December 9, 2022 • Life for Leaders
Scripture — Isaiah 35:1, 5-6, 10
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. . .
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
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. . .
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.
Read all of Isaiah 35 here.
It is true that a mighty judgment is coming. It is also true that a mighty beautiful new world has been promised us in its place.
This is one of many passages from the Bible where I find it hard to get through the passage without many works of music playing in my head. First, there is a recitative from Handel’s Messiah_ _that sets the words of Isaiah 35:5-6 as a prelude to the great duet “He shall feed his flock/Come unto him.” Then, the “streams in the desert” of 35:6 have lent their title to a famous book by Lettie Cowman and to several gospel songs. Finally, Johannes Brahams used Isaiah 35:10 as the concluding words of the great chorus from his German Requiem, “Behold, all flesh is as the grass.” All the loveliness of humans may be as the flower of grass (Isaiah 40:6), the chorus sings; but ultimately the ransomed of the Lord will return to Zion with singing.
After the apocalyptic messages of the end of Ordinary Time and the first and second Sundays of Advent, this message from Isaiah 35 is unexpectedly cheerful. We have been thinking over the last few weeks about the coming of God’s justice and all the corrupt things he will destroy and sweep away. This Sunday—and this will also be true of the Gospel lesson tomorrow—we begin to think about what sort of kingdom will be established in place of everything that is being swept away.
Though I am an Episcopal priest, I have a number of Methodist family members, and on Wednesday evenings I attend Methodist midweek activities and Bible study. We are studying Galatians, and at our last Bible study, the pastor spent some time talking about Galatians 1:4, where Paul says that Jesus came to save us from “the present evil age.”
In the first century AD, the pastor said, the common consensus in Jewish eschatology (eschatology means a study of the “last things”) was that there was a division between the “present evil age” and the “age to come.” The age to come—which was not necessarily, and most probably not at all, identified by Second Temple Jews with “going to heaven” after death—would be characterized by peace, justice, resurrection, a new creation, all nations coming to God, and the arrival of the Messiah. It would, in fact, sound an awful lot like Isaiah 35.
In order to counter what Mark Roberts calls “Bustling Christmastime,” preachers can sometimes emphasize the judgment and penitence that Advent brings. It is true that a mighty judgment is coming. It is also true that a mighty beautiful new world has been promised to us in its place. In that, we place our hope.
What do you hope for?
What do new creation, streams in the desert, and coming singing to Zion look like to you?
Of course, I can’t choose between “He shall feed his flock/Come unto him” by Handel and “Behold, all flesh is as the grass” by Brahms—they are two of my very favorite pieces of music in all the world. Listen to both! Celebrate the King who will come, who will give us rest, and who will mightily save. (Handel lyrics here; Brahms lyrics here.)
Lord, in hope I await your coming. Amen.
Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the High Calling archive, hosted by the unique website of our partners, the Theology of Work Project. Reflection on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: Drinking Living Water.
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Jennifer Woodruff Tait (PhD, Duke University) is the editor of and frequent contributor to Life for Leaders. She is also the managing editor of Christian History magazine and web editor for the Theology of Work Project, and a priest in the Episcopal Church. She has written a book of poetry, Histories of Us. Jennifer lives in Berea, Kentucky, with her husband, Edwin, and their two daughters.
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