Third Sunday of Advent

This is one of those texts for which many of the hearers will know not only the words but the tune, because it stands behind the well-known alto recitative in George Frideric Handel’s Messiah:

December 16, 2007

First Reading
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Commentary on Isaiah 35:1-10

This is one of those texts for which many of the hearers will know not only the words but the tune, because it stands behind the well-known alto recitative in George Frideric Handel’s Messiah:

“Then shall the eyes of the blind be opened.” For these people, the preacher’s challenge will be to help them hear it afresh.

For others, of course, the text will be so fresh as to be incomprehensible. Lebanan? Carmel? Sharon? The blind see? The lame walk? Highways in the desert? What in the world is this all about?

So the preacher is stuck between a rock and a hard place. “Obviously, this text is about Jesus,” say some; while others observe, “This text is about a world of which I know nothing.” What to do?

One way to help all people actually see and hear this passage is to help them realize how carefully the prophet has put it together, to introduce people to the beauty of its poetry. (This might require a visual aid-perhaps a screen or, at the least, an outline of the structure in the bulletin. The process works best if the preacher can develop the structure a piece at a time, letting people discover it gradually, rather than simply unveiling it full-blown. The goal, of course, is not to admire the structure for its own sake, but to appreciate its contribution to the text’s meaning. With this emphasis, I will choose here to limit the discussion to vv. 1-7 of today’s text.)

The prophet has taken great care with these verses (one might say that as a student he got all A’s in poetry). They are marked by a concentric structure that is quite common to Hebrew poetry-and which might require a very brief explanation: both individual verses and longer units of text can be marked by something like an a-b-b-a or a-b-c-d-c-b-a pattern. Today’s passage (vv. 1-7) begins and ends with a focus on creation. The desert and the wilderness, typical of the ancient near Eastern landscape, are being transformed: the desert blossoms, becoming as fertile as those rare watered areas, Lebanon, Carmel, and Sharon (vv. 1-2); the arid sands become a luscious garden (vv. 6b-7). How can this be, hearers might wonder; and to what end. The preacher should first simply let people appreciate the transformation: Look! A dry wasteland is becoming a green paradise. Steven Spielberg could provide the special effects. (Now, to be sure, deserts belong to God, too, along with the various creatures of the desert; and they too are created good. Remember, that the text is poetry, not an ecology textbook. Let it be poetry, and go with the wonder of it.)

But let’s look inside those bookends of the text that focus on creation. In the next layer of the passage, human beings are also being transformed: hands, knees, and hearts are made strong (vv. 3-4a); eyes, ears, limbs, and tongue are healed (vv. 5-6a). (Note that seven elements are mentioned: the transformation is complete!) Again, amazing things are happening. Revel in them. Appreciate the possibility of the removal of pain, the healing of all that stands in the way of song and dance. (And again, the text is poetry, not a discourse on the place and possibilities of disability. Hear it for what it wants to say, not for what it doesn’t say. There are other biblical texts for another day to speak about issues of social justice and disability.)

But what is going on here? And how? In this case, the key comes in the middle. At the center of the concentric circles that describe the restoration of creation and humanity is God: “Here is your God,” announces the prophet (v. 4b)-God coming with power to overcome the wickedness, disease, and disorder that stand in the way of God’s breathtaking new age. The structure, then, is this: creation-humanity-God-humanity-creation (a-b-c-b-a). At the center is God, who comes to “save.” Among other things, this text helps us understand what it means to “be saved” in the Bible-not at all something that pertains only to individual souls, but rather a transformation of humanity and creation that enables all to sing together in present and eternal joy.

God, says the text, is the one with power to transform creation and humanity-and, look, here he comes! This is not an abstract or even eternal truth; it is a present announcement: God is showing up. Watch what happens!

And where does this happen? The text is clear: it happens as people are given eyes to see and ears to hear. God is in our midst, and amazing things are possible. People of God have known this in every generation-while, of course, in every generation they have wondered how to see it more clearly and believe it more firmly, given the often unpleasant desert realities in which they live. People in Jesus’ day were no different, and so the disciples of John sent to ask Jesus whether in fact he was the one “who is to come” (Matthew 11:3). They were asking nothing less than whether or not they could announce what Isaiah had claimed: “Here is your God.” In response, Jesus pointed to this text: Watch what’s happening. Things are being transformed. The sick are healed and creation obeys my voice. God is at work here, and wonderful things are happening.

Can we believe this, that God has shown up in Jesus and stands today in our midst? This is our Advent message. But can people see it? With our hearers, we pray for at least two things: first, that we be given eyes to see and ears to hear-that our eyes and ears be opened to discover what God is doing in God’s Son Jesus and in the world around us; second, that we ourselves become signs of the kingdom to those who are watching and waiting for God. Is the world transformed when we pass through, as it was when the Israelite pilgrims made their barren world a place of springs as they journeyed to Jerusalem (Psalm 84:6)? In Christ, God is in our midst, in the center of our lives and our world-just as God stands in the center of our text-and God means to do surprising things there.