Advent Midweek 3
A message based on Isaiah 35:1-10
Just this past week a “historic” water agreement was signed by representatives of Jordan, Israel and the Palestinians. It is being lauded as a win-win solution for everyone involved. Not only will the deal provide more freshwater in an area that badly needs it, but it will also address an economic problem resulting from the shrinking of the Dead Sea and the loss of tourist opportunities there. The agreed upon solution calls for desalinating water from the Red Sea, moving that water to needed places in Jordan, Israel and the West Bank, and then pumping the salty by-product, a brine, into the Dead Sea. Seems like a wonderful solution, doesn’t it? But as you might imagine, there are many who have voiced concerns about the project, especially environmentalists who warn of the potential consequences of mixing brine into the Dead Sea. It’s unclear what might happen. It’s also unclear at this time who is going to be paying for all the needed machinery and equipment. Nonetheless, the project is generating much optimism and of course lots of press.
As Christian people we share in the hope that such win-win solutions to the problems of life can be found. As the population of the earth increases and as humans find ever more uses for the precious commodities of the earth—such as water to feed our livestock, grow our crops, populate our deserts, beautify our lawns and meet our desires for recreation—we laud efforts to overcome limitations by being smarter, more efficient, more cooperative and bringing helpful change. And yet, we also approach such efforts with some skepticism. As wonderful as technology is, we know it can be easily manipulated. Likewise, smarter and more efficient solutions are not always what they seem. And of course, the biggest hurdle to overcome is the human capacity for cooperation. History shows that when cooperation is proposed, those who are called to make sacrifices rarely feel they should make them, those who are working the plan often can’t resist the temptation of greed, and faith tends to be in short supply all around. Time and again we see that proposed solutions involving change are often quickly criticized and abandoned.
When I read the story about the water agreement between Jordan, Israel and the Palestinians, I immediately thought about its connection with our text today from Isaiah. Long ago, in the days of ancient Israel, Isaiah predicted that this very same desert would one day bloom. “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad; the desert shall rejoice and blossom like the crocus” he wrote. “It shall blossom abundantly and rejoice with joy and singing.” Isaiah even prophesied the abundance of water: “For waters break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water.”
Isaiah’s prophecy was one of hope. Israel needed hope, for it turns out there were problems and concerns in those days too. Neighbors competed for resources. Oftentimes there was violence. Solutions to the problems were rarely agreed upon.
What exactly, then, did Isaiah mean by his prophecies of hope? Did Isaiah foretell a time when the people would learn to irrigate, desalinate, cooperate and find solutions for people to settle the land and live in peace? Maybe. There are times when people do come up with good solutions for the meeting of real, God-concerning needs. And certainly God is active in helping people find such solutions, by using their skills of innovation, communication and leadership. Wherever there is good in this world, God is behind it, fulfilling His promise to provide for his creation.
And yet this prophecy of Isaiah seems to be promising so much more than just improved living conditions. Isaiah says: “everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.” Something bigger must be going on here.
Maybe what Isaiah is predicting is the overcoming of fears. Notice that he says: “Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who have an anxious heart, “Be strong; fear not!” Isaiah also mentions a cause of many fears– “haunts of jackals,” “lions” and “ravenous beasts” – all of which are found in the wilderness.
Certainly people are often kept down by their fears. They fear change. They fear the unknown. They fear the forces of nature—animals, weather, dangerous terrain. They fear not being able to keep up. They fear what others might do to them. Fear is a big part of our lives. Maybe Isaiah is predicting a time when we learn to overcome our fears – a time when we develop a stronger faith.
I certainly agree that overcoming fear is a part of this prophecy. At the same time, I would also say that there must again be more. Isaiah speaks as if there is something concrete and specific going on. “They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God,” he says. “Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God.”
And then there’s the part about the highway. “And a highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Way of Holiness; the unclean shall not pass over it. It shall belong to those who walk on the way; even if they are fools, they shall not go astray.” Here we certainly have a concrete and specific word from the prophet.
As Isaiah’s other prophecies make clear, this highway in the desert represents a future return of Judah from their captivity in Babylon. Though the people will be captive for a while, God will provide for them a way to return. They will see that God builds the highway – the people only have to walk on it. God is the one who redeems his captive people and leads them home. This prophecy was fulfilled when God used the Persian armies to conquer the Babylonians and make Judah’s peaceful travel possible.
And yet this prophecy contains more applications than just this return from Babylon. It also refers to the specific redemption of God’s people from a greater enemy and a greater captivity—that being their own individual sin.
As God saved Judah, so also God has made possible the salvation of every person of every time from the captivity of their sin. When God took on human flesh and was born as Jesus the Messiah, God was establishing a great highway for us to walk. As Jesus himself once explained: “I am the way, the truth and the life.” When we walk with Christ Jesus in faith—hearing his word, following his commands and putting our trust in him—we are walking the highway of salvation which releases us from the captivity of our sin.
Right now we are in a time of preparing to celebrate the birth of our Savior. We lift up his name and lend our celebration to the world—which takes the celebration in many crazy directions, but which just might, amid all the decorations and mirth, discover for the first time, or discover again, the reason for the season.
I had a brief chat today with our UPS delivery man at church. As I signed for a package I said to him, “You know, you might be even busier this time of year than I am.”
He sighed and said, “Yeah, it’s busy. But it helps when you remember it’s all about Him.”
“Amen!” I said. And then I added: “the busy part is what we do for others.”
He smiled and nodded in agreement, then went on his way.
Isaiah returns to the language of a highway again in chapter 40. There he calls us to “prepare the way of the Lord” -to prepare “in the desert a highway for our God.” We are to prepare others to receive the Good News of Salvation. And, we are to prepare ourselves, and others, for the coming of Christ again. Jesus who has come to us once will come a second time to judge all people and end this present age. Only those who walk in his ways and put their trust in him will be redeemed– although Isaiah reminds us that we are not saved by the strength of our character or faith. For those who are made clean: “Even if they are fools they shall not go astray.”
Christ’s first coming has led to great joy – represented by images of blooming deserts, springs of water and safe pathways. His second coming will bring an even greater joy—in which blooming deserts, springs of water and safe pathways will not only represent a state of joy, but also describe that new creation which God will bring forth. We don’t know exactly what God means by a “new heaven and a new earth,” but certainly these descriptions of the prophets give us a clue, and tell us that the life to come will be glorious.
While we await for Christ’s coming again we give thanks for how he is working in the world today. We are grateful when we see people learning to cooperate, care for others and live in peace. We commit to that work ourselves. And, we commit to lifting up the holy name of Jesus for the forgiveness of sins and the promise of life eternal. Come, Lord Jesus. Amen.