Please notice in this prophecy that there are two different images of what the messiah will be. They interlock but are separate. The predominant theme in this passage is that where there is desolation, disability or deficit, God will restore and provide abundance and joy. But alongside of these positive promises is a message of vindication and revenge. Throughout the Biblical record, it has not been enough to have new life, there is also the presentation of a God who will punish the bad guys. It is hard to know if we are imposing our sense of justice upon God or if that is who God is. The anticipation of the messiah raises the very difficult question of what kind of messiah do we seek and what kind of messiah are we offered.
One way to think about the biblical record is to see it as a history of humankind trying to discern God amidst our own desires and our own sense of justice. Last week, while I was talking about hammering swords into plowshares, it was pointed out to me that in Joel 3:9, the opposite is prophesied:
Rouse the warriors! Let all the fighting men draw near and attack.10 Beat your plowshares into swords and your pruning hooks into spears….
I have yet to hear that reading from Joel in our Advent devotions— though it is every bit a prophecy as the more familiar words from Isaiah and Micah. There is a reason for this. It is Jesus. Jesus changes how we see things and changes what we see as important. Human definitions of safety, self-protection and of God himself are re-imagined by the way Jesus lived.
Similarly, another example of dueling biblical narratives is how were the chosen people to relate to those around them who were not Jews. One very strong view was the Holy Ban. There will be strict walls of separation between the Jew and the gentile. No fraternizing, no marrying and in fact, the Israelites were called to utterly destroy those who were not like them. The Jews could not risk dilution or pollution by foreign peoples. But in contrast, we have Jesus. He repeatedly included the outcast and the unclean. Jesus’ genealogy included five women. The inclusion of women in any ancient genealogy is rare in itself but three of these women were sexually suspect. Compared to the edicts of the ban intended to maintain purity, Jesus is the product of the unexpected—and by the ban’s standards, a product of the unclean. Only with the advent of Jesus is it unmistakably clear that inclusion is more important than purity. That knowledge changes how we live.
We use our knowledge of Jesus to separate the human from the Godly. Jesus will disturb our ideas about salvation and vindication. To oversimplify, the human way is the way of self-protection, the Holy way is unstinting reliance upon God. But the Holy Way is a scary way—and this prophecy notwithstanding, carries major risks. It is the path that Jesus walked and it included the cross—the antithesis of safety. It is hard to imagine God when you are thirsty in a desolate desert—or on a cross.
In our FIRL groups I asked people to identify their own deserts—places in which they faced intractable difficulties and later, what it meant to follow the Holy Way promised in the prophecy. The deserts were many and varied. One woman has had multiple surgeries, rehabs and has more surgery in the future. She survives by ‘getting real with God’. She said, ‘I may cry, holler and plead. I want to be fixed. And in the end, I feel a little less anxious.’ Another woman’s father died much sooner than expected and her mother suffered much longer than expected. It was hard to see her parents struggles and not think God was unfair and punitive to these good people. There are people in our congregation who are watching their partner slip into dementia. There are people whose families have never ending requests for help and for money. There are selfish people and unkind people in our lives. And of course, we ourselves are often the agents of pain but we find ourselves unable to stop. Yelling at our children or at our spouse doesn’t help but all too frequently, we find ourselves repeating hurtful behaviors. All too often we find ourselves helpless to manage our own behavior much less help others . We look for relief and we find an unremitting repetition of struggle. That is what it means to live in a desert. These problems do not go away and the very idea of God in such a place is hard to comprehend.
In the the prophecy, the way home, the way to Zion is the Holy Way where ‘no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray’. The way of God is laid out before us. We can not know where it leads. What is required is that we follow the path—we rely upon God and trust God—even in the midst of the desert.
It is a spiritual discipline to live in the present—especially when the present includes the desert. If we look ahead with what our eyes can see, we will despair. We are being led home—to Zion–where we are safe, where we are known and where we are loved. It is not for us to determine the path, it is for us to follow the path. Most of us want to be fixed. Most of us want relief. Finding a way when neither is happening— in the midst of personal intractable desert is the promise of the Holy Way.
In retrospect that has been true in my life— though I resist and struggle. Though I have occasionally found rest for my soul, most of the time my God is a nettlesome God. He is forever pushing me and challenging me to take the next step on his path. This prophecy does not bring me peace but it does give me hope.
I want to know what is ahead. I want to manage outcomes. But my own desert strips me of any confidence that I can manage on my own. And in that moment, God’s highway is not so much a choice as my only way forward. I cannot know what will happen in the future. I am left with, ‘what can I do this day? What is loving this day?’ Jesus lived with that reliance—even on a cross. The prophecy promises the impossible—-but how else can we describe new life beyond our imagining.
Our faith and our promise is that God is with us in the desert. May that promise sustain you, allow you to endure and finally to see God. Let it be so.
1 The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus 2 it 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. 3 Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. 4 Say 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.” 5 Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; 6 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; 7 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. 8 A 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. 9 No 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.10 And 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.