Third Sunday of Advent 2022

Isaiah 35: 1-10 Look, Can You See

In the Bible, there is a story of a faithful follower of Jesus named Stephen. The Bible tells us, “And Stephen, full of grace and power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people.” (Acts 6:8 ESV)

This irritated some of those who opposed those who believed in Jesus. So they told lies about Stephen and turned the people against him. Yet, in spite of what they were doing and saying, Stephen kept his cool and remained steadfast in his faith and witness. This so outraged Stephen’s critics that they dragged him out of the city and stoned him to death.

While he was being pelted with rocks that were breaking his bones he cried out, not in pain but in joy, “Look! I can see heaven on display and Jesus standing at God’s right side!” (Acts 7:56) This is where faith can take you. Some see death and defeat, others salvation and success.

What a stunning scene. In the midst of evil, hatred, violence, injustice, and suffering, a man is able to see the glory of God. A man was able to see beyond the limits of this life into the reality that his faith would bring him. Stephen experienced the truth of the promise Jesus made, “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matt. 28:20-1:1 ESV) This is a gift of grace; this is a gift of God. Jesus is with us and will not leave us and will take us to and through the end of the age.

But wait a second. We are celebrating Advent. Is not Advent about waiting for Jesus to return? How can Jesus be with us and at the same time we are waiting for Jesus to return? Isn’t this a contradiction? No, it is not.

In the Old Testament God promises to never abandon or leave God’s chosen people, even when the people would abandon God. As I read the Prophets, I see how the people really did hurt God deeply, continually, and often without remorse.

In the book of Psalms, it states, “Yet he, being compassionate, atoned for their iniquity and did not destroy them; he restrained his anger often and did not stir up all his wrath. He remembered that they were but flesh, a wind that passes and comes not again. How often they rebelled against him in the wilderness and grieved him in the desert! They tested God again and again and provoked the Holy One of Israel. (Ps. 78:38-41 ESV)

Still, God made a promise, “Be strong and courageous. Do not fear or be in dread of them, for it is the LORD your God who goes with you. He will not leave you or forsake you.” (Deut. 31:6 ESV)

Even though God was with God’s chosen, God also promised a messiah, a savior, who would be God with us. And so, the people waited, with anticipation for this promise to be fulfilled.  Jesus was the fulfillment of this promise. Jesus came into a world of darkness, a wilderness of spiritual blindness to bring us light, bring us understanding, to give us a glimpse of God, God’s love, and God’s plan for humanity. Jesus provides the opportunity for a restored relationship with God.

Hear our Lord’s own words, “Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”” (Jn. 8:12 ESV)

And so, Jesus is still with us. Jesus is still the light, but God’s ultimate purpose is to restore all of creation and to the reality of the beginning. We are waiting for a new reality in which darkness, evil, depravity, violence, hatred, prejudice, lies, and deceptions are no more. A reality in which the wilderness, the desert becomes a garden, a garden of joy. This is the Advent we are waiting and anticipating as God’s faithful.

When Isaiah writes these words of our passage, the people who hear them are surrounded by a darkness, a wilderness, a situational desert filled with fear and uncertainty. Their economy is in trouble. There are menacing nations that want to destroy them. There are false prophets that are telling them everything will be fine only to set them up for greater hardship when the enemy comes to their house.

Within their own culture, there is injustice and moral degradation. There is not a lot of trust in the institutions of government or religion. Compromise, corruption, and complacency had dried and damaged their relationship with God and left their souls barren, but God awaits their awakening. Please hear that God awaits their awakening. God will not abandon those whom God loves. And this includes us as well.

Isaiah gives the people a word of hope, a word from God. God is faithful. God is in charge whether we realize it or not. God does have a plan. God gives a promise. God will transform the wilderness, the desert. God will bring light to the darkness. God will provide a way, a highway, a Holy way which will bring God’s people to this place. That highway, that Holy way, is the way of Jesus. A way you and I are invited to travel.

I wonder, in the age in which we live, do we need such a word of hope? Does the vision given to Isaiah have anything to say to us? Do we need to be told, “Strengthen the weak hands, and support the unsteady knees. Say to those who are panicking: “Be strong! Don’t fear!” If not now, there will be a time, not might be, but will be, we will.

When we are in the grip of grief because of a loss we can barely endure, we will need to be told, “Be strong! Don’t fear!”. When we are facing a painful situation, one we cannot avoid or escape, we will need to be told, “Be strong! Don’t fear!” When darkness surrounds us, when depression and doubts come toward us like a flood when we encounter evil or tragedy we cannot understand, we will need to be told, “Be strong! Don’t fear!” But why would we believe? Why would we hear? Why would we listen?

Why, because this is our only hope. This is the only choice with a chance. This is the only way out. This is the only way we can keep from being overcome if for God to be our overcomer. God has given us a way. God has provided us the means in which to be strengthened, supported, secured, and safe. Jesus is the means; Jesus is the way.

Jesus tells us, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. (Jn. 14:6 ESV) It is through faith we find the way. It is through grace that the Way comes to seek us.

Just as the prophet spoke to an anxious and fearful people, we also live in such a time. We live in a time of fragmented and unsatisfied lives, a time of fractured and hurting families, of broken hearts, crushed dreams, and an uncertain future. We never know when this world will turn on us and seek to stone us.

What can we do to prepare? We can seek the way. We can turn our eyes to Jesus. We can draw close to him as he wants to draw too close to us. We can gain a heart filled with anticipation and hope that come with walking with God. We can see with our hearts the promise of God, “And the ransomed of the LORD shall return and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away. (Isa. 35:10 ESV) This is what we are waiting for and yet can already possess. God gives us this choice. What are we doing with it?