Sunday, June 6, 2010

The Desert

There are two things that I’d like you to notice right off about this week’s chapter. First, it is the flip side to last week’s chapter. That is obvious when we get to verse four where Isaiah talks again about Jesus’ coming and how He will bring vengeance and recompense. But there is a difference, here, between the two chapters. While last week’s chapter focused on Jesus’ just punishment of the nations, this week’s chapter focuses on the good that Jesus will do for His people. That’s the first thing I’d like you to notice. The second thing is that this week’s chapter is really quite beautiful. Think of it as a poem, a prose poem. Isaiah doesn’t use rhyme and meter, but he does use words to paint some striking pictures. The emphasis here is on the imagery. And so, you’ll hear about the desert and its blossoming, the highway of holiness, ferocious lions and a place filled with happiness called Zion. And through all of this, Jesus speaks to His weak and faltering people and He gives them hope. It really is a beautiful chapter.

Listen as I read Isaiah 35.

The focus to the chapter is found in these words, ‘Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who have an anxious heart, “Be strong; fear not!’ The people of God are having a hard time. There is weakness and fear. So, what does Isaiah do? He points them to the desert. ‘The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad; the desert shall rejoice and blossom like the crocus.’ That may sound odd to us, but there is good reason for him to do this. For one thing, it was so there. So much of where they lived was touched by the desert. It defined life for them. And it defined life as something hard. David used the same imagery in one of his Psalms. ‘O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.’ David used the imagery of the desert to describe his life and everyone would have understood exactly what he was talking about.

But there is another reason Isaiah uses this image of the desert. It points back to the Exodus. Israel left the house of slavery, Egypt, and entered the Promised Land. But in between those two events was something so very important to those Israelites: forty years in the wilderness, forty years in the desert. Israel’s time in the desert was something like 1776 for us. It was a defining moment. It was there that they became a nation. As such, it evoked strong emotion.

So, in our chapter Isaiah points to the desert. In so doing he is teaching the people, ‘Of course life is hard. Life is lived in the desert. But remember the glories the fathers experienced in the desert. Life is hard, but there is hope.’

The next thing I want you to do is to notice how Isaiah points to the hope. ‘The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad; the desert shall rejoice and blossom like the crocus; 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.’ Isaiah describes the desert, but not as hot and dry and dusty. The desert is rejoicing. The desert sings. And why? Because something really good is happening there. Jesus is at work. He is revealing His beauty in the desert. Because Jesus is busy, the desert blossoms. Think back to Israel’s experience those forty years. Think about the manna, the water that flowed from the rock, the pillar of fire. In these kinds of things Jesus reveals His glory, His beauty. And so, ‘They shall see the glory of the LORD, the majesty of our God.’ Who’s the ‘they’? Isaiah isn’t talking about the people of Moses’ day. He draws on the events of the past to picture the future. Isaiah is talking about the saints who will find themselves in the desert where life is hard, but where there is hope because Jesus is at work. They are the ones who will see His majesty.

It’s at this point that the call goes forth. ‘Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. 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.” It is so important to understand that this is not a call to try harder. That never works! The desert will always win if it’s just a matter of trying harder. This is a call to faith. That ‘Behold’ is not a throwaway word. It’s a call to look, to look to Jesus and to trust Him. Do you remember the incident about Moses and the bronze snake? The people had complained, and so Jesus responded. He sent poisonous snakes that bit the people. Moses interceded. What did Jesus tell him? ‘“Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.’ Isaiah is calling the people to faith. ‘Look to Jesus! He is coming! He will save you. Look to Him, and He will strengthen you. He will make you fearless. Look to Him and live.’ This is a call to faith that will result in change. Jesus will respond to faith by giving strength and boldness. If they look, He will save.

Now, notice what happens next. ‘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.’ You need to think about this in terms of something we saw way back in chapter 6 when Isaiah received his commission from Jesus. ‘Go, and say to this people: “Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive.” Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.’ This is where Isaiah started, with a curse from Jesus against the people, the inability to see or hear or understand. This defined so much of the first part of Isaiah. He is preaching to people who are deaf and blind, people whose hearts are incapable of getting it. But then, all that changes. This is where things get too deep for me. Why the change? What persuaded Jesus to remove the curse and replace it with such blessing? There will be those who will talk about how the people must have changed their minds and now believe. But that is naïve. We are, by nature, such sinners that the creation of faith is beyond us. Faith is a gift. It has to be. But why does Jesus give it to some? I have no idea. But He does. And where there is faith there will be sight. ‘Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened…’

And sight will lead to joy. ‘… 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…’ There will be joy because those who look to Jesus and trust Him will see what He is doing. They will see Him move into action in the desert. The evidence of faith is joy. And that mystifies the world. ‘How can you be rejoicing? You’re living in a desert. You have food for only one day and who knows if there will be water. Why are you rejoicing? How can you rejoice?’ We rejoice because we see what they cannot. We see water gushing from the rock. And we see the manna and know that there will be more on the morrow. And the pillar of fire guides us on our way. And so we rejoice – not because we have to, but because we can. Remember that joy is a fruit of the Spirit. It is His gift to those who trust Jesus. And this gift of joy not only mystifies the world, but when they see it over and over it attracts them to Jesus. Imagine, desert dwellers, people whose lives are hard, rejoicing.

Next, Isaiah tells us about this highway. He calls it the ‘Way of Holiness’. There are two things I’d like you to notice about this highway. The first is that it’s a place of safety. ‘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.’ The lion is the image of something wild and dangerous. Isaiah calls it a ‘ravenous beast’. There will be no lions on this ‘Way of Holiness’. The point that Isaiah is making is clear. The redeemed who tread this highway are safe. The common dangers of desert living will not stop them. They will walk this highway safely until they reach their destination.

And that’s the second thing I’d like you to notice. The destination is Zion. Now, that doesn’t have the punch for us that it had for the people of Israel. Another word that might fit here is ‘Home’, even though that is something that is losing its emotional punch for many today. Home is more than an address to put on your license. It’s more than where you have your stuff. Home is a place that is filled with warmth and welcome. It is a place of comfort like an old bathrobe. And it’s a place that is shared with people whom you love. Another label that used to connect was ‘Grandma’s house’ where the whole family would gather for special celebrations, where there would be lots of hugs and laughter and good food; a place where you knew that you were loved. That’s what Zion was supposed to be for Israel. Three times each year Israel was to travel to Jerusalem, to Zion, to the place where God’s Name dwelled. It was God’s House where the family reunions occurred. Three annual festivals, days of happiness enjoyed with all the tribes of Jacob; days of happiness enjoyed with the whole family. Keep in mind that the people Isaiah was writing about were not in Zion. They were in the desert. But there was a highway. And all the family was to meet in Zion. And once everyone got there the party would begin. So, Isaiah writes, ‘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.’

I hope that you can see that Isaiah is writing about you. And the lessons of this chapter are for you. You’re finding that life can be hard, sometimes especially so. But what should you expect? You live in a desert. To attempt to create a life that isn’t hard is to try to live somewhere other than the desert. There are many problems with that. Let me mention just one. The only way into the Promised Land is through the desert. If you want to be at the party in Zion, you need to walk the highway through the desert. No other route will work. So, of course life is hard. But there is hope. And the hope boils down to this: Jesus is in the desert with you. He is there leading His Church into the Promised Land. Along the way there will be challenges, questions to face and answer. But each and every day we’ll find the manna just as He promised, enough for that day. And we’ll never get lost since all we need to do is follow the pillar of fire. And as we live in the desert we will learn amazing things about what it means to be people. Jesus will teach us, but He only does that in the desert. So, life in the desert, difficult though it be, isn’t to be bleak and gloomy. Our time in the desert is a time of joy. We rejoice we see the beauty of Jesus. To watch Him work His magic is an amazing thing. And it’s so much more than bringing a rabbit out of a hat. It’s bringing holiness out of sinners, love out of self-centered people, boldness out of the anxious. And that is exactly what He’s doing in you. So, how can there not be rejoicing, and lots of praise to go along with it. But we will not always be in the desert. One day Jesus will lead us into the Promised Land, up Zion’s slopes and into our Father’s Home. And when all the family gets there what a party we will have. 

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