December 11, 2016
Isaiah 35:1-10 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
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 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 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.
On the third Sunday of Advent, we light the candle of joy. Even a casual reading of Isaiah 35 suggests that joy is a central theme of Isaiah 35. That is because the “ransomed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with singing.” Isaiah 35 has an eschatological tone to it, at least as we read it today in the context of Advent. Looking at the text more broadly, this word of joy is part of prophetic promise on the part of Yahweh to deliver the people from captivity. The word begins in Isaiah 34, which offers a word of judgment on Judah’s neighbor, Edom. There is a reason why we read Isaiah 35 and not Isaiah 34 in the season of Advent. Chapter 34 offers a rather bloody picture of God’s judgment. There’s no joy present in that chapter, but it is present in chapter 35.
It’s important that we remember the context. This word originally was meant for people experiencing exile in Babylon. The prophet, likely Second Isaiah, offers the people hope of redemption and return to Zion (Jerusalem). We will return to the context, but let us also put it in a liturgical context. This is the reading from the Hebrew Bible for the third Sunday of Advent. Liturgically, we hear a word of joy. We receive the invitation to lift our eyes so we can see the glory and majesty of God. The reading begins with the desert in bloom. Such a picture is a joyous one. I’ve seen enough nature films to know what that looks like. A bit of rain falls and the desert comes alive, revealing a previously hidden radiance. A good example can be found east of Los Angeles in the Antelope Valley. It’s high desert. It’s dray and barren, but most every spring, when the rains fall, this normally barren land turns a vibrant yellow as the California poppy, the state flower, blooms across the valley floor. The flowers mentioned are different, but the effect is the same. Not only does the desert blossom, but our eyes are drawn to the glory of Lebanon – that is the mountains. While I may have never been to Lebanon, I’ve lived much of my life in the shadow of mountains. Growing up, I lived within view of Mount Shasta, a 14,000-foot volcano that dominates the landscape. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the most beautiful mountain in the world. When covered with snow, it is magnificent. Yes, nature has a way of declaring God’s glory (I know, it can also wreak havoc on us).
There is another vision present in this passage, and it’s the one that the season of Advent picks up on, and that is the vision of one who will open the eyes of the blind and the ears of the deaf, even as the lame shall “leap like a deer,” while the speechless will sing for joy. In each case this is a reversal of fortune. What was is no more. For the people of Judah, who had been living in exile, this is good news. It also describes Jesus ministry as revealed in the Gospels.
We need to return to the context of the reading. While placed within the section we call First Isaiah (the eighth century BCE prophet), chapters 34 and 35 fit best within the scope of Second Isaiah (during the Babylonian Exile of the sixth century BCE). Thus, the highway that God is laying out isn’t the one the Messiah traverses as envisioned by the call of John the Baptist, but rather it is the one the people of Judah will take as they journey home from Babylon (Edom?) to Jerusalem (Zion). They will return home singing the songs of deliverance.
While the hymn “Marching to Zion” isn’t an Advent hymn, it does seem to fit the context: The hymn begins: “Come, we that love the Lord, and let our joys be known; join in a song of sweet accord, join in a song of sweet accord, and thus surround the throne, and thus surround the throne.” Then we join in the chorus: “We’re marching to Zion, beautiful, beautiful Zion; we’re marching upward to Zion, the beautiful city of God” (Isaac Watts; refrain by Robert Lowery). In the Watts/Lowery version, the road to Zion is that road that leads to the heavenly realm. It is a song of consummation rather than advent, and yet Advent is an eschatological season. While we remember the first advent, when Jesus was born, bringing into flesh the Word of God (John 1:1-14), our continued observance of the season is rooted in the belief that we are moving into God’s future, when God’s vision of peace will be revealed and we will be redeemed. Thus, we can all join in the march toward Zion. There we’ll “obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.” Isn’t that the message that Advent brings to us, or at least that is the message that this reading from Isaiah suggests.
This is a good word for the moment. In conversation with someone at church this past Sunday, we talked about leaving 2016 behind. In many ways 2016 has been a difficult year. There was an election that leaves the United States divided, with many uncertain about the future and even afraid of what it might bring. We also saw beloved figures, especially in the music world, pass away. Some of us lost members of our family. We need some joy in our lives. So, perhaps this is a good Sunday to sing “Joy to the World.” At least Isaiah seems to suggest that this would be appropriate.
Let us sing for joy at the prospect of returning home, marching to Zion, along the highway that God has prepared for us. When we get to the promised land, there will be a full reversal of fortunes. As Isaac Watts puts it in stanza four of “Marching to Zion,” “then let our songs abound, and every tear be dry; we’re marching through Emmanuel’s ground, we’re marching through Emmanuel’s ground to fairer worlds on high, to fairer words on high.” While this hymn might suggest that our hope for joy is to be found in the next life, could it not be that the joy can begin now, as we experience the inbreaking of the realm of God?
Robert Cornwall is the Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Michigan and is the author of a number of books including Marriage in Interesting Times (Energion, 2016) and Freedom in Covenant (Wipf and Stock, 2015).