By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
December 11, 2022
Isaiah 35:1–10 (ESV)
1 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 have an anxious heart, “Be strong; fear not! 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 unstopped; 6 then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy. For waters 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; in the haunt of jackals, where they lie down, the grass shall become reeds and rushes. 8 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. 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 gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
Isaiah is filled with some of the most beautifully encouraging lines of prose. As well as some of the most dreadful. But there is a pattern or a cycle to the lines of poetry. Isaiah speaks of the dreadful, and he follows it with hope.
We need to remember this as we read through the verses. First many of the words are poetry and not to be taken literally. When we read poetry, we need to remember that the writer, or speaker, is speaking in figurative language. They are creating an image in our mind that suggests features but these features may not be real. Consider the description of the love interest in the Song of Solomon. “Your hair is like a flock of goats. Your teeth are like a flock of shorn ewes.” Is Solomon in this case saying that his beloved’s hair is like a bunch of goats? Some of you might know goats, and you might know that some of the greatest most valuable fibers come from goats, but most of the time goats are not something I would want to be compared too. Goats can be stubborn, aggressive, and annoying. Depending on our experience with goats we might look at these words from very different perspectives. You might see this individual’s hair being soft and luxurious, or wild and uncontrollable. Of course the context tells us what to think. He is speaking of the one he loves, so more than likely he is referring to the silkiness of cashmere.
When we take poetry out of context we can come up with some pretty bizarre mental images. Which is why I often dislike much of contemporary eschatology. It takes words of poetry out of context and tries to incorporate things from our age and place them into ancient days. It might be that this is truly what the prophet meant by the words, but how would that be encouraging to people two or even three thousand years ago? Just as speaking of beauty like a flock of goats would make little sense to the vast majority of people today since many of us have rarely been around a goat for long enough to see the beauty or the frustration.
Today’s passage is the second half of a poem. The first half speaks of desolation, and the second speaks of hope. The first half speaks of sorrow, and the second half speaks of redemption. We love the words of redemption but we often neglect the words of condemnation.
So, before we go into redemption, we need to have a bit of understanding as to where this hope emerges from. Chapter 34 begins, “Draw near, O nations, to hear, and give attention, O peoples! Let the earth hear, and all that fills it; the world, and all that comes from it. For the Lord is enraged against all the nations, and furious against all their host; he has devoted them to destruction, has given them over for slaughter”
I mention this because we often look at Isaiah as being written to only Israel, but it is not. The ancient worldviews were different than ours today. The supernatural and natural worlds were seen as connected. Each nation had their own god, or divine protector or host. As these nations interacted with one another, as they battled, it was not only their terrestrial power that was gaining prominence but also the influence of their deity. Israel was part of this ancient worldview. Their understanding of the world around them was based on these concepts. But there was a slight difference. Their God acted differently. Most of these national deities were only concerned with their own people, where Israel’s God commanded His people to be hospitable to the nations around them.
You might question my understanding of scripture, when Joshua was commanded to exterminate entire nations of people, but there is a difference in how God speaks of the people on the nations in that conquest and the nations in general. If we look at the law given to Moses, we see the heart of God, where God tells the people of Israel to be hospitable to the alien and the sojourner. He commands them to treat the people of the nations as if they were one of their own. God commanded this because the nations had their hosts, but the hosts were subject to the Most High God. We can see this in the writing of their own religious writings. The Greek pantheon has lower deities, and higher. They also have a class of divine creatures called the Titan, who were defeated by the gods of their pantheon. But even closer to Israel, they found documents called the Ugaritic texts and in these texts they speak of Baal as being the subordinate of El. The prophets of Israel often speak against the worship of Baal. They speak out against it because they worship the lesser instead of the Most high.
Isaiah is telling the nations, you have placed you hope on these lesser divine creatures that are subject to the Most High. They have twisted your attention away from the Most High and directed you to worship them instead. And God will not allow this forever. This is not how God created the world to function. Because of this devotion to the lessor instead of the greater, we are bringing about our own destruction. We are being given over to our own slaughter.
Isaiah tells us that the nations will face a sword sated with blood, and the soil will be gorged with the fat of the things the nations value as signs of wealth. And the vengeance of the Lord with turn the streams of Edom, to pitch and the soils to sulfur, and her land shall become burning pitch. Such a lovely picture of desolation.
Isaiah is telling us, “We are what we eat.” Those that live by the sword will die by the sword and those that seek gain from the earth without reverence will cause their own destruction. War, pollution, greed, and envy. These are the characteristics of rebellion and sin, and not the identity of the people of God.
I want us to reflect on this for a moment. We see this in the news daily. We often do not want to hear about it, and we have labeled those that mention them as being political. Those that speak out against global climate change are deemed as being liberal environmental activists, and we stop listening to them. Could it be that they are our present day prophets telling us that if we do not change course our land will be like the Jackal filled pride land of the Lion King? We see reports about the war in Ukraine or maybe the various conflicts in Africa, and we might think of it as being something far away that we should not be concerned with, but is it? What is causing the conflicts? What drives the war? Is it not the same story that drove the peoples of ancient times into conflict and what became their inheritance? How many cultures today can trace their roots directly back over three thousand years, and if you can think of any, what do they teach?
We need to see the reality of who we are. We need to see our destiny if we want to keep to these paths. Only then will be able to understand the hope of a different life and lifestyle.
Once we are able to see ourselves in chapter 34, are we able to see the truth of chapter 35. We are causing the soil to become burning pitch. We are the ones participating in the ways of the sword. But the wilderness and the dry lands shall be glad. Why? The desert shall rejoice and blossom like the crocus. When there is nothing left to exploit, when humanity has exhausted itself from its pursuits of glory, what happens to the land? My mind often goes to the song written by Eric Bogle, No Man’s Land when I read this passage:
The sun shining down on these green fields of France
The warm wind blows gently and the red poppies dance
The trenches have vanished long under the plow
No gas, no barbed wire, no guns firing down
But here in this graveyard that’s still no man’s land
The countless white crosses in mute witness stand
Till’ man’s blind indifference to his fellow man
And a whole generation were butchered and damned
Nature returns and those that were once exploited and harassed rebuild what was destroyed.
“They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God.” Isaiah says. They, the nations, shall see the glory of the Lord. They witnessed the destruction of men now they will see the majesty of God. The majesty of God is the sun shining down on these green fields of France that were once the trenches of the war to end all wars. The Majesty of God is the poppies dancing in the wind, where once bodies laid. The majesty of God is not in the strength of might that mankind can wield against each other. But it is the hospitality we share.
“Strengthen the weak hands,” Isaiah proclaims, “and make firm the feeble knees.” These are the characteristics that the kingdoms of men disregard, they label them as cowards. But are they?
Those that go into the wake of destruction are not cowards, but beacons of hope. Those that can face the ones that were once regarded as enemies and build friendships and encourage a new direction are not weak but are those that are driven by compassion. Isaiah is urging us to turn from the ways of kingdoms of men and embrace a different life and lifestyle. To show a different way of living together. This is not just a hope for the distant future when Christ returns, but it is here now. The imperatives of this poem are plural, meaning God is calling us to participate.
I find this interesting. I find it challenging and at times condemning. What am I doing to show the world around me this type of life? We are to, “strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to the anxious hearts, Be Strong; fear not!” We are to do these things but often I find myself in fear’s cold grasp. I look around and I do not see the desert in bloom, but I see the dry sands blowing in the wind.
It takes discipline to change. It requires sacrifice and struggle. We must participate with God in making the world around us into something greater. It takes humility. It requires us to recognize the possibility that we could walk down an unrighteous path, even when we are striving to show God’s goodness.
“Then,” when we determine to participate with God, “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy.” I want us to consider this for a moment. It is easy for us to jump forward in history and look to Jesus. It is easy for us to see the miraculous wonders that were performed during his earthly ministry and miss the years that the people of Israel sat with these verses without Jesus to consider. What happens to the blind in a world that is bent on utility? What happens to the deaf in a world that seeks only gain? What happens to the those that are disabled in a nation where value is determined by what is produced?
This challenges me. It challenges me because sometimes we do not always fit into a box expected by others. This does not mean that you do not have value or that you are not contributing to society as a whole. Many of the greatest leaders within the world of business, if judged by educational degrees would be considered failures. And the greatest theoretical physicist in recent history, was confined to a wheel chair and could only communicate through a computer. I could even get more personal I was born with a 70% hearing deficit in one ear, most people would not know this. And that is the problem, most things that hold us back we do not see. I cannot tell by sight who in this room is struggling with anxiety or depression. We do not always know who might have ADHD or dyslexia. And some of those that do have these struggles would surprise you. Even though they have learned to adapt and have found a way to compensate for their weakness it does not mean they do not struggle.
“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.”
I like that verse. Some of you might like lame leaping like deer but I like this verse. I like it because it is real. I grew up in the middle of nowhere, and if you have ever been in the middle of nowhere you will know that there are often roads that do not exist on maps. And if you happen to turn down one of those roads you never know where you might end up. But if you come across a highway while you have been traveling on these seemingly nonexistent roads, you can quickly gain your bearings. And if you were to take that highway you will be able to find where you need to go.
Isaiah is not speaking of an interstate highway system, but a well-traveled path. Highways in ancient times were not what we know today, it was not until the Roman era that engineering of roadway systems were developed and even that was far in the future from when Isaiah was teaching. But even in ancient times there were roads. There were pathways through the desert that lead you to where you needed to be. If you are ever walking out in the wilderness you will often find little deer trails, where the animals have found a way through hills and growth that will often lead you to water. And in ancient times people would also find a way through the rugged terrain and would continue to follow the same path over and over again, and if you were lost and you found one of those pathways, you would be wise to follow it. This is what Isaiah is speaking of.
The Way of Holiness, is a pathway, it is a lifestyle that has proven to be beneficial. Too often we look at this verse and we see it as shutting the door to those who do not believe, but that is not what it says. It is said that the unclean shall not pass over it. I want us to just think about that for a moment. You are wandering in the wilderness and you come upon a well-trodden path. What do you do? You have two choices really you either walk down the path or you avoid the path. If you are unclean and have no desire to be found by others, you turn away from the path, because if you cross the path you might be seen. But if you are wanting to be found, If you have struggled through the wilderness and you are thirsty and starving, you will take the path because you know that eventually you will be found, or you will come to a place where you can find assistance. You will find your way if you follow the path, even if you are foolish. Even if you have no real sense of direction if you stay on the path, you will get to a destination.
There is a different perspective to this as well. Ancient highways were well traveled paths, but they were not only traveled by people with good morals. Highways can be dangerous, even today. If you were to go to Walmart and look at the board of missing children, you would find that the vast majority have gone missing from a city near a major highway. When I worked in retail security, the stores that were in neighborhoods that appeared to have lower crime rates often had more theft if they were located near the highway. This happens because the highways provide a means of escape.
Highways can be both a blessing and a curse, but Isaiah is telling us if we turn from the ways of the kingdoms of men, and if we seek something greater. If we are willing to even see those among us that are struggling and provide encouragement to them, even the highways will be safe. Nations that have greater access to systems of education have lower crime. And most places with higher education have less poverty. You could find instances to prove me wrong, but in general you know it is true. And often in those places, you will find that even the less fortunate have access to the means of survival.
“But the redeemed shall walk there.” This highway, this way of Holiness. Is not a barrier but is a lighthouse showing safe passage. The redeemed, the ransomed of the Lord. Isaiah uses this language for a reason. In the Evangelical world we often use these words so often we have forgotten how important they are. These are words foreign to our experience because they speak of bondage and exploitation. But they are important. Those that have lived in addiction know the struggle and the powerlessness they have to their addiction. Those that have lived within a toxic or an abusive relationship, understand these words when they are finally able to break free of their tormentors to a place of safety. These are words of rescue from bondage, of freedom from the people or substances that wish to control your life.
We need to remember these words, and what they mean. We need to recognize that as societies change over time, the bondage and exploitations that people experience though may be different than they were before, are still painful. And we should be able to see the truth. Let us strengthen the hands of the week and make firm the feeble knees, let us encourage the anxious hearts, and provide care for the disabled. Let us become springs of fresh water watering the soils filled with pitch. Let us be beacons of hope, and distributors of joy. Let us be the highways of safety for those seeking freedom. And let us be the bearers of light in a dark and dangerous world.
I attempt to look at this passage as much as I am able without the history of the church, and yet the message remains the same. God’s kingdom and God’s goals have always been the same from the fall in Eden to this very hour. He is calling all nations, all people back to him. But often we are distracted by the ways of humanity. Even I fall victim to this I will argue my positions to the point that I will alienate my own family, so we must be careful. If we rely only on ourselves we are no better than any other nation or kingdom of humankind. And this is why Jesus is so important. Yes, I truly believe, that Isaiah had a vision of Jesus when he wrote these words, and that he was blessed to see something that I dream of seeing. That is the greatest hope we have in our faith tradition, it is not the weakness of men that bring about the change in the world, but the strength of our God. A God that loves us so much that he left his throne in heaven, and lived among us. He showed us himself what this life should look like and he inspired people to write down and live it out. And he gives us the strength to live it out not because of who we are but who he is. He took on the wages of sin and faced death with us and for us. Even the most shameful death of being crucified on a tree. He was buried, and on the third day he rose again. Jesus is our hope. And if we strive to live with him and follow his teachings we will see everything Isaiah saw and more. This is not just hope for tomorrow but it is hope for today. Right here, right now. Will we be brave enough to step into that pathway?
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