Third Sunday in Advent

Our text for this third Sunday in Advent is Isaiah 35, a message of hope and comfort.
Isaiah offers a promise of the assurance of God’s divine care,
even in the midst of strong words of warning and judgment.
When we study the psalms, we often categorize them as psalms of orientation,
disorientation, or new orientation.
Sometimes, our lives feel oriented; everything is going well. Life is good.
At other times, we feel disoriented, frustrated, alone. God may seems distant and uncaring.
Then, after some event of salvation, we come to know the joy of new orientation,
after we have been quite literally in the pit, but found ourselves on solid footing again.
Isaiah 35 offers a word of hope and promise, in the midst of distress, for new orientation to come.

In the Church, we do not begin Christmas celebrations just after Thanksgiving.
We do not turn directly to the joy of the season, but very intentionally spend four weeks
doing the Advent preparation of waiting and reflecting.
Running counter to our culture, the Church does not talk not simply about what has already happened
in Jesus Christ, but we look forward in hope for the salvation that is yet to come.
As we are well aware, we live in an “already, but not yet” world.
Jesus Christ has already been born among us, but the world is not yet fully redeemed.
Jesus has already shown us the way, but we have not yet chosen to walk in his paths.
Jesus already came to reconcile us to God and others, but we are not yet living fully reconciled lives.

Just prior to our text for today,
Isaiah has offered these reminders of how the people are in need of salvation:
There are those who take advantage of others,
who use their wealth or power for economic advantage, strangling the poor
There are unfaithful prophets in the land, who say only what the people want to hear,
who talk not of difficult subjects, but smile and say all will be well, if you just trust in God.
There are those who belittle God’s Word, who have no interest in keeping God’s commandments.
There are those whose ultimate trust is in a powerful military instead of in the Lord.
As it turns out, life is not all that different today than it was thousands of years ago.

Then, the prophet offers recommendations for those who desire to find the path of salvation,
who are desperately aware of the need for new orientation.
Isaiah offers very practical recommendations for any who are looking for refuge in the Lord,
for any who recognize the troubling signs of the times and realize our current need for a Savior to come. The prophet suggests that we:
Walk in righteousness, do what is right and good in the eyes of God.
Live faithfully in relationships with others.
Speak the truth, always.
Never go along with wrongdoing in order to get along with others.

Isaiah 35, in the midst of words of judgment and calls to faithfulness,
offers a bold vision of the hopeful life to come, a new life made possible by God’s saving actions.

Isaiah 35:1-10
The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus 2it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing.
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 unstopped;
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 traveller, 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.

In present circumstances, regardless of how desperate or challenging or frustrating they may be,
we have confidence for the future based upon what God has done in the past.
Is your spiritual life these days like a well-watered garden, beautiful,
and full of blossoming trees and blooming flowers?
Or is it more like a dry and parched land, desperately in need of rain?
Is your life with others, especially if there are difficult people in your life –
whole and well and fully able? Or are any of your relationships marked by disabilities –
the lack of ability to communicate, to understand one another, to collaborate?

We recognize that God is at work when the desert blooms,
when the wilderness blossoms and the thirsty riverbeds become flowing streams once again.
These images are particularly powerful in the Middle East,
where dry lands are common and the Sahara Desert stretches across several countries.
What had been dry, parched, hopeless now is fertile again.
In the day of the Lord’s salvation, those places where life could not previously be sustained
suddenly find new life and growth and even abundant well-being.
The first word of comfort of the prophet is that wilderness lands, vast deserts, spiritually or otherwise,
which separate us from God and one another, will be transformed.

We also recognize that God is at work when the disabled become able,
when those with weak hands and feeble knees and fearful hearts find strength again
God enables the blind to see again –literally and figuratively.
God enables the deaf to hear – those who have not heard God’s voice for a long time
once again hear the subtle urges calling in the night.
God enables the lame not only to walk, but to leap like the deer.
And the ones who have been mute will shout for joy and even sing joyfully to the glory of God.
When the day of God’s salvation comes,
all those who have suffered within the constraints of what has bound them,
of what has kept them from full interaction with God and others, will be set free.

Restoring life and possibility for the disabled was a central aspect of Jesus’ earthly ministry.
John the Baptist’s followers approached Jesus early in his ministry and asked:
“Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”
Jesus replied, look around you: “the blind receive sight, the lame walk, the deaf hear,
and good news is preached to the poor.”
The prophecies of old were being realized in front of their eyes.

We recognize that God is at work when we find that there is a way where there was no way.
Thomas Dorsey wrote an old spiritual song titled “The Lord Will Make A Way Somehow”.
Like a ship that’s tossed and driven, battered by an angry sea.
When the storms of life are raging, and their fury falls on me.
I wonder what I have done, to make this race so hard to run.
(Then I say to my soul, soul take courage),
The Lord will make a way somehow.
The Lord will make a way somehow
Bob Marley picked up this old spiritual, sang it in his own unique way, and added this verse:
Many a nights I toss in pain
Wondering what the day might be bringing
Then I say to my soul, take your courage
The Lord will make a way somehow
The Lord will make a way somehow

In the Bible, there are three primary stories of salvation, of God making a way somehow –
Exodus, Exile, and Easter.
The Exodus from Egypt – the ex-odos – the “way out” from slavery.
Inspired at the burning bush, Moses, the runaway fugitive, returns to the powerful halls of Egypt
to lead a slave people to freedom. This defining event for both Judaism and Christianity,
the journey out of Egypt through the waters of the sea and into the Promised Land,
is the prime example of God providing a way where there was no way.
Since God desired to deliver God’s people before and followed through on that promise,
Jews and Christians have maintained great confidence over the years in God’s desire and ability
to save in the midst of current distress.

The Return from Exile, or second Exodus, about which Isaiah wrote,
serves as the second main narrative of God’s saving activity.
After Jerusalem had been utterly destroyed in 587 BCE, literally flattened and burned,
and all the leaders of the people had been carried off to Babylon for a generation,
the exiles were allowed to return to Jerusalem under Cyrus of Persia.
The return of the exiles across the Fertile Crescent, the highway through the desert,
was another defining moment in Jewish history.
When all was thought lost, when the people wondered if they could possibly sing the Lord’s song
in a distant and foreign land, the return to Jerusalem was experienced as hope for the future.
Though the people had been severely punished for their faithlessness,
God had not entirely given up on God’s people.
The literal crossing of the Fertile Crescent, returning from Babylon to Jerusalem,
made for a rich symbol of those who deeply desired to return to the Temple,
to the ideal of peace and joy in communion with God.
A highway through the desert made it possible for those exiled to return.
This Holy Highway provided a safe and secure return, a safe passage,
for those who had been separated from God and others.
The metaphor of this highway has enabled countless souls who have been far away
to leave their troubles behind and return home, to their spiritual home, and to their people.

The third main story of salvation in Holy Scripture is the resurrection.
Centuries after the return from Exile, Jesus would proclaim to all who would hear:
“I am the Way”. I am your highway through the desert.
I am the path that you may follow back home.
I will provide you safe passage, an Exodus, a “road out” to where you most need to be.
Even in that ultimate wilderness of death, that final separation from all that we know,
God will provide a way where there was no way.

Exodus, Return from Exile, and Easter – the three great “E’s” of Holy Scripture that remind us
that God will provide a way where there was no way.
A way through the Sea of Reeds, from slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land,
a highway through the desert, from captivity and exile in Babylon to freedom of worship in Jerusalem,
and even a pathway from death to life, from the parched wilderness of death to joy of everlasting life.
God has done this before and will do so again.
All of which means that whatever circumstances we currently face,
whatever wilderness life brings us, however disoriented we may be,
however far away we have found ourselves, enslaved and burdened, or punished and exiled,
or simply lost and wandering alone, God can provide a way.
Whatever circumstances a people or a nation faces, – in blighted urban housing projects,
in desperately poor rural trailer parks, in the violent suburbs of Aleppo,
in the tribal conflicts of South Sudan…whatever wilderness life brings,
however far away a people have found themselves, enslaved and burdened, or punished and exiled,
or lost and wandering bereft, God can provide a way, a way where there seems to be no way.

If the desert can blossom and the disabled can leap like the deer,
then there can be a way where there was no way.
We are not left alone in life’s wildernesses that we inevitably face.
We are not left to wander in exile forever.
We are not forever separated from God and others.

Let the wilderness and dry land be glad…Be strong, do not be afraid,
for God has come and will come again.
Jesus Christ has come and will come again to save.
He is the Way, the Way where there was no way.
While we are waiting…Come Lord Jesus, come quickly.


Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church
Decatur, Georgia
December 11, 2016