First Mennonite Church
December 17, 2023
A Word Out of Place
Text: Isaiah 35:1-10
The oracle or prophecy found in chapter 35 of Isaiah seems out of place from its larger context. Starting in chapter 34, God’s words through the prophet are not good news for the nations, including Israel. Early in chapter 34, Isaiah proclaims, Let the earth hear, and all that is in it,
the world, and all that comes out of it!
2 The Lord is angry with all nations.
And the tiny little country of Edom is made an example of God’s anger. Edom is Israel’s neighbor; its entire land area perhaps included little more than thirty square miles. The aftermath of God’s judgment in Edom would be complete devastation. There would be a blood bath, the rivers would turn into boiling pitch, the soil into sulfur, and the stench of death and destruction would never cease. All civilization would disappear from Edom, and the landscape merely be the “haunt of jackals and ostriches,” sure signs of a blasted wilderness. And at the last, the “owls will nest” and the “buzzards shall gather,” and the place will then be called “No Kingdom There” (34:12-15). Edom will become a true hell on earth.
The images described in Isaiah 35 are the stark contrast to those found in Chapter 34. The word in Isaiah 35 is a breakaway from images of judgment and devastation in Edom. And again, it is God’s doing. This promised work of God in the desert is a fresh breath in contrast to the unending stench in Edom. The work of God in chapter 35 is the creation of paradise on earth, compared to the hellish world found in chapter 34. This paradise will be filled with joy and where green vegetation and colorful blossoms will replace the wilderness. Instead of burning sand, streams will flow and pools of water will replace the thirsty dry land.
Not only will there be ecological renewal, there will also be human restoration. Those filled with fear will be strengthened and made steady. To them, God will say,
“Be strong, do not fear;
your God will come,
he will come with vengeance;
with divine retribution
he will come to save you.”
God’s coming will bring reassurance to those filled with fear. God will be their strength. But the idea that God will come with “vengeance” might sound scary, especially in light of what God will do to Edom. However, the word vengeance (naqam) is used with the meaning of “vindication.” God will come in defense of the oppressed. He will come to right the wrong. God will come to restore order; therefore, even those with disabilities will be restored. In this new creation, per se, the blind will see, and the deaf will hear and speak. The lame will not only walk but leap like a deer, says God.
God will bring a reversal of all that has gone wrong or has been obliterated.
The words in Isaiah 35 are a clear cut and break-away from its context, a context of doom, destruction, and death. The wilderness turns into a flourishing garden, where its inhabitants frozen by fear are comforted, where the sick and disabled are restored.
The words of Isaiah 35 are words out of place. Words of life ring amidst the declamation of fear and death. God’s intervention reverses and changes the trend of everything. But this change from destruction to restoration is not accidental nor the result of chance, but the working of Yahweh. The God who operates in mysterious ways. He is the same God who pronounces judgment and makes promises. You see, judgment and salvation always go hand in hand. In God’s work, mercy and justice always meet and kiss each other. Remember the story of Noah. In Genesis, we read,
5 The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time. 6 The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled. 7 So the Lord said, “I will wipe from the face of the earth the human race I have created—and with them the animals, the birds and the creatures that move along the ground—for I regret that I have made them.” 6:5-7. God’s judgment came in the way of the great flooding. But after Noah resettled and offered God a sacrifice, God seemed to reconsider his act, thus we read:
The Lord smelled the pleasing aroma and said in his heart: “Never again will I curse the ground because of humans, even though every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood. And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done. (Genesis; 8:21).
Jesus reiterated God’s way of operation of bringing salvation and judgment. When Jesus raised the dead, he affirmed that just as God gave him power to give life, so also to execute judgment (John 5:21-23). When Jesus restored the sight of the blind, he said it was an act of judgment, so that the blind see and the seeing become blind (John 9:39).
But Jesus not only affirmed God’s modus operandi of judgment and mercy. Jesus is the means of God’s radical breakaway in the course of the human tragedy. Jesus came at God’s appointed time, that time we anticipate during Advent.
In Galatians four, Paul says, “But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship” (v.4, 5). Paul goes on to explain that we, the Gentiles, could never be part of Abraham’s seed by birth, but now we can call the God of Israel, “Daddy” Abba Father. In Christ, we who had no relationship with God have been made co-heirs of God’s promises through Christ. In other words, the coming of Jesus Christ was also God’s decisive break away from the pitiful flow of human history. The light has come and has pushed the darkness away. A radical change has happened. God has changed our lives, from one of hopelessness to one of eternal hope, from one of spiritual wilderness wandering to one of meaning and purpose. Jesus is not only the highway where the redeemed will walk, as envisioned by Isaiah, but He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life; thus, in him, we live, move, and have our being (Acts 17:28).
However, my dear brothers and sisters, can we truly believe, that God has shown up in Jesus and stands today in our midst? This is the Advent message we proclaim. But can people see it?
Let us unite our hearts together in prayer for at least two things to happen: first, that we be given eyes to see and ears to hear to discover and experience firsthand the presence of Christ in our daily lives. Let us pray that God would open not only our spiritual eyes and ears to see and hear him but also to be able to open our mouths to speak of his presence with us. Secondly, let us also pray that we become a people out of place for the world to see in us signs of God’s working and kingdom. Let us pray that we become signs of God’s break-away of the daily data of the human story- a story of strife, despair, and indifference to those hurting. Every day we are reminded by the evening news of the data of the human story, stories of human suffering, of power struggles, of wars, and more of all these yet to come. So, let us pray that we would become bearers of a word out of place. Let us ask God to empower us to become a people who speak of God’s love and in love and with the truth. Let us pray that God may use us to comfort others with the comfort of God has comforted us and lifted our spirit.
We are that well-watered garden God is creating amid the wilderness of this world.
This week I was reading a BBC news report about something unusual happening in the Great Indian Desert. While deserts in other parts of the world continue growing, as the sand keeps encroaching on more land, the Great Indian Desert in western India is shrinking and becoming verdant. The global weather patterns have changed the rain course, pushing more moisture over the desert. Because of it, trees and shrubs are growing. Animals and birds are also inhabiting this area. The people are harvesting more than they used to before. It’s a breath of fresh air and people are beginning to see a more hopeful future.
Let us allow the Spirit to bring his heavenly showers so that we would become signs of hope to this desert world. Amen!