Week 3: Christmas Cards from Isaiah
Sermon Audio Podcast for Beech Grove UMC
* Note: Audio may differ from manuscript
35 The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad; the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus 2 it shall blossom abundantly and rejoice with joy and shouting. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God. 3 Strengthen the weak hands and make firm the feeble knees. 4 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.” 5 Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall be opened; 6 then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert; 7 the burning sand shall become a pool and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp; the grass shall become reeds and rushes. 8 A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God’s people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray. 9 No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there. 10 And the ransomed 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. — Isaiah 35:1-10 NRSV
The Desert Blossoms
For every sermon as I do my sermon prep, one of the first things I do is read through the passage that I am preaching on several times. Each time I read it, I note different words, phrases, ideas that stick out to me in my own reading. The immediate first idea that popped into my head as I considered this passage was that second phrase, “the desert shall rejoice and blossom…”1
What an odd concept, that the desert would blossom…
Now, once I note down ideas from the scriptures that come into my mind I start to look through commentaries and what others are saying about this verse to begin to put some meat on my sermon…Lo and behold one of the first commentaries I looked at began in this way;
“When the wilderness blooms, when the desert is fertile, it’s as if nature itself sings a chorus of ‘Alleluia!’”2
Clearly this is a theme that is hitting deep in my soul. Clearly there is something here by noticing blooming within the desert. While I had known that flowers do bloom in the desert the idea of the desert itself blooming seemed strange. However, forgive my innocence, I did not grow up near deserts, but as I kept reading that same commentary they mentioned what is known as a “super bloom.”3 Defined as, “a rare desert botanical phenomenon in which an unusually high proportion of wildflowers whose seeds have lain dormant in desert soil germinate and blossom at roughly the same time. The phenomenon is associated with an unusually wet rainy season.”4 If you have a moment, Google a super bloom, the pictures are beautiful, and it is now wonder that it is such a wonderful sight, but nonetheless it is rare, because of where it happens.
The joy that is experienced in this rare moment, as we see truly what the capabilities of creation can be. The problem is that it is a rare occurrence, and especially with our current climate landscape scientists feel it could become even more rare, as drought is becoming more the norm in these desert areas, especially in the Western part of this country in California, Nevada, Arizona, and even New Mexico.
So this leaves us to wrestle with the nature of joy as it is lived out in our time, when joy often feel far from our conscious. Today’s prophecy calls us to confront the hope and promise of joy as it is given by God.
Our Christmas Card from Isaiah today reads, “Justice in the Desert.”
Now you may be wondering why I chose “justice” and not “joy.” I mean joy is the theme for this third week of advent. We light the candle of joy, the pink one for Gaudete Sunday. In the Catholic Tradition (to which we pull the imagery from), this was a special Sunday, connected to the season of Lent, and marking the halfway point of the season, and in that marking observing the theme of joy, much as folks would do on what is Laetare Sunday during Lent. We often will read Mary’s story, and focus on the joy she embodies within her visit to Elizabeth.
However, forsaking the traditional gospel scriptures, for other passages in the lectionary Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) passages, we see the congruent themes begin to poke themselves out. Now you are thinking, great history lesson pastor, but why justice instead of joy on our Christmas Card today?
Because the joy that we celebrate as we approach this season of Christmas is the joy of God’s justice for the world. Doesn’t it seem fitting to think of the joy of a desert bloom, as a sense of justice for the place who doesn’t get that experience often? Don’t verses 5-7 read like a sense of joy found within the sense of justice that God offers us?
“Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall be opened; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp; the grass shall become reeds and rushes.”5
I ask you now, isn’t one of the ideals we have held onto from our Judaic roots, the understanding that the promise of joy is rooted in justice? Not just a petty justice that serves us and us alone, but a justice for all of creation?
Diving Into Isaiah 35
We seem to have traveled farther into Isaiah (and just for this week, because next week we will be back in chapter 7). However, the lectionary does so intentionally, because remember as I have told you that this is meant to still be a part of that first part of Isaiah (the part written before the conquering of Jerusalem and the Babylonian Exile). These are prophecies of the original prophet Isaiah, and in doing so he is warning Jerusalem about the impending future. However, in our passage today, we get the joy, we get the justice. Surrounding this is the work of Isaiah warning of the destruction that is to come. It is a reminder to the people and leaders of Judah that should they continue on this path of forsaking God it will lead them into relationships that will result in their downfall.
That same King, Hezekiah, we praised last week, will, in the next chapter (36) befriend the Assyrians (Babylonians), and in the end welcoming them into the city in chapter 39. Isaiah sees this as a fools errand that pulls the attention away from God, and Isaiah prophecies of the Babylonian Exile. In the midst of what seems like troubled times ahead for the Judean’s, Isaiah offers prophecy, that while the people of God will be betrayed by their leaders, and they will be conquered and forced into exile, it is this promise of justice in God’s midst that pushes them forward. Even before the fall of Jerusalem, Isaiah wants the people of Judah to reconnect with the ultimate promise of God, that promise of the Kingdom.
Isaiah knows that there is judgement for the nations, but it is God’s justice for God’s people and God’s creation that will stand firm within the nature of salvation and redemption. Justice shall reign, and in that nature of justice we see proclaimed;
“And the ransomed 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.”6
Moving Towards Christmas
In the midst of suffering, God’s Spirit reigns down, and brings justice for those who seek the joy of God. As we connect this to the story of Jesus and the story of Christianity, we being to recognize that joy, as I mentioned earlier, in the blessing of Mary. In Jesus’ birth we are offered this great opportunity to see God’s justice on display. It is an opportunity for the world to be redeemed, a promise for the holy city of the Lord to be built, and a place for the people of God to dwell.
The thing we must recognize, and the thing I fear we miss, oftentimes, is how this is more a message for those who are in the wilderness. The metaphorical nature of verses 5-7 speak wonders to us as we consider the role we play. There is not a literal blind person gaining sight, but it is those who are blind to the injustices of the Kingdom. Those who are deaf to the cries of the needy. Those who fein lame and those who use their tongue for harm. It is a message that the joy of the world, is meant for those who seek out God’s justice within it.
Joy to the World! The Savior Reigns!!!
In the Saviors reign we continue to see both the hope and peace, and recognize the call to each as we live out the joy of the world. Friends the desert may seem dry and barren, but the day is coming when the rains of justice shall come forth, and the desert shall bloom. The day is coming when the blind will see, and the deaf will hear, and the lame will walk again. The day is coming when the Spirit of the one we are moving towards this season will truly usher forth and age of joy as we celebrate together.
The Kingdom Comes
We look towards Judah as an opportunity to know and understand that it does not come in faith of principalities or nationalities, but it comes in faith for God and God’s Kingdom. It comes when we build our greater community, to mirror the Kingdom God calls for us. It comes in the shouts of joy as we experience and share the transformational change in our lives, and the grace and love we offer to creation.
What we are left to wrestle with is how are we making justice out of the joy that God offers the world?
Isaiah 35:1b NRSVUE
Isaiah 35:5-7 NRSVUE
Isaiah 35:10 NRSVUE