Sunday, December 11, 2011

Advent 3 Sermon on Isaiah 35

1 The wilderness and the wasteland shall be glad for them,
      And the desert shall rejoice and blossom as the rose;
       2 It shall blossom abundantly and rejoice,
      Even with joy and singing.
      The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it,
      The excellence of Carmel and Sharon.
      They shall see the glory of the LORD,
      The excellency of our God.
       3 Strengthen the weak hands,
      And make firm the feeble knees.
       4 Say to those who are fearful-hearted,

      “ Be strong, do not fear!
      Behold, your God will come with vengeance,
      With the recompense of God;
      He will come and save you.”
       5 Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
      And the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped.
       6 Then the lame shall leap like a deer,
      And the tongue of the dumb sing.
      For waters shall burst forth in the wilderness,
      And streams in the desert.
       7 The parched ground shall become a pool,
      And the thirsty land springs of water;
      In the habitation of jackals, where each lay,
      There shall be grass with reeds and rushes.
       8 A highway shall be there, and a road,
      And it shall be called the Highway of Holiness.
      The unclean shall not pass over it,
      But it shall be for others.
      Whoever walks the road, although a fool,
      Shall not go astray.
       9 No lion shall be there,
      Nor shall any ravenous beast go up on it;
      It 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,
      With everlasting joy on their heads.
      They shall obtain joy and gladness,
      And sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

As most of you know, I was born in Oregon. I grew up in Roseburg, Oregon as a matter of fact. Right after we moved here, Jennifer and I had the opportunity to travel to my boyhood home while I officiated the wedding of a youth group member from Colorado Springs.

As I headed toward where I grew up after I officiated the wedding in Portland, it was obvious that my joy and anticipation was starting to grow. With each mile, my heart filled with anticipation. Memories came flooding back. As Jennifer drove, I was able to remember familiar places and sign posts from the past. All the small towns on the Old 99 Highway. The paper mill in Albany, Oregon that smells really bad. Autzen Stadium in Eugene. The ice cream shop in Rice Hill. The Winchester Dam that we used to stop at and look for fish on the fish ladder. The lumber mill that my mom’s boyfriend worked at. The beautiful, green Umpqua River. Each mile forward got me closer to home. Closer to the place that I love. Closer to my roots. Closer to that place that I always dreamed of getting back to since I left it in junior high.

To a lesser extent, I feel that anticipation when driving back to Fowler from Pueblo. I check off the streets as I go in my head. I look forward to seeing that bend in the river a little ways on this side of Nepasta where the Arkansas comes close to Highway 50. I know that when I hit that Travel Inn sign that used to be a KFC sign I am less than five minutes from my front door. I look for the signs. I get eager to open the front door and be home.

I know you feel much the same way. Most of us enjoy seeing signs along the road that point us toward home.

This is, in some ways, a similar idea to what God is trying to communicate to Isaiah through Isaiah 35. The image of Isaiah’s journey; however, has greater import than our journeys to our front doors.

The picture is bleak as the story begins. God’s people are in a hard place. The ground is dry and cracked due to the lack of moisture. The people’s bodies are feeble. Their hearts are filled with fear. Some are blind. Some are deaf. Some are crippled.

God’s people, as this is being written, are a discouraged people. They are wondering, have we been abandoned by God? Why then is life THIS hard right now? Why then do I hurt so much? Why am I struggling, God? Why don’t I feel like you are close? Why don’t I feel you at work? What is going on, Lord? Their enemies have beat them up, put them down, and rubbed their nose in the dirt. And they wonder…does God notice? Does God care? Do they matter to him?

And, in the midst of that heartache, in the midst of those doubts, God sends his people good news. He is present. He is listening. They need to look up. They need to rejoice. There salvation is nearer now than they ever anticipated. Because God is about to lead them on a wonderful, beautiful journey home—and provide for them amazing signposts along the way.

So, the prophet, in the midst of heartache, in the midst of physical and emotional pain, and in the midst of difficult circumstances tells the people to have joy. He tells them to rejoice, have joy, or be glad. These words are mentioned 5 times in ten verses. He commands them to do this because he sees what God is doing, and that in the words of soul singer Sam Cooke in the midst of the civil rights movement, he tells them to look up because “change, change is gonna come.” As a matter of fact it is here.

God is on the move. He will not leave us alone in our misery and suffering. He will not leave us alone in our heartbreak. He will not abandon us in a dry and weary land where there is no water. No the message of Advent is that our king, King Jesus, has come and is coming. He is true and he is faithful. King Jesus is making a way out of no way. He’s building a highway to us, with lots of rest and refreshment along the way, and then he is leading us in a victory march to Zion, to the city of God, to the foot of his throne as his own.

So open up your ears, and hear the good news. Open up your eyes, and see his kingdom on the move all around us. Know that your prayers have been heard. You deliverer is coming. And rejoice. And get ready. Prepare your hearts and your lives for the coming king.

To see this hope most clearly, you need to see the passage in its literary context. This chapter has a chiastic structure. This is a type of poetic structure in Hebrew that places the key point of a passage in the middle of the passage, with themes and words matching one another before and after the key point. In this passage they key point is in verse 4. Verse 4 says in the Message, “Tell fearful souls,  "Courage! Take heart! God is here, right here, on his way to put things right and redress all wrongs. He's on his way! He'll save you!"

When things seem like they are out of control, God is listening. When things seem completely hopeless, the one we place our hope in is not far from us. And if we are wise, we will look up, we will look around, and see that he is at work, and see that whether we sense his nearness or he seems far away, he is at work loving us, delivering us, rescuing us, giving us new life and new hope.

So today, no matter our circumstances, if we see the world through the eyes of faith, can have joy. We can have joy because we know the story. We know that it starts with a loving creator speaking the world into being, and it ends in our eternal home with our Precious Savior.
The Scripture urges us to notice all the things that God has done to reach us.  First, it says that he has provided water in the desert. And not just a little water. The Scripture says that streams will burst forth from out of nowhere. That where there was once a parched ground, now there is this spring of fresh water for people to drink out of. And the place that was a scary, parched, windswept wild place will become an oasis.

Several years ago, I was leading a youth group through the desert to San Diego for an urban missions experience. We made our way through Phoenix, cut our way down through this two lane that took us to the interstate that runs right along the border, and we stopped in Yuma. Now, I don’t know how many of you have been to Yuma, but I have to tell you Yuma is not a desirable place to be. It is ugly. It is hot. And the people are not friendly. Anyway…we leave Yuma and we start through this ruggedly beautiful set of jagged mountains that we have to get over to get to San Diego. Those mountains have little pullouts on them about every 2-5 miles. And in these pullouts are little fountains of water that you can stop at when your car overheats driving in 110+ degree weather at steep grades. I began to think what it might be like to have the van we were driving full of kids overheat and have to stop in this spot in the middle of nowhere.  It was a frightening experience.

Life in desert is always a life lived on the margins. Life in that kind of wilderness is not really about living, it is about surviving. It is about getting your family from one day to the next.

And what does God bring to that barely surviving life? Abundance. More water than they needed or could have hoped for. Enough so that they did not have to live their lives just surviving. Instead, through Jesus, God made a way where we could truly live life, and not just survive it. That is why he said, “I have come that they might have life, and have it abundantly”. (John 10:10).

Then, Isaiah also says that God heals those who are disabled, and strengthens those who are weak. The crippled walk. The blind see. The deaf hear. The mute do not simply speak, they sing.

Certainly we see Jesus fulfill this promise in the Gospels. When John the Baptist sends representatives to Jesus to ask if he is the one that is promised, Jesus says, “Tell him the lame walk, the blind see, the deaf hear, and the good news is preached to the poor”. A brief summary of Isaiah 35 and 61—understood as prophecies of the Messiah.

But even today, Jesus offers us his healing. And he offers to make us stronger and more whole. He takes our feeble souls, and gives them strength. He gives us the ability to be who we never thought we could be, and through his Spirit do what we never thought we could do. He changes our lives. He gives us new lives. By his grace.
We also see that Jesus makes a way out of no way. A way for us to walk with God and his people. And then, at the end of our journey, to reside in Zion, eternally in the presence of God.  The Bible says the Messiah makes a Highway of Holiness.

The idea is, as the Messiah seeks to save those in the wilderness, he builds the original road to nowhere. Where there was no way to God, Jesus makes a way to Zion to be in his presence.

The final verses use two other very important words. Redeem and ransom. Both are words used for captives. To ransom is to pay a price to set someone free who has been held captive by someone else. To redeem, in biblical language, is to buy a slaves freedom and restore them to good standing. This passage promises that when Jesus will come he will do both. He will pay the price to set us free, and he will restore us to what he created us to be.

The question is, will we go with Him? He has set us free from slavery to sin. Will we go with Him?

He has offered us life, true life, instead of an existence just trying to survive. Will we trust Him? Will we walk with Him?

He has offered healing to our weak and feeble lives and souls. Will we trust him to heal and strengthen us? Will we walk with this Jesus?

He had made a way where there is no way for us. He has become the way, the truth and the life. He has built a path to us, and now he invites us to get on the road to Zion with Him.

Will you get on that journey home with Jesus? A journey filled with blessing and provision, hope and joy.

I hope you will. Because as you get on the path with Jesus, you will begin to notice things on the journey. You will notice signs along the way. Bends in the road. You will experience a sense of peace and confort as you walk with Jesus. And then, somewhere along the road, you will realize that the journey from the parched wilderness to Zion is not just any simple journey. You will notice that that as you walk with Jesus and you look toward eternity with God, you are not heading to a strange and scary place. You will find as you walk with Jesus, and you see the signs along the road, you will realize that everywhere you have been before you were a stranger and foreigner. As you go with Jesus, and you follow his lead, you will notice he is simply leading you home.

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