Read Isaiah 35:1-10; Matthew 11:2-11
We are truly spoiled by this year’s Advent readings. For the third week in a row the lectionary has given us the exuberant poetry of Isaiah. Just in case you haven’t bothered to read the passage before starting to read this, here it is (again).
- The desert and drought country shall be glad,
- the desolate place shall rejoice and blossom.
- With flowers it shall burst into colour
- and rejoice with laughter and singing.
- It shall be given the beauty of Lebanon,
- the majesty of Carmel and Sharon.
- Strengthen the weary hands, steady the knocking knees.
- Say to the faint-hearted:“Be strong, fear not!
- Look, your God will make reprisal.
- All things will be put right for God will come to save you.”
- Then the eyes of the blind will be opened,
- and the ears of the deaf restored.
- The lame shall leap like a deer and the dumb shall sing for joy.
- Waters shall flow in the desert and streams in desolate places,
- clear pools shall form in the sands,
- and springs rise in the drought country;
- where the desert jackals roamed there shall be reeds and grasses.
- And those whom God has redeemed
- shall return to Zion with singing;
- On their heads shall be unending joy,
- gladness and laughter shall stay with them,
- and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
Isaiah 35 is one mighty, magnificent promise, rising far above all our bruises, fractures, fears and pessimism. Here is the declaration that joy rules the universe. But this leaves us with one urgent question: When will this joy happen? When will it take place? Next year or next century, in this millennium? Will it ever happen here in history, or will it be beyond time in another dimension of life? As far as the prophet was concerned, it was to be fulfilled here on earth, in his time.
The context was exile: the inhabitants of Jerusalem had been carted off to Babylon by the invaders after the city and the temple were destroyed, and there they remained for generations. It is to these dispirited people that Isaiah brings his good news.
This chapter should be read against the background of the previous one. Ch. 34 is all gloom and destruction; particularly of the hated land of Edom. Edom, says the prophet will become a wilderness; instead of flowers there will be thistles and thorns; where princes flaunted their wealth and power, hyenas and jackals shall make their lairs. Notice the contrast in the land of Israel: flowers shall bloom, even in the deserts, and the jackals shall be gone; this is a contrast in history.
The Jews at that stage, hundreds of years before Jesus, had little idea of a positive life beyond death. For God’s chosen people, this life was the only one that mattered, and God acted in history. This was the venue for salvation. Therefore, if God made a promise about the happiness of his people, it was understood that it would be fulfilled within human history. If God’s people were to be vindicated, it was going to happen there in the holy land. The consummation would be on Mt Zion, in Jerusalem the holy city. Isaiah’s outlook is solidly terrestrial. This much is certain, but when? At what date?
This brings me to John the Baptist. Matthew’s gospel tells us that John was waiting in prison. He was expecting the fulfilment to happen through the Messiah, Jesus, the man whom he had baptised in the Jordan river. But the news brought to John by his disciples was not encouraging. Jesus had not launched the Kingdom of God in any way John could recognise. Jesus had not recruited an army either of men or of fiery angels. Maybe, John thought, he had been mistaken; maybe Jesus was not the Messiah. So he sent his disciples back to Jesus with the plaintive question: “Are you the Messiah who is to come, or must we look for someone else?”
This reminds me of the other New Testament writings that seek to explain why nothing seems to have changed. We see amongst the epistles the creation of the idea of a ‘second coming’. Because the first coming didn’t do what was expected, the early Christian writers tried to explain that it would come later when Jesus returned. It seems to me that Matthew dealt with it in a far more correct way. He put in John’s mouth the question that was on everyone’s lips in his church: Was Jesus really the one who was to come or must we look for another? And then he gives them the answer…
…Jesus responded by asking John’s disciples to report what they see and hear: The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the good news preached to them.
In other words, ‘What more do you need to see, guys?’ If John’s disciples would only look and listen, they would be able to see that Isaiah’s prophecy was being fulfilled even as they asked their question. It had not come with a display of fearsome power and a host of fiery angels; rather, it had commenced in one humble man who loved people without reserve. They were to report this to their imprisoned master. The glorious consummation had indeed arrived. I like to think that poor, incarcerated, noble John got the message loud and clear. I just wish Christians had got the message better.
That message is: GET ON WITH IT NOW! The waiting is over. Live now according to the expectations of the promise of God. God has acted! We are not to sit around in pious resignation, waiting for the next life to put everything right. Now is the time; God has acted, so it is our turn to act.
Of course, it remains hard to believe that God has already acted to fulfil Isaiah’s promise, particularly when one reads the newspaper. Julian Assange and WikiLeaks is back in the news, given his pending extradition trial in Britain. It is very entertaining, especially watching politicians fret and seethe and go on about him being a terrorist and endangering lives when, in fact, all that was ever endangered, that I can see, are political egos; nevertheless, at another level it is rather depressing that our leaders’ behaviour so resembles that of school children when there are so many desperately important issues that should be occupying their attention, such as climate change.
The various world climate conference have been even more depressing, as leaders dance around trying to avoid giving anything up, while their respective countries continue to ruin the environment for future generations, and this is particularly true of our own.
Where, I ask, is the joy that we are to be celebrating today? Where indeed! Actually, if you look at the news from a slightly different perspective, we see people taking up responsibility for their world. WikiLeaks is a good example. Not only are they forcing transparency in government, but acts by those government and businesses that are attacking WikiLeaks are generating an even more potent reaction from the common people. The impotence of governments to find meaningful international agreement on climate change is mobilising ordinary citizens to demand action, and local governments are responding in many ways all over the world.
Joy is not handed out on a platter, but emerges out of the conflict between the followers of God’s way and the ‘powers and principalities’ of the world. We are not to be religious bundles of misery being cynical about all that is happening in the world around us today. We are to be the body of Christ, continuing his mission in our time and place; co-workers in the era of fulfilment; the age of new hope and great joy! Our place is alongside all of those, Christian or otherwise, who are trying to achieve the joyful things Isaiah dreamed and spoke about.
- Joy to the people who make the bionic ear.
- Joy to those peacemakers who give their lives in the cause of reconciliation.
- Joy to those who by their deeds are good news to the poor of the world.
- Joy to people who, like the Fred Hollows Foundation, give sight to the blind in 3rd world countries.
- Joy to those who cure lepers, nurse people with aids, or immunise against disease.
- Joy to those who dedicate their lives to medical research.
- Joy to those who toil in the cause of justice and peace.
- Joy to Amnesty International, and all such prophet-like organisations.
- Joy to those who welcome refugees and give them a new homeland.
- Joy to all who bring hope to any sphere of human misery.
- Joy to those who refuse strive for a better deal for our environment, for our earth.
- Joy to those who spread the Gospel that the new age has been launched by Jesus. Those who believe that we have authority over all that defaces and oppresses humankind. And that the promises will be inexorably fulfilled.
- Joy to those who in the face of “the grim reaper” proclaim that nothing in life or death, earth or heaven, can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
- Advent is about readiness to acknowledge, receive, and participate in the revolution that clusters around Jesus. Patience is a watchword for Advent, but Advent patience is not passivity. It is the resolve to stay with it, to watch for the possibility, and not to settle for fatigue, resignation, or cynicism. Advent patience means to continue in “joy and gladness,” with no “sorrow or sighing”.
Isaiah got it right. Many people have experienced God coming into their lives and bringing to bloom the desert areas of life. The Kingdom of God has come and all are invited to partake, and therein is the joy; in living the life of the Kingdom, even in the inevitable conflict that it evokes in the engagement with the forces of the status quo.
- Strengthen the weary hands, steady the knocking knees.
- Say to the faint-hearted: “Be strong, fear not!”
- Christ comes to fulfil all things.
- And those whom God has redeemed shall return to Zion with singing;
- On their heads shall be unending joy, gladness and laughter shall stay with them, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.