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 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.”
5 Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
6 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;
7 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.
8 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.
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 gladness and joy,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
This is the word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.
Tonight’s reading is a picture for our ears and minds. It is as if God is taking his people on a journey through some of the driest sections of the land. It is as though he is pointing out the dead weeds and tumbleweeds, the dried-up springs, and rivers. You can almost see the wilderness and feel the “burning sand” as you read along. Nothing grows there; it is a wasteland.
Isaiah loves contrasts. He likes to highlight the differences between two extremes.
In the previous chapter, the prophet described that once rich and luxurious and luscious land of Edom as becoming a desolate wilderness.
And now here in this chapter, we read that that which was a desert wilderness will become a flourishing landscape blossoming with an abundance of flowers. Where it had once been dried up land, there shall be springs of waters. Where there was desert wasteland and sadness, we shall find abundant life, joy, and rejoicing! (Young, 445)
Isaiah goes from the promise of the flourishing of the dry land ground, to offering encouragement and promises of salvation to the faint-hearted.
Two figures are used: the sick being healed, and water bursting forth in the desert. (Oswalt, 622)
We picture the lame and the mute and the blind, then in contrast we are to picture the lame man leaping like a deer, the mute rejoicing, and the blind seeing (v. 5-7).
God is showing that where there was death and decay, now there shall be life and abundance.
Why was this message necessary?
It was necessary because God’s people were suffering.
Throughout the first half of the book of Isaiah (1-39), we read of God’s condemnation over the people of Judah. Judah had sinned against God and was in spiritual decay. God’s judgment was pronounced over Judah and all the nations because God could not let such evil go unpunished. (Wilkinson and Boa, 193)
But then here the prophet Isaiah gives the people who were far off in exile a promise of restoration and renewal. If you look down to v. 10, the redeemed and ransomed would return to Zion with songs of thanksgiving and joy! (Young, 455) Why? Because even though Judah had fallen short and broken the covenant, God would remain faithful to his covenant promises.
Put yourself in their shoes (or sandals) for a minute – what it must have felt like to hear this message of hope. They had been living in deep suffering and sadness in exile. They were broken, anxious, weak, and far from God. They likely felt like they were on death’s door, like they could taste it. They were sure God’s judgment was upon them, but rather than hear what they expected, instead God was giving them a message of hope.
He painted an image so drastically the opposite of what they were experiencing at that moment that it had to have been difficult for them to imagine.
I’m sure it would be for all of us as well. When we experience deep sadness and suffering, it is hard for us to see beyond the immediate circumstances of what we are experiencing. It is kind of like a fog. It is hard to believe God’s word.
The Fog of Suffering
Let me illustrate what I mean. A week or two ago I was driving south on Pearl Street, and I drove through some of the thickest fog I’ve ever been in. Just ahead of me, I could see very clearly. But that was only about 10-15 feet.
Since it was early in the morning, I assumed very few cars would be out, and as we approached the intersection I suddenly had to slam on the brakes. Out of nowhere there were bright red brake lights in front of me! Had I not been driving slower than normal because of the dense fog, I would have crashed right into the car in front of me.
What shocked me about the situation is that even though I couldn’t see that far ahead of me, the fog gave me the impression that there was nothing else out there on the road. That it was just empty roads ahead. Though it was irrational and pretty foolish, at the moment I felt highly confident that the fog was not so bad as to impair my ability to see what was ahead. But I was wrong.
And I think we have a similar impairment when it comes to suffering. We get the impression that we are seeing things clearly, but in reality, we are significantly impaired by the suffering and sadness we are experiencing. It is hard to see hope. It is difficult to see God’s hand.
And there are few people here tonight that have not gone through some sort of deep suffering.
We live in a fallen world, and we suffer as a result of sin. If there had been no sin, we would not suffer, but as it is, the fallen world continues to bring us suffering today.
And we also suffer because of the sins we have committed and the sins others have committed against us.
As I mentioned before, some of you here are suffering deeply.
Your life might be more suffering and pain than it is joy and comfort.
Perhaps it is because of serious health challenges. Some here have recently lost someone they love, or are losing someone they love. Others are suffering because chronic disease or illness has made their lives incredibly difficult, and they are dependent on outside intervention and help. Still others have chronic pain that seems insignificant in comparison to other illnesses, but that presents real suffering on a regular and debilitating basis.
Some suffer because of problems from the past. Whether it is living with the pain and guilt of a past decision, or a sin committed, it can weigh heavily upon you and reappear in your mind when you least expect it. Others live with the pain of something traumatic that has happened to them that continues to remain on the forefront of their minds no matter how much they try to forget it.
Of course there are also those who are suffering because of broken relationships, broken family dynamics, difficult challenges with parents or difficulties with children. Problems with employment, struggles with coworkers, or issues at school or learning.
And much of the suffering we experience seems to fog our vision. It is difficult to see past the immediate and toward the hope of the future. Spiritually, mentally, and physically we can feel like there will never be an end in sight to our suffering and brokenness. We feel like our struggles will go on and on and on forever, or on the other hand we fear that death will come before we are ready.
You see, it is this suffering fog that makes it so hard to see what God is saying here. Which is why we need to take the time to hear God’s perspective illustrated in this passage. God is telling his people that there is hope beyond our circumstances and hardships. God will not and has not abandoned us.
God’s Deep Love
Growing up, I remember Dad reminding us, “God doesn’t play with the lives of his children.” When we face hardships and sudden illness, death, failure, or brokenness, we must remember this truth. God is not toying with our lives.
And not only does God not toy around with your life, but the Bible never describes God as being aloof or indifferent toward us. Instead, the Bible teaches that God has your name written on the palm of his hand and that the hairs of our head and the days of your life are all numbered. Of course, Jesus himself also reminds us that we are worth more than two sparrows that are sold for a penny and that not one of these will fall to the ground apart from God. (Job 14:5, Matthew 10:29-31)
You see, just as in our passage this evening, even Jesus goes to the trouble of illustrating this to show us that God cares deeply about each of us. While most dads would say, “I love my kids, many would have to admit that not only do they not know how many hairs they have, but they probably don’t even know where they get their haircuts, or how old their kids are!
But not our Heavenly Father. He knows our struggles and he sees us. He sees our pain and our suffering, and he cares.
God will come to save
Isaiah 35 reminds us that God was not oblivious to the struggles his people were enduring. He knew exactly what they were going through. He knew they were struggling and in response, he explained that he would come down to comfort them. He would come to remove their limited perspective (their spiritual fog) and remind them of who he is and what he had planned for them.
After all, he is the God who covenanted to be with them and will stay faithful to them. He would keep his promise, despite their unfaithfulness to him.
So we see in v. 3-4 that he calls them to strengthen their weak hands and to make firm their feeble knees. To call the anxious at heart to be strong and fear not because as v. 4 says, “your God will come.” He will come to avenge you, and he will come with the recompense he promised, and he will come to you and save you.
This statement, “He will come” is a powerful statement throughout the Scriptures. Malachi 3 says, “The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts.”
One author writes, “To the heart which cries ‘[God] is too far away, I cannot reach him,’ the answer is, ‘You do not have to reach him; he comes to you.’” So God has been coming to us across the millennia: through the process of revelation, in the acts of his providence, in the first coming of Christ. And he will continue to come until that last day when we will be united with him forever….” And Christ comes again. (Oswalt, 623)
Just as in the case of the good news of salvation, we see that when God’s people suffer, he promises to come to them. And when he comes, he promises complete and total transformation – deserts to gardens, blind seeing, the mute rejoicing, and the lame leaping like the deer.
Suffering in Perspective
And in pronouncing that he is coming, he puts suffering in perspective.
And he does it in two ways:
First, while he will free his people from suffering one day in the future, he reminds us that our “present sufferings” are part of the Christian life for now. This is how we share in Christ’s sufferings.
But second, God comforts his people by reminding them that he will not leave them in their current condition forever.
So first, we see here that God’s promise is future, it is coming (not here yet), just as we are taught elsewhere in Scripture. God does not immediately free his people from their suffering.
Paul reminds us that this is the Christian’s lot in life. He writes, “the Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 ….and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. (Romans 8:16-17)
Because we are one with Christ, …this oneness means that we must follow Christ’s own road to glory by “suffering with him”. (Oswalt, 505)
Suffering as a Christian takes many forms. It does not mean that our experience has to be that of a martyr. “Today a believer may lose his job because he refuses to perform unnecessary work on the Lord’s Day. Or because he says “No” when he is being tempted to participate in a crooked business deal, or makes up his mind not to marry an unbeliever….” (Hendrickson, 264)
Suffering as a Christian means that when we are brokenhearted, when our bodies are failing us, and when we are weak, we persevere under that hardship in a way that brings glory to God by suffering with him.
An article entitled “Every Christian Beats Cancer” addresses the issue that when we are ill with cancer or some other disease, we often place our focus on just beating cancer. The idea is that absolute worst thing that cancer can do is beat you by destroying your body. But that is not the worst that cancer can do. The worst thing cancer can do is destroy your faith. (Dillehay)
John Piper seems to agree and has written several books addressing the fact that how we persevere under sickness and death brings glory to God. (Piper)
And part of that means we must suffer in perspective. Just as we read about in James.
We must realize that while God is not the author of sin, nor does he tempt us, our current situation is not outside of God’s sovereign rule.
Suffering As God’s Plan
Henry Krabbendam (affectionally known as Dr. K) reminds us that we have to be careful of how we understand suffering. If we somehow believe that a high-pressure situation of suffering, like the loss of a relative or job, or some other tragedy is “Satan’s doing” and even worse, that “God naturally had nothing to do with it and was in fact against it….” that is totally unacceptable. In fact, it is shameful in the light of the all-encompassing providence of God. (Krabbendam, 194).
The trials we face, are not just Satan harping on us and God not doing anything about it until it gets too bad. No, God has not abandoned us. If he had, and that were the case, then a response of frustration, bitterness, anger and feeling of abandonment in the midst of hardships might be more understandable.
If Satan were in charge, then there would be no reason to be joyful in our trials (as James calls us to be) in such horrible circumstances. That would reduce the hardships in this life to mere torture. But God isn’t calling us to be masochists who delight in pain and suffering. He is calling us to trust in his ultimate plan.
Dr. K writes, “The believer must learn to see God in each trial. In fact, because all of life is either one huge trial or a huge string of trials, this is really to say that he must always see God in everything.” ….To see God’s presence in any and all trials prevents anger, resentment, bitterness, or for that matter any type of thought, resolution, emotion, word, or activity that does not conform to the purity portrayed in, and demanded by, Scripture. (Krabbendam, 198).
We need get a better grasp of this Scriptural truth. When we understand that the suffering and brokenness that God designs in our life is part of his larger plan, it changes everything. It gives us a heavenly perspective.
J.C. Ryle helps us understand how God’s perspective changes everything. He notes that when the disciples abandoned the Lord and fled escaping danger and suffering, they had preserved their lives and avoided hardship, but they ended up miserable and sad.
But shortly after that they confessed Him boldly before men, and they were cast into prison and beaten; and it is through that suffering that we are told that they “rejoiced that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for His name” (Acts 5:41). (Ryle, 53)
When the disciples put their earthly and temporal well-being first, they were broken and discouraged. But when they followed Jesus, and suffered for his name’s sake, even in their intense suffering, their perspective changed, and they rejoiced.
And that suffering was influenced by the fact that they also knew God’s ultimate plan. God is coming and our suffering is only temporary.
See, God comforts his people by reminding us that our suffering has purpose, and also that he will not leave us in our suffering condition forever.
Our Sorrow will turn to Gladness
I know I’ve talked about fog a lot tonight, but it seems like there is more of that around here than I first imagined there was. There is fog and there are clouds. I’ll admit that when we first moved here as a newlywed couple, it was hard for me to imagine where Mt. Rainier was. We moved here when we were first married, and it was one of the rainiest years on record. Mt. Rainier was hardly ever visible because of that. In fact, if I hadn’t seen it already, I would have a hard time believing it was there.
But today was a beautiful day. And while it does rain here a lot, when the sun comes out, the beauty of the PNW is unbelievable and unbeatable. The clouds clear up and there in all her majesty and glory is Mt. Rainier. As they say here, the mountain “comes out.”
When the fog and clouds prevent us from seeing beyond our circumstances and even far off into the future, we can become desperate and broken people.
But Isaiah’s prophecy here tonight pushes our gaze from our current suffering and temporary condition to the coming of our King and Messiah. He reminds those who are suffering that this broken and fallen world is not what he had originally created. The dry land, the blindness, the sin and death were not part of the creation that God called “good.”
And our Savior will come, and he will part the clouds and we will see that what was nothing has becoming a flourishing and glorious place. The glory of Lebanon, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. Then we will be able to see the glory of the Lord and the majesty of our God.
And just as he promised, Jesus has come to us, and he will come again.
And when he comes again, we will have no more need for faith or hope, because we will see him clearly, even face to face. Then our sorrow and our signing will flee away, then will be no sin or illness. Then we will be strong, not feeble.
Then we will sing with joy forever. Seeing what no eye has seen, nor ear has heard, or our hearts ever imagined. There we will see what God has prepared for those who love him in all his majesty and glory.
And as Paul says, we will consider the present sufferings of this time nothing in comparison to the glory that is to be revealed to those who are hidden in Christ Jesus.
This sermon draws on material from:
Boa, Kenneth and Wilkinson, Bruce, Talk Thru the Old Testament: Vol. 1. Nashville, Tennessee:Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1983.
Emlet, Michael R. CrossTalk: Where Life & Scripture Meet. Greensboro, North Carolina: New Growth Press, 2009.
Hendrickson, William. New Testament Commentary: Romans. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1980.
Justin Dillehay, “Every Christian Beats Cancer” https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/every-christian-beats-cancer/
Krabbendam, Henry. The Epistle of James: Tender Love in Tough Pursuit of Total Holiness. Germany: Martin Bucer Seminar, 2006.
Oswalt, John N. The Book of Isaiah: Chapters 1-39 NICOT. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing, 1986.
Moo, Douglas. Epistle to the Romans. NICNT, Grand Rapids, Michigan. William B. Eerdmans Company, 1996.
Piper, John. Don’t Waste Your Cancer. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2011.
Ryle, J.C. Holiness: Its Nature, Hindrances, Difficulties, & Roots. Moscow, Idaho: Charles Nolan Publishers, 2001.
Spring, Gardiner. The Distinguishing Traits of Christian Character. Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian & Reformed Pub. Co, 1979.
Young, Edward J. The Book of Isaiah: A Commentary Volume 2. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing, 1969.
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