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CHRISTMAS IS ALMOST HERE! Carols are being sung, the Christmas candlelight service has come and gone, and it might even be bleak-midwinter-y for Christmas Day. One more sleep left! But what’s far more exciting than the presents (ooh, in shiny paper) and epic roast dinner (mmm) and seeing family (ahhh) is what it is that we’re celebrating. It’s pretty obvious on a blog like mine, talking about all this Jesus stuff, but as I’ve looked at Isaiah 35 I’ve got more and more excited about it. I’m used to hearing about the baby in the manger that was God become human, and we can get so used to hearing about it that we forget the layers and layers of meaning, promise and hope behind God the Son becoming completely like us so that He could completely redeem us.

In the last Isaiah 35 post we saw an encouragement to be strong because of the hope that is coming, and these next verses open up what that hope looks like:

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy. For waters break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; in the haunt of jackals, where they lie down, the grass shall become reeds and rushes. And a highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Way of Holiness; the unclean shall not pass over it. It shall belong to those who walk on the way; even if they are fools, they shall not go astray. 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. 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.

Isaiah 35:5-10

The land, once dry and desolated by judgment, will be full of life – the burning desert sand will be turned to cool springs and lush grass. A people afraid and surrounded by enemies and exiled in a foreign land will be brought home to a place of safety.

God will physically restore His people to their home, but more importantly He will also restore them spiritually. They will be led home along the highway of holiness – they will finally walk in God’s ways; a rebellious people blind and deaf to God’s Word made pure and given the ability to know Him again. Their focus won’t be beautiful cities or a powerful army or their own affluence, but walking with God Himself. Their home will be a place where there is no sin, and they won’t stray from holiness any more.

There’s a clue to how this will be brought about in verse 10 – the “ransomed of the LORD shall return” God would redeem His people from their exile. We know that this didn’t happen to Israel; otherwise, it would look like a far different country today! Instead, this hope is still yet to come. It’s a picture of heaven, the home that God has promised to His people, to us. And this is what Jesus began when He came to earth. When John the Baptist’s disciples asked Him whether He was the Messiah (Luke 7:18-23) He said “Look! The blind can see, the lame walk… all these things Isaiah promised are happening!” Jesus brought about this hope; He has redeemed us with His own blood on the cross and as the ransomed of God we can look forward to a day when we will have everlasting joy in a perfect home with our God.

So in all the things we go through in life, we have this encouragement: We can look forward to a glorious future in heaven now. When we are fed up of the struggle with sin, we can hope in the fact that one day we will walk in holiness with God and not fall off the road. When we struggle with illness or our bodies are breaking, we know that one day we will know perfect healing and health. When we feel surrounded and friendless, we know that one day we will live in a place without danger or threat. We will sing with joy round the throne with brothers and sisters from every tribe and nation. So let’s pray that God will use our future hope to strengthen us in life today, and that He’ll keep us close to Him as we wait for it to be fulfilled. And as we celebrate Jesus’ birth tomorrow let’s remember just what it is that He has done for us. The turning point of history began on the day God became man.

(Hey, that rhymes!)

 

Isaiah is a pretty cool book, and surprisingly relevant for Christmas. We’ve been going through it in our sermon series at St Mary’s this term, and I hadn’t noticed before just how much it’s about Jesus. In a way, that’s quite daft, because the entire Bible points to Jesus (see John 5:39), and we have those famous passages that we bring out at Christmas like Isaiah 9 (…For to us a child is born, to us a son is given… etc.). But as we’ve looked at it in church I’ve seen just how much it’s about Jesus. Isaiah contains a lot of warnings about coming destruction because God’s people had turned away from Him, but in it God also says I will take your guilt away and promises them so much good if they would come back to Him. And He keeps on hinting at how He’ll bring this about …to us a child is born… (Isaiah 9:4); Behold, your God… will come and save you. (Isaiah 35:4); Behold my servant… (Isaiah 42:1). And then in chapters 49-53 He goes into a whole lot of detail about the “servant”, who would take upon himself the sin of God’s people, die willingly in their place, and bring restoration once again… Jesus!

Isaiah 35 contains another hint:

Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who have an anxious heart, “Be strong; fear not! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you.”

Isaiah 35:3-4

Your God will come and save you. This was a message for the remnant of Israel, the faithful few people that God kept for Himself while the nation was being judged. They would have seen the destruction of their country, their home, as war advanced and their armies were defeated. Ultimately, they would be taken into exile.

God was speaking to people in a very real political situation. I don’t know about you, but I find it easy to forget that the events in the Bible were real bits of world history, and some of them big and scary like we’re seeing today in Syria and Iraq and Ukraine. At the time Isaiah was writing, the country of Assyria had become a world superpower. It had conquered the mighty Babylonian empire and now had its sights set on Judah. So to try and save their skin, Judah made defensive alliances against the Assyrian empire, and the alliance’s attempt to take on their enemy failed. Assyria advanced, and war was on their doorstep.

It’s easy for us to look at the people in the Bible and wonder how they could be so daft as to not trust God when clearly only a few pages before He’d done something incredible, but I know that I can all too often forget who is really in control of the world, and that can be only about something small like catching the bus! But in Isaiah, and in these verses, God is speaking to a people on the verge of international war. He is giving them warnings of worse things to come, but He is also giving hope to those who will trust in Him – don’t be afraid, your God will come and save you.

We know that ultimately He has done this for us in Jesus. When Christ died, He took upon Himself all the punishment that we deserve for our sin and every offence we have committed against our holy God. And when He rose from the dead three days later He showed that He had defeated death once for all, the Father’s wrath was satisfied, and now we have eternal life in Him. And this is eternal life beyond what happens to us in this world – we are alive in Christ no matter what gets thrown at us! We are safe in Christ no matter what difficulties we have to come, no matter what opposition, no matter what illness or persecution we have to suffer. No matter what family situation, breakdown in relationships with people, fear for the future, whatever makes us anxious. We have encouragement from God’s Word to take heart and stand firm because He will come. That may mean that He saves us from the situation we are in now. But that might also mean that He leaves us in the place where we are. Either way, we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him (Romans 8:28) and nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ. So we are safe, no matter what, because we can never be snatched away from our Saviour.

Christmas day is almost upon us, the day when we celebrate that God has come and saved us. He has shown His glory through a baby born in Bethlehem, God made human, who died for the sins of the world. And because of this, we can have such confidence in our God, that we are His children, His beloved people who can never be snatched from Him. Let’s pray this confidence for ourselves and our brothers and sisters in Christ, that whatever we do we will be encouraged by the fact that God is with us now, and whatever happens He is our Saviour. Let’s praise God that He is far bigger than the world, and makes us more than conquerors in Christ – He hasn’t just defeated death for us, but even makes suffering work for our good. Let’s thank Him that one day He will end all suffering and persecution, and our trust in Him will be shown to be justified. But also, let’s pray that more people would come to know this peace; that people will turn to Christ as their Saviour.

The book of Isaiah is all about how God acts for His glory, and especially how He does it in dealing with His people. The chunk of the Bible that runs between the poetry of Psalms, Proverbs and the like and the beginning of the New Testament is full of warnings to a people who had forgotten God. But it also contains a load of promises, too, and Isaiah is no exception.

Chapter 35 comes at the end of a section of chapters (28-25) that are mainly about judgment on Judah, the southern kingdom of what was Israel (Israel split into two during the reign of Solomon’s son, Rehoboam. The southern bit – made of the tribes of Benjamin and Judah, and whose capital was Jerusalem – was called Judah; and the northern bit – which included the other tribes, and whose capital was Samaria – kept the name of Israel), and its neighbours. Judah had turned away from God, and worse still, they were ignoring the warnings He was giving them about the judgment that was hanging over them. They treasured other things instead of the God who loved them and had cared for them for generations. They frantically made political alliances to try and gain some national security, instead of calling on the God who impossibly brought them out of slavery in Egypt and gave them the promised land. So God would strip them of everything, until they had nothing left.

Yet in these chapters we see the LORD’s passion for His glory in more than His judgment on sin. So many times in this section of Isaiah the judgment is peppered with glimpses of God’s heart for His people as He promises what He would do if only they would repent and cast themselves on Him. When God threatens to destroy Israel’s beautiful capital city, Samaria, He also says

“In that day the LORD of hosts will be a crown of glory, and a diadem of beauty, to the remnant of his people, and a spirit of justice to him who sits in judgement, and strength to those who turn back the battle at the gate.”

Isaiah 28:5-6

After God reveals that His people are stubborn, insisting on piling up their sin on themselves, and making plans that will only backfire He says

… the LORD waits to be gracious to you, and therefore he exalts himself to show mercy to you. For the LORD is a God of justice; blessed are all those who wait on him.

Isaiah 30:18

These are only a couple of examples – go and look for the rest, and be amazed at a God who justly pours out judgment but is so ready to give mercy and lavish blessing on people who will just trust Him and return to Him.

After six chapters of Isaiah describing God’s judgment on Judah for their disobedience and refusal to return to Him comes chapter 34, a final summary of the wrath that God will pour out on the enemies of His people and those that don’t trust in Him. It’s a chapter full of destruction and shed blood flowing like the sacrifices on the altar to satisfy God’s anger, finally ending in total desolation, the land left smoking and barren, a home for wild animals.

And after all this devastation come these verses:

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad; the desert shall rejoice and blossom like the crocus; 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.

Isaiah 35:1-2

The wilderness shall be glad, the desert spring into bloom, and the dead wasteland full of beautiful life. Already God has promised to be His people’s crown and beauty, to provide for their needs, to be with them and give them deep joy; and now as God comes to give them these things the dead land springs to life ahead of Him. This is the picture of salvation – beautiful life, abundant life; and not just life but close relationship with God: They shall see the glory of the LORD, the majesty of our God (Isaiah 35:2)

So how do we respond to a God so holy and passionate, who is repulsed by the spiritual adultery of our sin yet promises so much for those who turn to Him? We can only approach Him with humility, knowing we are sinful, confessing that we aren’t the people He made us to be and asking for His forgiveness. But we can also approach Him with boldness because we know that God has forgiven us in Jesus! We are sinners in the hands of a holy God, but redeemed sinners, beloved of the Lord and with all His promises given to us today. We have this salvation, this abundant life! Let’s thank and praise Him for all He has done for us! And let’s love our holy God, enabled by His Spirit to honour Him with our lives. Let’s work today as worship and service to Him.

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