your life accordingly. Prepare home and office. Prepare church and nation. Prepare heart, mind and soul. So say Isaiah and John. The only data they offer is their testimony. They have heard remarkable news. They believe it to be true. They must announce and forewarn.
But this is not only Isaiah’s word and John’s word. It is our word as well. The church exists because we have also heard the remarkable news that God’s kingdom is coming. This is the truth around which we organize our life ... or, at least, claim to when we are not distracted by the idolatry of our time. We are a people being changed by the good news that in Jesus Christ God is making this world new ... even this life of ours new. Yet for us it is not only a future hope. Our trust is grounded in memory. The future has already broken into history. With John, we have heard the astounding news that when Jesus comes near “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them” (Matt. 11:4-5). More than that, in our number there are those who testify that this is true. We are a company of the dis-abled - blind, lame, unclean, deaf, dead and impoverished - who have received healing and who are being made new even here and now. Our testimony of the kingdom that is to come is grounded in the taste we have already received of the kingdom that has already come, at this Table and in this Word made flesh among us. “And the rescued of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.” Hallelujah. Amen.