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Visions from The Catacombs Week before December 11, 2016

Isaiah 35:1-10

35The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus 2it 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. 3Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. 4Say 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.”

5Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; 6then 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; 7the 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. 8A 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. 9No 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. 10And 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.

What I Am Learning:

Notice in this text the emotional and spiritual issues facing the first hearers.

There were weak hands and feeble knees and fearful hearts. There were eyes that could not see hope and ears that could not hear words of hope.

The People of Israel had good reason to feel this way. They had been in Babylon for some time, riven from their homes and families and put to work. The promise of the Exodus from Egypt, the key memory of faithful Israel had become a fairy tale. Exile in Babylon was their reality. Between them and home was an army and a wilderness full of danger.

The prophet's job in a time of despair is to call people to hope again that God is moving in a broken and hurting world, and that we can have something to do with this hope.

But people who are despairing often resist words of hope. It is easier to be numb to the pain when the world is unjust and life is hard so we become numb to everything else: love, joy, gladness. To hear the prophet's words of hope is to endure again the pang of losses. To embrace words of hope, at first, is to embrace pain again.

But emotional and spiritual pain is part of life and to suppress it is to suppress the reason we experience pain: love.

Ellie Wiesel taught us that anger is not the opposite of love. Indifference is the opposite of love. What we love we are willing to suffer for, to anguish over, to expend our life energies to protect and nurture.

Hope like the prophet Isaiah speaks of is an invitation to love again after years of numbing indifference. Like a limb that has "fallen asleep" it's going to be uncomfortable for a while as it wakes up again.

Isaiah said that one day soon the soldiers would stand aside and a highway would be made straight for the People to return to their land and to their communities. And after about 60 years in Babylon this came true.

John the Baptist would use these words about 700 years later as they experienced a new kind of exile: an exile at home (as NT Wright has taught us). John and then Jesus used both the stories of Exodus from Egypt and Return from Exile in Babylon to propose that again there was hope. That people were free to live and love again.

They experienced that hope in Jesus. People began to share their food again. To reach out in love to those who were different. To build stronger communities again.

This was Jesus' real threat to the Roman Empire and for this threat he was killed: he taught people that they could live no longer divided from their neighbor, that they could be a community again.

Trevor Noah, a comedian who grew up in South Africa, wrote a NY Times Op-Ed recently. He reminded us that it is easier to control a people who are divided from one another.

But before the work of reuniting with those who differ from us, we must be able to glimpse a ray of hope on the horizon.

One day, God will gather all the peoples of the earth together with singing, everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

This is the hope toward which Christians strive. It may cause us pain when we see God's peoples being separated and divided and distracted and made fearful of one another. Feel that pain. Taste your anger. But then stand up and get to work for the day is coming when divisions will cease and mourning and crying and pain will be no more and love will win.