Joy in the Desert

Reading: Isaiah 35.1-10

A fortnight ago, I showed you two pictorials from the Bethel Bible Series. One of them called "Harmony" recalls to mind a number of things that God intended for humankind - especially that we are meant to live in harmony with God, with our neighbour, with nature and with ourselves. No matter who we are, there is something in all of us that deeply believes that this is how things really ought to be.

But in all honesty we know that it is not a picture of how things are! Some of what is wrong with the world is recalled by another pictorial entitled "Disharmony" - where we are called to recognise the reality that we are separated from God and live under his judgment, that there is hostility between us and our neighbour, that nature shares the effects of the curse we have brought on the world and that we are disturbed in our inner nature in relation to ourselves. The world doesn't look as barren as that and there are some bright spots in human behaviour. The pictorial, however, is trying to reinforce the Biblical truth that the Fall has had major and devastating consequences for every member of the human race.

The Gloomy Backdrop

In Isaiah 34 there is a graphic picture of the Lord's judgment against the nation of Edom. It comes at the end of a series of judgments in which Jerusalem and Judah themselves are warned of coming doom.

In recent years there has been a fashion in Biblical studies to "filter out" the encouraging passages in Isaiah and say that they must have been written by a later prophet. I have never seen any necessity for this and believe that it detracts a great deal from the Lord's message to us.

Today's passage (35.1-10) is set against a dark background. If we are to understand the love and mercy of God, we must see it against the judgment that sinners deserve - and will receive if they remain in their sins!

Paul wrote in Rom.6.23, "The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord." Wages is what you earn, what you have worked for, what you deserve to get. A gift is freely given, not paying an indebtedness, not depending on what you have done or what you deserve. If you worked hard for an employer and received no wages, what would you think? And then every so often he writes you out a cheque, puts it in a special envelope with a pretty card which says, "I really care about all you have done for the firm - enclosed is my gift to you!" Gift? That's no gift! You have worked hard and received nothing! That is more like wages - but given late and rather inadequate in the light of all that you have done!

In Romans 1 we see Paul introducing some of the great themes of his letter. V.16 he writes about not being ashamed of the gospel because it is God's power for salvation for those who believe. For the gospel, he adds in v.17 reveals how God makes right with himself those who believe in Jesus. But then in v.18 he goes on to say that God's wrath/anger is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of the human race…

We long for peace and tranquillity. We want the people the warring people of Bosnia, Rwanda, the Middle East, Somalia… to stop being stupid. We wish the News media would stop disturbing our peace with all the graphic pictures they keep on showing us. And we wish our politicians would stop all their rudeness and nastiness towards one another and concentrate on making rules that would make life as comfortable as possible for us!

But there is a problem out there - a problem, not just with them, but with us! "For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God". Already we see about us in society the evidence, not only of the reality of sin itself, but of "the wages of sin". But "the gift of God is eternal life" - at great price - "through Christ Jesus our Lord." Against the dark backdrop that sinners deserve to perish in hell we hear the word of grace, "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life"

The Picture of the World Redeemed

Today's reading gives us a picture of restoration and joy. It is the word of promise and hope for those who have experienced the judgment of God and have now turned back to him - "The desert will rejoice; and flowers will bloom in the wilderness. The desert will sing and shout for joy; it will be as beautiful as the Lebanon Mountains and as fertile as the fields of Carmel and Sharon. Everyone will see the Lord's splendour, see his greatness and power" (Is.35.1-2).

Many years ago I received a booklet by Joseph Hunting entitled "Israel the Modern Miracle". It described the ways in which the Jews, in returning to their homeland, had cared for the land in ways in which the Arabs had never done so that the land's fertility and productivity was being seen as never before in recent times.

Yet the fulfilment of these words in modern Israel is only partial - as it was with the restoration from captivity from Babylon. We look to the final plans of God beyond human history.

"Give strength to hands that are tired and to knees that tremble with weakness" - words quoted in Heb.12.12 - "Tell everyone who is discouraged, 'Be strong and don't be afraid! God is coming to your rescue, coming to punish your enemies'."

Then the picture of divine restoration, "The blind will be able to see, and the deaf will hear. The lame will leap and dance, and those who cannot speak will shout for joy. Streams of water will flow through the desert the burning sand will become a lake, and dry land will be filled with springs: Where jackals used to lie, marsh grass and reeds will grow."

But then the prophecy reaches forward to the Messianic age. "There will be a highway there, called 'The Road of Holiness.' No sinner will ever travel that road; no fools will mislead those who follow it. No lions will be there; no fierce animals will pass that way. Those whom the Lord has rescued will travel home by that road."

Jesus described himself as the Way, the Truth and the Life, through whom alone it would be possible to come to the Father. "No sinner can travel that road." We can only walk it on the basis on the undeserved love of God, on the basis that Jesus died for our sins.

© Peter J. Blackburn, Buderim Uniting Church, 17 December 1995
Except where otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from the Good News Bible, (c) American Bible Society, 1992.

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