Monday, December 13, 2010

Sermon on Isaiah 35:1-10 & Matthew 11:2-6, for the 3rd Sunday in Advent, "Streams in the Desert"

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. A recent article in Time magazine called desertification “the greatest environmental challenge of our times” (Land of Hope, 12/13/10). Desertification is when good land is turned into desert. The hot sands and wind of a desert can overtake good land, and scorch it, making it a virtually useless wasteland. In the Bible, the desert is a place of isolation or rebellion, of judgment or testing. The chapter before our reading from Isaiah 35, describes God’s judgment on the nation of Edom, near Israel. That nation would be turned into a desert and a wasteland. When God first brought the Israelites to their land, He promised they would flourish if they obeyed His commands, but that He would punish them if they scorned Him and His commands. The punishments would grow worse the more they rebelled and didn’t listen, until the land became a desolate wasteland (Lev. 26). Psalm 107 talks about God turning “rivers into a desert, springs of water into thirsty ground, a fruitful land into a salty waste, because of the evil of its inhabitants” (107:33-34). So why was there a desert? God had taken His blessing away from the land because of the sin and disobedience of the people.
Today deserts and wastelands spread rapidly in many parts of the world, and good land is turned into bad. But while some fertile lands have been turned into deserts—the Time article went on to describe that some people are working at re-greening those deserts and recovering lands for agriculture and productivity. In some places the desert is being pushed back. Let me pause here to make the important disclaimer that I’m not giving a sermon on environmentalism or global warming.
The reading from Isaiah 35 is a picture of a desert being “re-greened” into a garden. About the wilderness and dry land blooming with flowers and blossoming with abundant growth. Green and lush land, streams opening in the desert, and pools of water quenching the burning sand. A remarkable picture of the desert wasteland being turned back into a lush and fruitful garden—a place of life again. But this doesn’t come about through human planting or land management, because this is talking about something far more significant than landscaping. It’s talking about the redemption of the whole world and the coming of salvation. Beyond just picturing the desert becoming a well-watered garden, with streams running through it, we also see the healing of the blind, the deaf, the lame and the mute.
The wide-angle picture of the dry land being healed and restored is followed by the close-in portrait of God coming to save His people. God comes into the scene with vengeance against the enemies of His people, and the reward for the sufferings of His people. He will come and save you. And here is the sign of His coming: “The blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them” (Matt. 11:5). The God who was coming to save His people, the God whose arrival would flourish the desert into a garden, that God was Jesus Christ. Jesus came to save you. And the sign that He declared proved this, to John, the desert-wandering prophet, was all the healing miracles described in Isaiah 35 and more!
When John that desert-preacher had been arrested and put in prison by Herod—he sent messengers to find out if Jesus might really be the Christ, the Messiah, the Anointed One. Could he really be the One that Isaiah and the prophets had long foretold? Was Jesus really the One for whom John had prepared the way? Jesus answered with a Royal Flush plus 1, laying down the full proof that He was the Messiah; He fit the bill. He laid down six cards showing that He could do all the things that Isaiah described in His prophecy and more. Jesus was redeeming the creation, healing and restoring bodies and making them whole again, just like a dry and lifeless desert blooming into life again. Jesus added to those proofs the cleansing of lepers from their sickness and the raising of the dead! Giving sight, hearing and strength to the blind, deaf and lame was miraculous—but even these miracles were far short of raising someone from the dead! That Jesus also commanded power over death itself was a sure sign that He was God, and was indeed the God who came to save us.
From those proofs and miracles, also flowed the sign that Jesus quoted from Isaiah 61:1, “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound.” Jesus preached the good news to the poor. These were all signs to John and us that the Advent, the coming, of our God was here. They were signs that the old order of suffering, disease and death was being rolled back, as salvation was coming into the world. That Jesus preached good news to the poor turns the picture on to us.
Now if you can picture how God by His grace and power can transform the desert into a garden, and how the sick and the lame can be made well, you can begin to understand how God can do the same in the human heart (Oswalt, 622). Through sin and rebellion, our hearts are like the desert as well. Dry and waterless, fearful and joyless. Weak hands and feeble knees are a fearful and troubled heart. A heart without God can be filled with pride and hubris, or it can be worried and frightened. But God comes to the person with the fearful and anxious heart and says, “Be strong, fear not! Behold, you God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God, He will come and save you!” God strengthens the heart, and fills the fearful with joy and confidence. He opens their lips to sing His praises, and lifts the heavy burden of our heart to bring us comfort and peace.
So Jesus finds us in the midst of anxiety, doubt, or grief, and He preaches the good news to us. He preaches strength to our hands and heart, and firmness to our knees. He takes up the burden of our sins so that we have liberty and are set free from sin’s prison. He sets our feet on a path—the Way of Holiness, God calls it. A highway through the desert that’s being transformed into a garden. A path that runs through the middle of the wasteland that used to be the ruined creation, but that now is blossoming and springing to life because of the coming of our God and His salvation in Christ. That Way of Holiness is the way of salvation. The destination at the end of the highway is the heavenly city of Zion, the New Jerusalem. And liberated sinners, believers who’ve had the good news preached to them so that they’re rescued from their sins—they walk on this highway toward their heavenly home.
As you travel that highway, you take in the sights of God’s restoration at work in creation. You see where troubled and broken lives have been rescued through the redemption of Jesus. You see streams of living water running through the desert. You see the anxious and fearful gain strength and hope and confidence. Those who are unclean, who do not come to Jesus for the washing of their sins, are not found on this highway. But you and those who travel with you are those who have been cleansed and made holy by Jesus’ blood, so that you can travel on this road, and led safely home. As one writer put it: “This we know: to walk with God is to walk in security, in blessing, in glory, and in joy. And if these are limited now, there will come a day when they will be as unlimited as he is” (Oswalt, 621). The Way of Holiness is a path of safety and blessing and joy—but the joy will be complete only when we reach that heavenly city of Zion. There we return with singing, tongues united with one voice, singing praise to God as we enter heaven and the fullness of God’s joy.
The closing verse is most beautiful, “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.” Ransomed by the blood of Jesus, travelers will come to their rest in heaven. Believers—who traveled the Way of Holiness, as Christ ran it before us. And it says we shall return! Return? But we haven’t been their yet! We return from the exile in this sinful world, from the isolation and barrenness of the desert to the paradise of heaven that God had always intended for us. Our return is to where home always was, where it always should have been—with God in full holiness and glory, in perfect peace and right relationship. It is a return because it’s God’s welcome home for the redeemed.
The joy that will crown us in heaven will be an everlasting joy—eternal, without end. In this life we get only snatches of joy. Little foretastes, little previews of what the heavenly joy will be like. We get those tastes of joy in life’s big and little celebrations: the birth of a child, a wedding, a retirement from a job well done, a birthday party with friends, the surprise of falling in love, a joyful and living celebration of Christmas, the warm festivity of New Year’s. All the little glimpses of joy that we get in life that sometimes fade away. These will give way to the full and complete joy, the everlasting joy that doesn’t fade or diminish because the party’s over or life has moved on or become dreary. All the things that might steal our joy, all the sorrow and sighing of this life shall flee away.
Reflect on that for just a moment—sorrow and sighing shall flee away. That’s often how joy ends, isn’t it? Some sadness creeps into life, the edges of the desert encroach on what once was green and flourishing? The life of a loved one that was once so green and full of vigor is met with disease or aging. We let out a deep sigh as we see the desert approaching, and life fading away. We’ve all been there for one reason or another.
But the wonderful news of Isaiah’s prophecy is that when we enter that heavenly Zion, the sorrow and sighing shall flee away. That last exhale of life, that last deep sigh when we breathe our last, will be the end of the sorrow and sadness. Grief will be no more. For the ransomed of the Lord will enter Zion, and there will never be a sorrow to steal our joy again. There will never be the sigh of grief and heartache. Why? Because the God who came to save us will make a final end from all those sorrows from sin. When Jesus, the God who came to save us, exhaled His dying breath, when He sighed in death “Into your hand, I commit my Spirit,” it was finished. Jesus had sealed the deal, killed the power of sin and death over us, and opened the Way of Holiness to us. His dying breath sent sin and sorrow fleeing away, and brought us to the Way of Life. And when Jesus’ lungs inhaled their first living breath when He rose from the dead that Easter morning, there was life, vitality, and joy.
So when we enter the heavenly Zion, when our life is over and we’ve breathed our last breath, our lungs will be filled with the new breath of life, and all sadness will be gone. Lungs powered for singing with everlasting joy, we’ll laugh and sing in the eternal joy of our God. The struggle between the encroaching desert of sin, isolation, and death with the streaming grace of God’s living water will finally be won. Finally we’ll enter the perfect Garden, the New Paradise and Eden of heaven, where life will be restored and ever-green. And as the crowd of the redeemed enter singing their triumph song, hearts again will be brave, and arms will be strong (LSB 677:5) as we stand before the God of all power and grace. In Him we will know full life and full joy. In Jesus’ name, Amen. May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope. Amen.
Sermon Talking Points:
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1. How was turning the land into a desert or wasteland a divine punishment in the Old Testament? Leviticus 26:14ff, esp. vs. 19-20, 32-33, but also 40-45. Psalm 107:33-34. How is it’s “re-greening” a blessing? Psalm 107:35-38; Isaiah 43:18-21; 58:11. How does this “re-greening” come about? Who arrives on the scene when this happens?

2. What signs from Isaiah 35 and 61 became proof to John the Baptist that Jesus was the promised Messiah described in those prophecies, and that He was the God who came to save us? What additional signs did Jesus perform? How did these establish who He was?

3. Through that desert that was being transformed into a garden, Isaiah pictures a highway called the Way of Holiness. Cf. Isaiah 11:12, 16; 51:10-11. Who travels on this highway, and who doesn’t? How does one get to travel on this highway?

4. How is our heart like a desert? What does Isaiah 35 show us about what God can do for the condition of the human heart? Where does the Way of Holiness lead to? Isaiah 35:10. What blessings do those who travel there enjoy? How do those come to fullest expression in heaven?

5. How can our arrival in heaven be described as a “return?” What are the glimpses of joy that you get in this life? Why does joy not always last in this life? How will that be different in heaven, and why? Instead of using our breath for sighing from grief, how will it be used in heaven?

6. How can it be that sorrow and sighing will be gone? How is the joy of heaven secured for all believers?

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