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The Holy Way: The Gospel of Isaiah (3)

. 5 min read
2013/12/15 
Isaiah 35.1-10
(No video at this time)
We
come today to another salvation song of the prophet.  As we have said in our earlier weeks, each of
these salvation songs is matched to a judgment proclamation.  We have a cue in this text itself: “Be
strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with
terrible recompense. He will come and save you” (Isaiah 35:4).  Indeed, the chapter
prior to our section, this vengeance is described in terrifying detail.  The language used is that of “doom”, the
ancient “devotion to destruction” in which every person, every creature, and
every piece of property was to be destroyed in an act of obedience
(Brueggemann, 269).  And, the “doom” was
a universal doom:
The LORD is enraged against all the
nations.  The stench of their corpses
shall rise.  All the hosts of heaven
shall rot away (34:2-4).
We
struggle today with language like this, struggle to connect it to the
understanding of “gospel”, of “good news”, that “God so loved the world”.  For the prophet, there was no difficulty
connecting this with a salvation song, no trouble recognizing that the LORD’s
vengeance means not only destruction of the world that was, but destruction of
a world that is inherently broken, riddled with sin, and must be set
right.  Our salvation can only come when
the world itself is set right. 
      No surprise that Isaiah’s salvation songs
are also full of creation language.  Last
week we saw a new shoot coming from a stump and a lion lying down with a
lamb.  Today, the creation language is
one of transformation from desert to garden, from drought to fertility.  And between layers of creation transformation
we see a transformation of God’s new or renewed community.
Walter
Brueggemann says that each of these layers has a “before” and “after”, a story
or image of transformation.  For creation,
he speaks of a movement from “drought” to “fertility”, for the human community
a movement from “disability” to strength (275-277).

We
know what drought does.  Plants
droop.  Corn and other crops
shrivel.  Topsoil dries up and blows
away.  Animals and people starve.  We know what drought does, and we have
experienced it in our personal lives: When what once offered joy is now a
source of pain, when hopes and dreams evaporate, when the best and most
important people in our lives are simply gone. 
      Death of Mateusz.  We are in the desert, and we are thirsty.
      No wonder the prophet declares:
“Strengthen the weak hands and make firm the feeble knees”.  No wonder he calls out, “Be strong! Do not
fear!”  Because our God is here.  Our God comes to save.
We
know a little bit about disability. 
Blind, deaf, lame, mute.  Often,
the physical dimension is much less significant than the social dimension, the
exclusion.  Everyone stares.  People who genuinely want to connect are
awkward about it.  If you are doing well,
you’re an “inspiration”.  If you’re
struggling, you’re invisible (except for the staring).
      We’ve begun to recognize that disabilities
come in many forms, that the list is much longer than what the ancient prophet
offers.  We now recognize mental illness
and developmental disability.  But for
those of us who are able-bodied and neuro-typical, we are content to think of
disability as someone else’s problem.  We
overlook our brokenness.  And, we’re –
all of us – broken.  And, whether we recognize
it or not, we’re all thirsty.
The
concluding portion of the vision, on human community, describes the redeemed
returning to mother Zion,
singing songs of praise to the LORD. 
They travel on a highway, a highway built through former desert, a
highway that is bordered by beautiful gardens, by flowers and streams.  It is the Holy Way, and “the unclean shall not
travel on it”.  Here, for the first time,
the language of the prophet appears to be exclusive.  No one unclean, no lions or ravenous beasts.  But, in the prior chapter, the judgment was
universal.  And, earlier in this chapter,
the promise seems inclusive as well – the desert becomes garden, the lame leap,
the blind see.
      I believe that the prophet is actually
speaking inclusively here as well.  The
clean who travel on this way, the ransomed and redeemed of the LORD, are the
blind, deaf, lame, and mute described in the prior movement.  It is the broken and excluded, all those who
would be disqualified today, who lead the ranks of the redeemed in God’s
kingdom come.
      There is a translation question in verse
8.  The phrase regarding “fools” is
either excluding or including them.  The
Hebrew is unclear, and the English translations vary.  I prefer, because of the context, the
translation of the NRSV: “No traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.”  It is an incredible promise.  “Fools” for ancient Israel were not
simply people without common sense. 
“Fools” were people who rejected God altogether (Psalm 14.1).  Yet, for Isaiah the prophet, on this Holy Way even the
fool can’t get lost.
      This vision can be upsetting.  We don’t embrace our brokenness, so the idea
that the broken lead the redemption band is a problem.  We want the “faithful” label and we imagine
ourselves to be better than folks who don’t share our faith.  The idea that “fools” – atheists, perhaps –
could find entrance to the kingdom
of God
is really
uncomfortable.
Mrs.
Turpin:
There
was only a purple streak in the sky, cutting through a field of crimson
and
leading, like an extension of the highway, into the descending
dusk.
A visionary light settled in her eyes. She saw the streak
as
a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a
field
of living fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls
were
tumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white
trash,
clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of black niggers in
white
robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and
clapping
and leaping like frogs. And bringing up the end of the
procession
was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those
who,
like herself and Claud, had always had a little of everything and
the
given wit to use it right. She leaned forward to observe them closer.
They
were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable
as
they had always been for good order and common sense and
respectable
behavior. They, alone were on key. Yet she could see by
their
shocked and altered faces even their virtues were being burned
away.
      Flannery O’Connor, “Revelation”, in the
collection Everything that Rises Must
Converge,
published online in Philosophy
of Human Experience 2004-2005.
Resources:

Walter
Brueggemann.  1998.  Isaiah 1-39.  Louisville,
KY
: Westminster/John Knox Press.