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Third Sunday in Advent, 12/16/2007

Sermon on Isaiah 35:1-10, by James Wetzstein

1 The desert and the parched land will be glad;
the wilderness will rejoice and blossom.
Like the crocus, 2 it will burst into bloom;
it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy.
The glory of Lebanon will be given to it,
the splendor of Carmel and Sharon;
they will see the glory of the LORD,
the splendor of our God.

3 Strengthen the feeble hands,
steady the knees that give way;

4 say to those with fearful hearts,
"Be strong, do not fear;
your God will come,
he will come with vengeance;
with divine retribution
he will come to save you."

5 Then will the eyes of the blind be opened
and the ears of the deaf unstopped.

6 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.


7 The burning sand will become a pool,
the thirsty ground bubbling springs.
In the haunts where jackals once lay,
grass and reeds and papyrus will grow.

8 And a highway will be there;
it will be called the Way of Holiness.
The unclean will not journey on it;
it will be for those who walk in that Way;
wicked fools will not go about on it. [a]

9 No lion will be there,
nor will any ferocious beast get up on it;
they will not be found there.
But only the redeemed will walk there,

10 and the ransomed of the LORD will return.
They will enter Zion with singing;
everlasting joy will crown their heads.
Gladness and joy will overtake them,
and sorrow and sighing will flee away. (NIV)







Though this declaration of hope from the prophet Isaiah finds its fulfillment initially in the return of the exiles of Babylon and the restoration of Jerusalem under Ezra and Nehemiah, Christians, especially when we hear it during the season of Advent, have a hard time not thinking of John the baptizer in these descriptions of Great Royal Ways. Our connection of John with this text of Isaiah makes Jesus' quotation of this text in response to this same John (Matthew 2:1-11) all the more poignant for us.


How is it possible that one like John, so full of assurance of the coming of the Messiah, so ready to cite the great proclamations of Isaiah in support of his declarations of the nearer Advent of God, could become so blinded to the realities of the Kingdom's presence that he feels the need to send a delegation to Jesus with frank questions regarding Jesus' identity as that very Messiah? John's wavering faith is both troubling and comforting. Though his anxiety causes us to tremble it also reveals a place in the Kingdom of Heaven for those of us who have struggled with our own doubt and despair.


Yet our connection to John in this reading from Isaiah 35 goes still deeper than this. If John struggled, in the midst of his persecution, to recognize the signs of the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven, we in our day, with our churchly familiarity with Jesus and our culturally conditioned myopia to the real life-giving presence of God in this world, are virtually blind to the signs of God's kingdom among us. The liturgically inclined among us seek to remind us that Advent is a time for anticipating something not-yet-here other than Christmas, while all the rest of us count through our calendars this time of year with little else on our minds. Neither is especially attentive to God's continuing real presence and work among us. The newsmagazines are beginning to churn through their annual retrospectives while we, if we're paying any attention at all, are tempted to continue to conclude at nothing really changes or that all is, in every category of reality, getting worse.


The option to this faith-fueled pessimism in western culture seems to be that of an increasing reliance on science and technology to get humanity out of the messes that it has, itself, caused. This sort of hopeful technophilia, seemly blind to the lessons of the last century, is absolutely and unequivocally centered in a claimed atheism that sees human beings simultaneously as self-important animals among animals, a blight on the natural order and the only hope for the preservation and perpetuation of the so-called natural order. It seems that one either believes in God and knows the world to be going to hell or rejects the Divine in favor of a desire to slow the slide. Isaiah calls us to simultaneously more realistic and hopeful perspective.


There is no question that the Babylonian captivity and the consequent destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple was a catastrophe from which Judah never fully recovered. Gone forever were the glory days of the Davidic dynasty and Solomon's fabulous temple. Yet, historians tell us that the sojourn in Babylon was a time of rich theological inquiry and development among the dispersed Jewish communities. The Judaism that returned to rebuild Jerusalem under the Persian King Cyrus, thus laying hold of the vision set out in Isaiah 35 and other passages, was arguably more resilient with it's rich rabbinic tradition and the dispersed strength of the community synagogue. One can even see in these developments the stage being set, the way being made, for the history-changing teaching and ministry of that Galilean rabbi, Jesus of Nazareth. Indeed, taken in this light, John's adoption of Isaiah's restoration imagery as a means of describing the work of Jesus is at once historically logical as well as theologically insightful. The salvation of a sinful humankind and the restoration of the whole created order was nearer than it had been while Judah was called to sing songs of Zion along the banks of the rivers of Babylon. God was at work, in the work of Cyrus and the returning exiles, not only for the sake of the people of the Covenant, but also for the sake of all of humanity and the signs of God's work were evident with those who had eyes to see.


So it is that Jesus, when confronted by the questioning emissaries of John points to the signs of the Kingdom long promised by Isaiah. "Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me." (Matthew 11:4b-6) These are the signs of the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven, the reign of God, God's presence among his people. These signs are present in the life and ministry of Jesus, regardless of the circumstances of John's life, now that he's been imprisoned, regardless of the circumstances of Jesus' life whether he comes "eating and drinking" (Matthew 11:19) or beaten and bloodied and carrying the cross of his own execution. Hence the warning and promise given to John; "...blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me."


Now what of us? It's been more than 2,000 years now since this exchange between Jesus and John's disciples and thousands more since the proclamation of Isaiah. It's been around 16 centuries since we Christians have been keeping the season of Advent as a time of anticipating the return of Jesus our triumphant King. We all know the stories that Jesus told to encourage readiness and we'll heed again the encouragement toward patience from the Letter of James. Nevertheless, it seems sometimes as though nothing much is happening; as though this anticipation of the Advent of Jesus is so much wishful thinking or, worse yet, so much empty fear mongering. If a doubt-tormented John could be directed toward this promise through Isaiah, to where can our doubt and question-filled imaginations be pointed?

They will be directed to the very same declaration.


The abundance of God's work through the prophets is best realized when eyes of faith realize that even as these promises to the faithful are fulfilled in their initially intended historical context, in this case, the work of Cyrus the Great, they are also brought to even greater realization in the life and ministry of Jesus as evidenced by Jesus' own message to John. What's more, these sure words of promise, now multiply fulfilled, are intended for superabundant fulfillment in the consummation of all of cosmic history. Indeed, the Scriptures are very clear on this detail: the consummation of the victory over sin and death that was accomplished in the death and resurrection of Jesus will have far-reaching effects. Evidence of death's presumptive victory will be wiped from the face of creation. "Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; 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; 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." (Isaiah 35:5-7)


We've been waiting a long time for this. Around and within the Church are those who are living their lives as though there was nothing for which to wait. As noted earlier, we live in a culture that is convinced that it must engineer it's own solution to every real and perceived problem. It's as though the salvation of humankind and the rest of the planet lies solely and completely in the hands of human inventiveness. Never a thought is given to the basic reality that such inventiveness and it's underlying assumptions in a physical universe that is first knowable and then manageable at some level is, itself God-given and itself assumes the presence of the Divine. On the other hand, we who are very attentive to Jesus' other warnings of "wars and rumors of wars" and signs of destruction, see the present world as coming increasingly unglued, a sure sign that the end is at hand. Like the Thessalonians before us, it is our great temptation to simply throw up our hands, quit our jobs (philosophically and metaphorically, if not in fact) and await the arrival of the one who will come to judge this sin-sick world. Behind bars of despair that are as real as John's own, we cry out to Jesus, "When will you come?"


Jesus responds, as he always has. "Do you not see? The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me." He says this, not only in the Gospel for this third Sunday in Advent. He also calls it out from the table at which he offers himself saying, "... for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins." (Matthew 26:28) This is no idle spiritualizing of real human needs. The Eucharist is not invoked simply as a means of suggesting that people whose sins are forgiven are healed from a sort of spiritual blindness, lameness, leprosy, deafness or death, though this is certainly the case and, if the miracle of the paralytic on the mat is any indication, this ought to be sufficient. Rather, this communion with God with its gifts of life and salvation must be recognized in this time because it is at the center of the rest of the signs of life and salvation of which Isaiah speaks and which we seek as markers of the Kingdom of Heaven in this Advent time.


Several weeks ago, Shane Claiborne, a young man speaking on behalf of "New Monasticism", was with us on our campus. To a room of 300 college students and their friends, Claiborne posed the question, "What would happen if Christians lived their lives the way Jesus did?" He spent the rest of the evening answering his own question with stories of repair and restoration around his little community of Christians in Philadelphia. His stories of recovered health and wholeness in the midst of death and despair filled the room with laughter and hope for the prospect that Christians, living in faith, could see signs of the Kingdom of God in their midst. But Claiborne did not intend to limit the signs of the Kingdom of God to the work of a handful of later-day ascetics. Recognizing that he was in a room of students who were pouring their lives into the quest for professional careers, he declared. "The question is not, should you be a doctor, should you be an engineer? The question is, what sort of doctor or engineer will you be?" In saying this, he directed the room to consider the reality that God is at work, caring for creation, working life and healing through the work of his people in every vocation. The work of the Kingdom of Heaven is not limited to preachers and monks, nor is it limited to the hours when lay people serve at church or make evangelism calls. Jesus says it to us as much as he says it to John, "Look around, what do you see?" All around us in the structures of the created order, in the work of God's people, the Kingdom of God is present with his gifts. For Christians, both the awareness of this reality around them and the equipment for involvement in such blessed work is found at the table where we dine with our Lord and through the eating and drinking of his real presence among us, we are made into his body. Where Christ's body is present, life and salvation ensue.  What's more, for eyes of faith, God is discovered at work in the world bringing healing and life through the work of countless people of good will pursue their vocations out of humanitarian desires and even, if the example of Cyrus is to be believed, out of shrewd and enlightened self-interest. Certainly, none of us, even working together will bring the final consummation of the life and salvation that is given us at the hand of Christ, a consummation who's coming we anticipate in earnest every Advent. Nevertheless, for eyes of faith, the signs of Christ's coming and of his continual presence are to be found in the gathering of God's people and in the work of our own hands.

The Rev. James Wetzstein
University Associate Pastor
Valparaiso University
Valparaiso, Indiana

E-Mail: James.Wetzstein@valpo.edu