Rev. Jeff Chapman ~ Faith Presbyterian Church
1The 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 are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God.
He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense.
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 the lame shall leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
For waters shall 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;
the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes.
8 A highway shall be there,
and it shall be called the Holy Way;
the unclean shall not travel on it,
but it shall be for God’s people;
no traveler, not even fools, shall 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 joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away. (Isaiah 35:1-10, NRSV)
My least favorite part of the news is the weather. Truth is, I find it hard to believe that the local news broadcast devotes anything more than 10 seconds to the weather. Just show me the seven day forecast and move on to sports. Now, I know that some of you watch them, but I find it inconceivable that there are entire cable channels dedicated 24 hours a day solely to the weather. Mark Twain famously once said, “Everyone talks about the weather, but no one does anything about it.” Much less famously I say, “Why even talk about the weather since we can’t do anything about it.”
That being said, the one aspect of the weather I do follow is the accumulation of rainfall. Not because I can do anything about it, but because I find it fascinating. So every morning I check the weather page in the Sacramento Bee and find the little box that tells me everything I need to know about rainfall accumulation in our region. Just in case you missed it, this morning the box read as follows:
Average to date: 5.2” Last year to date: 8.41” This year to date: 1.75”
People who study these things tell us that by mid-December we really should have already had over five inches of rain in Sacramento. Clearly, we are way behind schedule. And the long range forecast is not encouraging. There is little rain in sight. As a resident of this region that should concern you. If you’re a skier it does concern you. If you’re a farmer it really concerns you.
So I got to wondering this week what it would be like if they had this sort of tracking system for other areas of life. Imagine I opened up the newspaper one morning and there was a section written just for me. In black and white I learn that as a 47 year-old man, by this time in life I really should have at least accumulated this certain level of knowledge and wisdom. Then there just beneath the expected accumulation, I could see my actual accumulation which, just like the rainfall this season in Sacramento, is dreadfully below average. Worse, the long range forecast is not promising.
Imagine if they had such a scale for our whole world? Human civilization has been around for this many thousands of years and by now we really should have progressed to this level. Democracy in the United States of America has been in existence for 237 years and after all that time we ought to have made at least this much headway. The Christian church began nearly 2,000 years ago and after all those years it is realistic to expect that we would have progressed at least this far.
Of course, no such scale is available to us, either personally or globally. But that’s okay, because we don’t need one. Deep within every one of us, we somehow know that our present life on this earth is a far cry from what it ought to be. Like me, don’t you just know deep down that you are not living the sort of wise, grace-filled, joyful, worry-free, restful, generous, loving life that you sense you were created to live? On a more global scale, a mere glance through the morning paper and you can’t help but recognize that something has gone sour in a world so full of violence, corruption, meanness, poverty, injustice and death.
The passage we just read in Isaiah begins with two images. The first is one of desolation. Wilderness. Dry ground. Desert. The writer is reminding us that this is the way things are. In so many ways the state of our world is bleak. But there is a second image, however, and it’s one of abundance. The dry ground, we’re told, is blossoming with gladness. The desert is blooming with joy.
On one hand we are given a vision of Death Valley. On the other hand we are given a vision of NapaValley. And with these two visions, the prophet declares that a day is coming when the first vision will be transformed into the second vision. We’re also told that God is the one who will, by his glory, do the transforming.
Now, I want to stop right here and acknowledge that there are some of us here who fail to grasp the immensity of this, and the reason is that some of us here would not characterize life today in this world as Death Valley. Honestly, we may not be living in paradise but, by and large, many of us would say that life is generally pretty good.
And to you I would say this. While there certainly is much good in this life, even when our lives on earth are as good as they have ever been our lives here are still a pale shadow of the life for which God made us. C.S. Lewis once said that we are “half-hearted creatures” who have become content making “mud pies in a slum” because we cannot imagine that we have been offered a “holiday at the sea.” We think the life we have is so good because the life we have is all we know.
We’re like the person that has only eaten Mexican food at Taco Bell and we are satisfied with our Gordita Supreme because we have never tasted real Mexican food. If you would only come with me to the little hole in the wall I visited recently run by the elderly Mexican woman who speaks only Spanish but who makes such fabulous chicken enchiladas that when you eat them you will begin speaking only Spanish. If you would only try this Mexican food you would never again imagine that the Gordita Supremes you’ve been eating are anything close to the real thing. You see, what some of us too often fail to grasp is that even at its best life on this earth is at present only a corrupted shadow of what God intends it to be.
The prophet is talking about our present world when he gives us this vision of wilderness, dry land and desert. And while many of us have trouble seeing it, there are many others in our world who know exactly what he’s talking about. There are millions of people in our world today who don’t even have enough clean water to keep their children alive. Millions others can’t worship God without the daily threat of persecution. So many people in our world have never known a homeland free of war. In our own country, so many among us have no home, no family, no job, no future. In our own church, some of you wake up each day under the crushing burden of seemingly ceaseless grief, or physical pain, or loneliness, or guilt.
Most everybody sitting in church here on a Sunday morning looks pretty good. We all clean up really well. But one of the unique things about being a pastor is that I get to sit with many people outside of Sunday morning when they’re not cleaned up so well and listen as they tell me about the brokenness and pain that is eating them up from the inside out. I know that some of you look around and fear you may be the only one here whose rainfall accumulation is way below normal. Trust me when I tell you that you are not the only one. Far from it. There is a lot more Death Valley around you than you might think.
And it is with this in mind that I want you to listen again to God’s plea to us through Isaiah. Again, in verses 3 and 4 he proclaims,
Strengthen the weak hands,
and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
“Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God.
He will come with vengeance,
with terrible recompense.
He will come and save you.
Put simply, this is a command for us to encourage one another. Relentlessly we must encourage one another, for the hardness of life in Death Valley can eventually crush us. We need a constant reminder that this life in this world is not our ultimate destiny. Those with weak hands and feeble knees, those with fearful hearts, be strong! Do not fear! God has not forgotten you. God has not forgotten the world. God is coming. God will put things right. God will redress all wrongs. God will save us. The desolation will be transformed into abundance. If you do not give up, if you hold on to God, then your best days are always, always ahead of you.
Mark Buchanan is a pastor and a writer. In his book The Rest of God he talks about how one of his favorite things to do as a pastor is to help people anticipate their future. I like what he says so much that I want to quote him at length.
I am a poor counselor on the best day and mostly have given it up. But not entirely. I used to default to the technique Freud and company bequeathed to the world of therapy. I tried to dredge up [a person’s] past, to excavate it in all its rawness and messiness, and then somehow, by some mantra or another, tried to banish the thing. I know that dealing with the past is important, and I know many people who are good guides for it. I’m just not in their company. I always seem to botch it. My attempts at it remind me of those old silent horror movies, where the mad scientist creates or awakens something, something green and gooey and fanged, and then loses control of it. The monster wreaks havoc, smashing all the glass things in his lab, terrorizing his assistant, and stalks away in fury to create mayhem out there. That was me: awakening what I couldn’t placate, spinning disaster from what was supposed to be deliverance.
Then God reoriented me. I sat one day with a young woman who had a desolate past, a blighted landscape of childhood neglect and sexual abuse and, stemming from this, the many broken pieces of her own bad choices. She poured out her story, and I sat speechless. And now what should I say? I prayed one of my desperate prayers, “Oh God, Oh God, Oh God!
By the way, I have been in this place so many times. Just this week I again found myself sitting with somebody so deeply lost in Death Valley that I did not have the faintest clue how I could lead them out. I know this helpless feeling very, very well. Maybe you do as well.
And then God slipped me an insight, timely as manna dropped from the sky. He showed me that her past was beyond repair, at least on my watch. If there was any good thing there to salvage, I knew not how. But in the same instant God showed me she still had a future. And it was vast, unbroken, pristine, radiant. It was pure promise: a glory that would be revealed in her, a glory that far outweighed her “light and momentary troubles” now, the glory of One who was coming to redeem her and transform her…
I shared all this with that young woman and it became manna to her too. I watched her put on a garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness, the oil of gladness for the ashes of sorrow. I watched her rise and greet the day as it truly was, a day to be glad in, a day to rejoice in, a day new with mercy…
Since then, this is mostly what I do when I counsel: I help people anticipate. I recognize the value of the other kind of counseling. I just lack the skill for it. What I do best is describe, as much as human words allow, the hope to which they have been called, the glory we are to receive.
I have come to believe this is what we all are called to do with and for one another. I have come to recognize that this is what God’s Word does with us over and over. All through scripture we are given bold encouragement to set our eyes on what is to come. Buchannan references Romans 8, a passage so typical of the sort of thing we read in scripture, where Paul urges us to consider that “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.” Paul goes on to remind us that not only people but “creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.”
Isaiah, in the verses that follow, gets very specific about this glorious future which has been secured for us by God. Look again with me. In verses 5-6 we hear that blind eyes will be opened and deaf ears unstopped. The lame will leap like deer and the speechless will sing for joy.
There are people you know who need to hear this promise.
There is an elderly woman who cannot see anymore. She can no longer read the books she used to love to read, or have a brilliant autumn sunset take her breath away, or even see the face of her newborn grandchild. There is a young man, deaf since birth, who has never once heard the haunting beauty of a cello, the crackling of logs on a fire, or the sweet sound of his lover’s voice whispered in his ear. There are people of all ages whose legs don’t work and they simply cannot walk on this earth, much less dance across it. Some of you in this very room, even though your voices work just fine, something inside you has withered and you simply cannot bring yourself to sing, much less sing songs of joy.
I believe that God is telling us that we are to boldly declare to all these people, to one another, that if we would place our trust in God there will come a day when God will forever set all things right and do so in ways beyond what we can ask or imagine. Don’t miss the extravagance of the promise here. The lame aren’t just made to walk; they are made to leap like deer! The speechless aren’t just given words to speak; they are given a song to sing! God is not promising to move us from scarcity to sufficiency, but from scarcity to abundance. God does not declare that he will move us from not enough to just enough, but from not enough to more than enough! Such is the extravagant nature of God’s love and grace.
Isaiah makes clear then in verses 6-7 that what God promises to do for people he also promises to do for all of creation. Streams will flow in the desert. Burning sand will become a pool. Thirsty ground will gush forth a spring of water.
What is missing when a land becomes desolate? When scientists study other planets looking for signs of life, what is it they are looking for? It’s always water. Right? Water is life. One day God will water our thirsty world and even the natural world around us will thrive in ways we never thought possible.
In verses 8-9 we are told that God is making for us a highway called the Holy Way. Now, that may not sound like good news to those of you who commute and spend way too much time sitting in traffic on highways. But think about it this way. A highway in those days was a high way, a way above, a way through, a way beyond. You see, in those days people did not travel on highways to go to work or vacation as we do. Mostly they worked and lived and died in the same little town in which they were born. That meant that the only reason most people would ever go on a highway was to make a pilgrimage. In Palestine, for example, most Jews would only go out on the highway if they were traveling to Jerusalem for a religious feast or festival. In other words, when people went out on the highway they were going out to meet God.
Some of you need to hear this promise today. If you have trusted Christ, than God has set you on a highway which leads back home to God. Unclean shall not travel on this highway which means that God, through Christ, has made you clean. Only God’s people travel on this highway which means that God has redeemed you and made you his daughter, adopted you and made you his son. There are no fools on this highway. That’s hard to imagine because our highways are full of fools. This highway is not, which means that not even you will get lost along the way. There is no lion or beast on this highway, which means that though the way may not be easy, it is secure. In the end, there is nothing you will meet along the way which will harm you or destroy you.
Finally, all of us need to hear the promise God makes us in verse 10. As you have trusted him, he has set you on a highway that ultimately leads to life. The road may take you through almost unbearable stretches of desolation, but stay on the road and one day it will lead you singing to a place of everlasting joy and gladness where your sorrow and pain will run away and never come back. That is God’s promise.
And I must ask you, do you believe it? Do you?
I’ve been preaching and teaching now in the church for 25 years. That’s a lot of sermons. Some quick math this week helped me calculate that to be about 600 hours of preaching. I’ll be honest with you. Sometimes I wonder myself what in the world I might possibly have left to say after all those hours. The truth is, I think I could probably say a different version of the same thing over and over again every Sunday because I am coming to believe that we all need to hear the same thing over and over again every Sunday.
In one way or another, whenever the Christian Gospel is proclaimed, either in a church service like this one or over coffee between two friends, around the dinner table or at the hospital bedside, in one way or another the message of the Gospel is always that God, through Christ, is transforming wasteland into promised land. And I think that life in this world does such a good job of beating us down that we in the church need to become experts at constantly helping one another anticipate this future God has in store for us.
Not that we don’t try to change the present. We do. We feed, we clothe, we build, we comfort, we forgive, we work, we heal, we protect. Motivated by the love of God and empowered by the Spirit of God, we do whatever we can to improve the lot of one another and of the world around us. But in the end we will not be able to fix everything. There will be much, even in our own lives, which we simply cannot change and faced with this we must be bold with one another, doing everything we can to help each other anticipate the future which God has promised and is, even now, bringing about.
So do this for me. Think of people you know who need to hear these words. It might be the person sitting right next to you. Who do you know who is in a place of dry desolation? Try to help them out of that place if you can. But even if you can’t, give them bold encouragement. Proclaim to them what God has promised. Say to those you know who have a fearful heart, “Be strong! Do not fear! Here is your God. He is coming with vengeance, bent on banishing everything in your life, everything in this world, that has kept you from the life he had died to give you. He is coming. He is coming to save you.”
May we become a church full of people who love one another enough, and trust our God enough, to never let one another forget that the following is true. Listen to me. Wherever you have been, wherever you are, if you will trust Christ, your future is vast, and unbroken, and pristine, and radiant. As long as you trust Christ, your best days are ahead of you.
The Next Step – A resource for Life Groups and/or personal application
Read Isaiah 35:1-10. What do you notice first?
Judging from the content of these verses, what do you imagine was the state of the people to which Isaiah was writing?
For you, what is the most hopeful image in this whole passage? Why?
Does life in this world seem to you more like Death Valley or NapaValley?
What do you think about Mark Buchanan’s suggestion that one of the most important things we can do for one another in the church is to help one another anticipate the future? Are you good at doing this with other people, helping them to remember what God has in store for us?
What pressures in your life right now are causing your “hands and knees to tremble?” How might the message of this passage bring hope to you?
Read Romans 18:18-30. What do these powerful words add to this discussion? What do you notice here?
Do you believe that your best days are truly ahead of you?
 Mark Buchannan, The Rest of God, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2006), 209-210.
 This whole passage is brilliant. Read Romans 8:18-30.
 It should not surprise us that when God gave the church a sacrament of new life, he gave us baptism, immersion in water. As Jesus once told the woman at the well, “The water I give [those who come to me] will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”
 I’m reminded of Jesus’ words about the narrow road here in Matthew 7:13-14.