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. The glory of Lebanon will be given to it, the splendour of Carmel and Sharon; they will see the glory of the LORD, the splendor of our God. Strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way; 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.” 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. 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. 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. 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, 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. Isaiah 35.1-10.
A much longer passage than normal this morning, but it is necessary if we are to catch the sweep of this wonderful picture painted by Isaiah. Wonderful, yes … but what is it a picture of?
On one level it depicts the day that the exile in Babylon will be over and the Jews will return to Jerusalem across the desert lands that lie between Mesopotamia and Israel. It will be a day like the coming of spring, a day of joy and gladness, a day when all the weeping will be at an end.
But Isaiah paints that picture in such bright colours and in such an “over-the-top” way that it is impossible not to see it as pointing forward to the very end of the age. In Romans 8, Paul describes how “the creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed” so that it can be “liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God” (Romans 8.19-21), and here Isaiah is showing that liberation taking place. The desert has been transformed into a sea of wild flowers and streams are springing up everywhere as the redeemed of the Lord stream into the city of God.
And not only will the environment be liberated on the great Day of the Lord; humanity will be liberated too … set free from disease and deformity and disability, but set free too from sorrow and sighing. This is the Revelation 21.4 day when God will dwell with his people and “will wipe every tear from their eyes”.
So Isaiah is not really talking about the return of the exiles circa 536 BC, then … he’s talking about the day at the End when this earth will be remade and joined with heaven and the Kingdom of God will come in all its fullness?
Er … yes and no. When John the Baptist was languishing in prison he sent some of his disciples to Jesus to ask: “Did I get it wrong? Are you the Messiah or are you not?” John had thought Jesus would bring in the great Day of the Lord, a day of wrath and judgment and separation, but instead Jesus has done nothing but preach the love of God and heal the sick. So how does Jesus answer John? He answers him in terms that seem to be drawn from this very passage in Isaiah: “Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard,” he says. “The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor” (Luke 7.22). In other words: yes, it is the End, John, but only the beginning of the End. It is now, but not yet.
These words of Isaiah relate in part to now. Now the streams are rushing to the desert sands, just out of sight. Now the seeds of the wild flowers are germinating and roots are pushing out in all directions. For as Jesus stepped from the tomb, the new age did truly dawn and we are walking in its first light. The transformation and restoration of all things has begun. And I am part of it. As I become a new creation … as the old me goes and the new me comes (2 Corinthians 5.17) I become part of Isaiah’s vision. With my sins forgiven, I become one of the ransomed of the Lord, already walking the Way and entering Zion with singing. I am part of the “now but not yet” of the Kingdom of God.