Third Sunday in Advent (Isaiah 35:1-10)

Joachim Patinir - Baptism of Christ

In the spring of 2016, Death Valley in California saw an unusual sight: a “super bloom.”  Conditions came together which brought out a huge number of flowers besides the standby desert gold.  Photographers descended on the valley and captured beautiful hills of mariposa lilies and sunbonnets. It was truly a rare event.

The description given in Isaiah 35 is also rare:

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. 

Even more than rare, it has never been seen before  Some might call it inconceivable, others impossible.  The autumn crocus described here is the same kind we have in the rose garden by the playground.  Imagine those bulbs sprouting out in the wilderness and dry land. The desert rejoicing because of the flowers blooming in it!  How can this be?

The rest of the text invites us to picture ever increasingly improbable circumstances:

  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. 

For waters break forth in the wilderness, 

and streams in the desert; 

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. 

What a miracle!  Praise the Lord for when He does such miraculous things, because that will vindicate our faith in Him.  Then we’ll know that we have trusted in the Mighty One who changes the desert into a paradise, and restores the ear of the deaf and the tongue of the mute!

Oh, but what comes next?  Isaiah 36 begins an account of Sennacherib besieging Jerusalem.  Isaiah has delivered all these promises of God to “strengthen the weak hands and make firm the feeble knees.”  And in our thinking, bringing disaster is no way to “Say to the anxious heart, Be strong, fear not!  Behold your God will come with vengeance”  It sounds like we’ll have to push our hope down the road and try to keep waiting patiently for the Lord to act.  Until then, we’ll just hang in there and quietly remind each other that the Lord will act…one day.

There are Christians, who are so eager for this visible reward to come, that they seek out the miraculous, the completely inexplicable, as signs of God’s working.  This past week, I taught the confirmation class about the Assembly of God’s belief in Divine Healing. Based on James 5, where the Apostle says, “Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him…And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick.” (James 5:14-15)  Based on the fact that Jesus healed many with diseases, they believe that God will still do that in sudden and miraculous ways if you follow this formula.  So, they exchange stories about how God miraculously removed tumors and made lame extremities whole. Now, don’t misunderstand, God is capable of doing whatever He wills, including sudden healing. But, as I warned the class, don’t just put your faith in the healing.  Also, beware of tying healings directly to “the prayer of faith” because if you aren’t healed, it’s all too easy to think your faith is somehow faulty. Sometimes God’s will is to leave us in our weakness, just like he left Isaiah and King Hezekiah to suffer warfare with Sennacherib (Isaiah 36).

So how does God fulfill this promise?  First, we turn to the Gospel reading, because it’s in the earthly ministry of Jesus that we get our first preview of God doing this on earth.  When John sits in prison, wondering if Jesus is truly the one to come, Jesus assures Him with the signs which He’s doing: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 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. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”  And it’s true that Jesus did actually open blind eyes, heal lame limbs, cleanse the unclean, give hearing to the deaf, raise those who had died, and preach good news to the poor.

But what about us who follow Jesus in 2019?  What tangible hope is for us? Well, our Lord asked the crowds that day, “What did you go out into the wilderness to see?”  So we might ask, “What did you come to church today?”  Did you come to see overt signs of God’s kingdom—signs so obvious even an unbeliever would be compelled to explain them away?  Shall we wait for signs of the spirit in people speaking in tongues and those who are sick having sudden healings? As nice as that sounds, that isn’t what the Lord promises here.

If you came here to hear Jesus’ work for you proclaimed, then you’ve come to the right place.  The signs of the Kingdom of Heaven visibly manifest God’s work among us. But they aren’t bodily healings (because those aren’t given to all) or people speaking in so-called “tongues of angels” (because that doesn’t help others).  They are signs of God’s gracious presence and His steadfast love which endures forever: They’re called signs in the Old Testament and mysteries in the New: They are Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.  Our Lord gives them to us to “strengthen the weak hands and make firm the feeble knees.”  In our times of waiting, suffering, longing, they are what God gives to encourage us that we are not laboring in vain and that He has not left us in our suffering.

These signs of the Kingdom are received by faith, by the one holy, Christian and apostolic Church.  Isaiah descries this holy, Christian Church as the highway upon which “the unclean shall not pass over it.  It shall belong to those who walk on the way…[who] shall not go astray.”  Just like the signs of the Kingdom are only accepted by faith, so is this Communion of Saints only comprised of the faithful.  This is the company of believers scattered throughout the world who hear the Word of God and hold to it with faith. You can’t always pick them out, but the Lord knows who are His own. The Lord knows you.

God has done an amazing work in us, bringing together people from all walks of life to walk upon this highway.  This and more God is able to do with you—hope in Him who is able to heal your body and uphold you through any and every trial, who heals you of your blindness, who opens your lips to sing His praise, who changes your heart so that it reflects Him more and more and loves others as He does.  Truly these things are impossible with man, but with God, your God, all things are possible through Jesus Christ.  Amen.