A few years ago, while visiting some friends of mine in Edmonton, Steve and Brenda, I pulled out my computer and showed them some of my pictures of when I went to Israel in January 2015. Steve had been to Israel several times, but it was always in the hot, dry summer. During the time of year when I went, in January, the weather there is much like it is here: cool and damp with frequent rain showers. One of the pictures that I showed Steve happened to be the hill on which the archeological site he had worked on for several summers was located. And Steve was amazed to see the hills covered with green grass. All the times he went to Israel, the grass had dried up and turned brown in the Middle Eastern heat. It was as if I was a visitor from another reality who showed Steve something that he had never seen before: that a parched land could be brought to full, rich, abundant life.
“Seeing is believing” we often say, but there are times when this perspective does not serve us very well. If there are realities that are beyond our ability to sense them, does that mean that they do not exist? Of course not. And if those unseen realities have the ability to transform our eternal destiny from one of hopeless despair to a future full of rich, full, abundant life, wouldn’t that be a good thing to know? Yes, it would. Knowing that we are headed toward a wonderful destiny in the future will change how we look at things now. The ups and downs of our ever-changing circumstances will not dissuade us from having courage and confidence that, regardless of what is going on around us, we are headed toward a joyous future that overflows with life and renewal for all things, including us. To be clear, I am not suggesting that we make stuff up and then tell ourselves that, if we believe those things, they will happen. No, I am saying that we can look to the One who created all things and sees all reality, namely God, to get our understanding of our future destiny from him, and then live a joy-filled life now based on the future that God is going to give to us. So the question that I am asking you to think about today is: Where do you get your joy, from what you see, or from what God sees?
To help us as we think about this question, we are going to continue our series the Promise of Advent. Two weeks ago, on the first Sunday of Advent, we looked at God’s Word and saw how Jesus’ promise to always be with us and to bring us home gives us hope. Then last week, we learned how trusting in God’s love and giving all our expectations over to him gives us peace. This week, our reflection will be guided by Isaiah 35:1-10, so if you have a Bible or a Bible app with you, I invite you to turn there now.
God’s People in Troubled Times
Isaiah, you may remember, was a prophet who lived in Jerusalem around seven centuries before the time of Jesus. He lived in very troubled times. The superpower of that region, the Assyrian Empire, was very belligerent and brutal. The Assyrians conquered the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 BC and exiled many of the Israelites to live in other regions in their Empire while bringing different people groups from elsewhere into the territory that used to be Israel’s. The purpose of this practice was to wipe out the culture and identity of the nations that Assyria conquered and bring them totally under Assyrian rule. Having destroyed the kingdom of Israel, the Assyrians next turned their lustful gaze southward toward the southern kingdom of Judah. Can you imagine what that must have been like for the people who lived in Judah? Consider the oppressive fear that they must have felt.
Perhaps it was similar to the feeling people today feel when they suffer and grieve, like those whose lives have been devastated by the floods in our province, or those who are concerned about the health and well-being of someone they love. In my experience, it is like some invisible, powerful enemy has come into your life and turned it upside down. You keep hoping for the best, and sometimes the best does happen, and your loved one recovers. But other times they don’t and they are left with a permanent disability, a chronic illness, or they die. That’s when hope dies and grief floods in.
That day of great grief for Judah lay further ahead in the future because after a time of harassment and threat by the Assyrians, that Empire faded into oblivion and was replaced as a regional superpower by the Babylonians, who defeated then Judah in 597 BC. The Babylonians came back to destroy the nation, its capital city of Jerusalem and the Temple, which was the main center of worship for God’s people, in 586 BC. Seeing the present and foretelling the future, Isaiah warned God’s people again and again about the dangers of idolatry, which is taking ordinary things in life and making them the ultimate thing in our life, in place of God. It was because God’s people persistently turned away from him to worship the false gods of their pagan neighbors that God allowed the Babylonian Exile to happen. Psalm 137 describes the grief and the sorrow that God’s people experienced while in exile. By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. There on the poplars we hung our harps, for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land? (Psalm 137:1-4)
God’s Promise of Future Joy
Isaiah was called by God to warn his people about their idolatry, but Isaiah was also commissioned to speak God’s words of comfort to his people. For God never abandoned them, even when they were defeated, devastated and carried off into exile by the Babylonians. And God’s purpose was not to destroy his people, but to discipline them, to give them a time-out in Babylon so that they could stop and think about what they had been doing. That would prepare them to then make a new start in a new direction with the God who sustained them throughout the centuries.
The image that Isaiah used to communicate the joy of this new beginning was the dry Judean landscape. Totally dependent on rain to fall from the sky, there are seasons where the land becomes much like a desert. But when the rain comes, the land is transformed. And what is unusual about the Holy Land is that this transformation can come as a total surprise. Much of the land is marked by steep changes in terrain and interlaced with a vast network of dry stream beds. This means that heavy rain beyond the horizon can cause a flash flood in an area where no rain falls. The unexpected water then causes the dry, parched land to spring to life. It seems miraculous, and it can happen at any time.
(Blank screen) The fortunes of God’s people changed overnight in 539 BC when Cyrus the Great, the KIng of Persia, defeated Babylon and took over its territory. Within a year, Cyrus issued a decree allowing the Judean exiles to return to their homeland and even e provided resources so that the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem could be rebuilt. That’s how fast things can change from sorrow to joy.
But the real value of Isaiah’s words of comfort to us in today’s passage lies in the double meaning they contain. Isaiah was writing to comfort those in exile in Babylon more than 25 centuries ago. But he was also writing to comfort us right here and right now. Throughout his prophetic writing, Isaiah continued sharing words of comfort from God that applied in the moment of his own time, but also ahead to the time of the exile, and further ahead to the ultimate fulfillment in Jesus. It was Isaiah who gave more depth to God’s promise of a coming Messiah. He told us:
The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. (7:14)
The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned. (9:2)
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. (9:6)
A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of might, the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord—and he will delight in the fear of the Lord. (11:1-3)
And Isaiah also gave God’s people new and perhaps unexpected information about the Messiah: The Messiah would suffer to accomplish God’s mission of saving his people.
See, my servant will act wisely; he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted. Just as there were many who were appalled at him—his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any human being and his form marred beyond human likeness—(52:13-14)
Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (53:4-6)
The ultimate Savior of God’s people would not be an ordinary human being like Cyrus. It would be God himself. This is the mystery that distinguishes Christianity from every other faith in the world. All the other religions say that human beings have to work to make things right between us and God. Only Christianity says that God came down and worked to make things right between him and us. The loss, brokenness, suffering and grief we experience in this world are megaphones proclaiming to all who will hear that there is something dreadfully wrong with this world. It is not enough to hope that somehow things will get better. Something has to fundamentally and radically change for the trajectory of our lives to shift.
That change happened when God the Son became human to live a perfect human life for all humanity. This God-human, Jesus, became our representative and lived as an ideal human should live and then died as a broken, sin-soaked human should die. Jesus took our place on the cross and paid the full cost of forgiveness for all sins of all people throughout all time. The cosmic cost of redeeming and restoring all creation was paid for in full by Jesus.
We know that this is true because Jesus rose from the dead, the first example of many to come. Jesus has paved the way for us to safely transition through death to the new reality of resurrection life that he has prepared for us. Purged of all our sin by Jesus in the moment that we breathe our last breath in this life, our soul goes to wait with Jesus until the day he comes again to this world, in a way that all will see, to restore and renew all things. On that day, everyone will be raised from the dead to live for eternity. To those who turned away from God in this life, God will say, “Have things your way, …forever. You didn’t want to spend your earthly life with me. You won’t want to spend eternity with me either. Depart into the darkness of your own making.” But to those who trust in Jesus as their Savior, God will say, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’ (Mt. 25:23)
The Invitation to Joy
It will give God great joy to welcome us into his presence forever to live in the healed and restored new heaven and earth. Envisioning you in the fullness of life with God forever gave Jesus the joy that he needed to endure the horrific pain and suffering of the cross. Even if you were the only person in the world, Jesus would have still gone to the cross to save you. That is how much he loves you. But you aren’t the only person in the world, are you? And Jesus’ love and his sacrifice on the cross was not just for you, it was for all people.
So the invitation Jesus is giving to us today is to share in his joy by seeing things as he does. It begins by seeing ourselves, and our present and future reality as Jesus does. Jesus has cleansed us of all our sin and removed all our guilt and shame from us. He has given us new life as a beloved, forgiven child of God. Though we struggle with sin and brokenness in the life we are living right now, that does not define who we are. In 2 Corinthians 5:17 we read: Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! (2 Cor. 5:17) The hard part for us is that who we are in Jesus is hidden, certainly from others and sometimes even from ourselves. That is why it takes the eyes of faith to see the invisible realities that give us joy now.
And there is a greater joy to come. For one day, like a flash flood in the desert, Jesus will come again and life will burst forth with abundance.
The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom. Like the crocus, it will burst into bloom; it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy…. Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy. Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert. (Isa. 35:1-2, 5-6)
As great a joy as it will be to see the restoration and renewal of all things, the greatest joy will be to see countless people “…from every nation, tribe, people and language…” (cf. Rev. 7:9) being included in the restoration and renewal of all things and worshipping God forever in the new heaven and earth to come.
Can you imagine what it would be like to live with the ongoing awareness of the Holy Spirit’s joy over you being part of God’s forever family because of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection? Can you get a foretaste of our heavenly Father’s excitement over you as you open your eyes to see his great surprise of all things made better than new? Can you picture how ecstatic Jesus will be to welcome billions of people into the home which he has prepared for them? That’s the joy that can be yours right now when you see the new reality Jesus has given us, an invisible reality that we can see with the eyes of faith.
So the challenge that I am setting before you today is to lift your eyes from your present circumstances and see with the eyes of faith. See how Jesus strengthens your feeble hands and steadies your weak knees with the comfort of his salvation. Jesus loves you, he is with you and he has changed who you are and where you are going, a gift that he gives for free to anyone who looks to him in faith. And when you are able to see reality as Jesus does, then live with enduring joy. For Jesus came to save you, and he is coming again to restore you and all creation. Amen.
(This message was shared at Walnut Grove Lutheran Church in Langley BC on December 12, 2021. For more info, go to wglc.org.)