Joy in the Desert

Isaiah 35:

The desert and the parched land will be glad;
    the wilderness will rejoice and blossom.
Like the crocus, it will burst into bloom;
    it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy.
The glory of Lebanon will be given to it,
    the splendor of Carmel and Sharon;
they will see the glory of the Lord,
    the splendor of our God.

Strengthen the feeble hands,
    steady the knees that give way;
say to those with fearful hearts,
    “Be strong, do not fear;
your God will come,
    he will come with vengeance;
with divine retribution
    he will come to save you.” Then will the eyes of the blind be opened
    and the ears of the deaf unstopped.
Then will the lame leap like a deer,
    and the mute tongue shout for joy.
Water will gush forth in the wilderness
    and streams in the desert.
The burning sand will become a pool,
    the thirsty ground bubbling springs.
In the haunts where jackals once lay,
    grass and reeds and papyrus will grow.

And a highway will be there;
    it will be called the Way of Holiness;
    it will be for those who walk on that Way.
The unclean will not journey on it;
    wicked fools will not go about on it.
No lion will be there,
    nor any ravenous beast;
    they will not be found there.
But only the redeemed will walk there,


and those the Lord has rescued will return.
They will enter Zion with singing;
    everlasting joy will crown their heads.
Gladness and joy will overtake them,
    and sorrow and sighing will flee away.

During the Advent season we often read or hear what could be called the Gospel of Isaiah, those Messianic prophecies – Isaiah 7, 9, 40, 53 – so beautifully mediated to us in Handel’s Messiah: “Comfort ye my people”, “Every valley shall be exalted” ““Behold a virgin shall conceive”, Unto us a child is born”;  “ O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion”, “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light”; “ “Surely, He had borne our griefs and carried our sorrows”; “And with his stripes we are healed”

Isaiah 35 seems like the poor cousin of these Messianic oracles; it doesn’t quite make the cut of Isaiah’s ‘greatest hits’ as it were; in fact, at first glance it doesn’t seem particularly Messianic perhaps because doesn’t speak explicitly about the person of Messiah but focuses on what we could call the Messianic landscape; it is about the transformation of the world when Yahweh comes to his people in judgment and salvation


One of the best analogues, best illustrations, I can think of for Isaiah 35 is the chapter in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe called “Aslan is nearer” in which the characters begin to realize that the hundred-year winter is coming to an end. Edmund is in the company of the White Witch – he is her prisoner -- and he has come to realize her duplicity and cruelty. He has become painfully aware that he is a traitor and a slave, brought low by the Witch’s seductive but empty promises of power and the addictive properties of Turkish Delight; and at this his lowest moment, a transformation begins; I’d like to read a good bit of the passage because it is so marvelous:

...[Edmund] noticed that he was feeling much less cold. It was also becoming foggy. In fact every minute it grew foggier and warmer...There also seemed to be a curious noise all round them.....a strange, sweet, rustling, chattering noise – and yet not so strange, for he’d heard it before – if only he could remember where! Then all at once he did remember. It was the noise of running water. All round them out of sight, there were streams, chattering, murmuring, bubbling, splashing and even (in the distance) roaring. And his heart gave a great leap (though he hardly knew why) when he realized that the frost was over. And much nearer there was a drip-drip-drip from the branches of all the trees.

The sledge in which Edmund has been riding with the Witch and the Dwarf gets hopelessly stuck in the melting earth, and Edmund is ordered to get out and push Edmund had to obey. He stepped out into the snow – but it was really only slush by now – and began helping the dwarf to get the sledge out of the muddy hole it had got into...And now the snow was really melting in earnest and patches of green grass were beginning to appear in every direction. Unless you have looked at a world of snow as long as Edmund had been looking at it, you will hardly be able to imagine what a relief those green patches were after the endless white. (Lewis 107-109)

So finally, they have to abandon the sledge and walk. Every moment the patches of green grew bigger and the patches of snow grew smaller. Every moment more and more of the trees shook off their robes of snow, shafts of delicious sunlight struck down on to the forest floor and overhead you could see a blue sky between the tree tops.

Coming suddenly ‘round a corner into a glade of silver birch trees Edmund saw the ground covered in all directions with little yellow flowers – celandines. The noise of water grew louder. Presently they actually crossed a stream. Beyond it they found snowdrops growing. (110)

Only five minutes later he noticed a dozen crocuses growing round the foot of an old tree – gold and purple and white. Then came a sound even more delicious than the sound of the water. Close beside the path they were following, a bird suddenly chirped from the branch of a tree. It was answered by the chuckle of another bird a little further off. And then, as if that had been a signal, there was then a moment of full song, and within five minutes the whole wood was ringing with birds’ music. (110-111)

 ‘This is no thaw,’ said the dwarf, suddenly stopping. ‘This is Spring. What are we to do? Your winter has been destroyed, I tell you! This is Aslan’s doing.’

‘If either of you mention that name again,’ said the Witch, ‘he shall instantly be killed.’ (111-112)

If I had to bet, I would wager that Isaiah 35 was fresh in C.S. Lewis’s mind as he wrote that passage; a harsh, inhospitable landscape – where it is always winter and never Christmas – is transformed by the presence of Aslan; into this frozen, lifeless world – a kind of polar desert -- comes the magic of running water, delightful birdsong giving voice to the irrepressible joy that wells up in the heart as the earth comes alive and its fertility is awakened; it is like creation all over again:  grass suddenly appears, trees bring forth their leaves and fruit; and exquisite flowers --  crocuses, snowdrops, and celandines -- blossom

Aslan is not yet seen, but his presence is felt and known by its effects; it’s normal to feel joy whenwinter ends and spring comes; but for the obstinately wicked – the Witch and the Dwarf – this coming of Spring produces horror and loathing; but for Edmund -- bruised, battered, exhausted – a boy who has been so spiritually blind and deaf, so weak and fearful, now lamely slogging through the mud of sin – the hope of new life is kindled; his heart leaps with a speechless joy; though he does not fully understand and cannot articulate it, somehow he mysteriously anticipates that Aslan has come, and  with him the hope of his own redemption  

That’s the world of Isaiah 35; it’s a word of comfort and blessing for lost, alienated, hurting people; it’s a promise that  bitter exile is not the end of the story; that  a day will come when God will bring the stragglers and the wanderers home from among the nations;  he will heal their infirmities, he will restore them to the land of promise, which will be transformed from a wilderness into a fruitful garden of delight, and God’s people will live in shalom, in holiness and peace, secure from violence and threat

Certainly Isaiah’s prophecy is a comfort for ancient Israelites under siege by powerful enemies, and a word of hope for the exiles languishing in foreign captivity; but Isaiah sees more -- not simply the rollercoaster of Israel’s varying fortunes, or the dribs and drabs of ancient Jewish migration; he sees rather a new exodus, a great concourse of the redeemed of all nations and ages, walking on the King’s highway, singing at the top of their lungs as they return to Zion, as Yahweh, like Aslan,  restores a tired and spent creation and transforms and turns it into the Paradise of God; he sees, that is, the arc of the grand arc of salvation history:  the personal revelation of the Everlasting God in space and time, the incarnation of his glory and majesty when the Word is made flesh and comes to dwell amongst his people, the redemption and transformation of the world through his Anointed One

Isaiah is talking about Jesus; we have that on Jesus’s own authorityin Matthew 11, v. 4-5, which we read earlier; it’s a powerful and poignant scene; John the Baptist has been imprisoned by Herod; he has finished his work as the forerunner, as the Elijah who prepares the way of the Lord, and he has resigned himself to decrease while Jesus increases; but as he sits in that prison, facing his own mortality and hearing scattered rumours about Jesus, he experiences a moment of weakness; he doubts, he wavers; he sends his disciples to ask, “Are you really the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”; Jesus sends an answer back, paraphrasing Isaiah,

“Go back and report to John what you hear and see: 5 The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.” (Matthew 11:4-5)

Once Jesus identifies his Messianic mission as prefigured in this magnificent, visionary poem, Isaiah 35 opens up a fresh way of seeing the work of Jesus in the world; it’s word that speaks powerfully across time; and it speaks to us today

In the remaining time, I want to focus on three questions:

1)    Where does Messiah come?

2)    To whom does Messiah come?

3)    How do we receive Messiah?

1) Where does Messiah come?

He comes to the desert, he comes to the wilderness;  it is difficult for people who live in a cold, wet climate to get the full impact of the imagery;  if you have ever spent time in the desert, then you know how it is; the Hebrew words used in v. 1, signify great stretches of empty, uninhabited, infertile land; in v. 7 Isaiah uses the words tsimmaon which means “thirsty ground” and hasharab which means “parched ground” or “scorched ground”; as you contemplate  that imagery, you can almost feel the blast of hot wind in your face; it’s a land so dry that it seems to suck the very moisture from your skin, your eyes, your mouth; it is a place as dry as dust: harsh, unforgiving, inhospitable to life

We might recognize our own world as such a spiritual desert; the word “hasharab” in v. 7 comes from a Hebrew root meaning glare; it suggests the visual effect of shimmering heat in the distance, what we call a mirage; we certainly inhabit a world of mirages, of scams and simulations, tantalizing illusions and false hopes; we fall to our knees, we cup our hands, we hope to lift water to our lips but find only the grit of sand in our mouths

And yet this is the precisely the environment to which Messiah comes – the badlands, the land that has been written off and abandoned; and because the Son is God’s logos, God’s creative Word, he has life in himself, because he is the very source and principle of life, when he comes his presence transforms the landscape; streams of living water roll down from above and subterranean springs burst through the dry crust; the desert isn’t just sprinkled – it’s flooded with life-giving moisture; the parched ground, the thirsty ground, drinks deep;  v. 7 says, “The burning sand will become a pool,”– another way to translate that phase is that the “mirage shall become a pool”; illusion gives way to reality, fulfillment rather than disappointment

The coming of Messiah is a great and decisive reversal for the world; the landscape is transformed; its inherent potential for good, for fruitfulness, for abundance, is unleashed by the presence of the Word, its Creator; the desert blossoms; the wilderness becomes a garden; the ugly becomes exquisitely fertile AND beautiful;

Isaiah refers to three regions of great symbolic importance: the Mountains of Lebanon, where the great cedar forests grew; Mount Carmel, known for beautiful vistas; and the fruitful plain of Sharon, the fertile breadbasket of Israel; if you were to use North American equivalents, you would say that  the salt flats and the badlands are given the majesty of Banff and Lake Louise, that California redwoods or Douglas Firs from the Vancouver Island rainforest spring up there, that the burning sands was turning into a tropical jungle like Hawaii, flooded like the Florida everglades

This is the work of Jesus; he comes to the dry places, to the thirsty ground, and he brings the living water; and as we see over and over in the gospels, only the thirsty, only those who know themselves to be spiritually dry and arid, can drink

2) To Whom Does Messiah Come?

 He comes to people like us, people like Edmund:  the weak, the feeble, the fearful, the human-all-too-human; like John the Baptist we doubt, we waver, we fall away from our best selves; Messiah comes to the anxious, the troubled, the sleepless, the addicted, the outsiders, the losers; he has no illusions about the people he comes tosave and heal: the blind, deaf, lame, and dumb whose capacity to perceive, to act, to speak, is impaired; he addresses himself to desert dwellers stumbling over the dunes – blinded with sandstorms, aching, barely able to walk, scorched and sunburned with dry speechless tongues

When does he come?

Messiah comes in the fullness of time, at the critical hour, at the hour of greatest need; from the subjective standpoint, he comes at the moment when we feel we can’t taken another step, when we have come to the end of our own strength, when we are sure we can endure no more

And again, his presence brings about a great reversal; healing power is released; the helpless are made capable;  weak hands are made strong; feeble knees are made firm; the fearful heart is encouraged, “Be strong, do no fear”, for your God has come to ransom, redeem, save, and rescue you;  no more stumbling around in circles in a trackless desert; v. 8 tells us that when Messiah comes there will be a great royal highway through the land, a road so high and straight that no one can possibly go astray on it; it’s a road for the redeemed, for the ransomed, a road for those whom Messiah has transformed – profane people made holy, unclean people made pure; wandering people made steady and faithful

3)  How Do We Receive the Messiah?

-the transformations of Isaiah 35 are, from the baseline ofworldly pessimism and our naturalism bizarre, crazy, even hilarious; Messiah’s work in the world is shock to the system, a great reversal;  opening the eyes of the blind and the ears of the deaf?  causing the lame to leap around like deer, and the speechless to burst forth into song?  What do say that? How do we respond?

As God’s people, we rejoice; we join the joyful throng; the coming of Messiah is a party: gladness, celebration, spontaneous rejoicing – “rejoice with joy” is the redundant way Isaiah says it in v. 2: double up on your rejoicing, don’t hold back, break out the tunes, turn up the volume, lift up your voice, let out a belly laugh; joy, joy, everlasting joy, is the only adequate response for those who have been ransomed and redeemed out of captivity

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. (Isaiah 51:11)

Rejoicing is not optional; it is a command; see it hear and we see it in the New Testament as well: Paul says in Philippians 4:4: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!”

How can this be? Are we being told simply to trick ourselves into being joyful? To think positively, or look on the bright side? Would that state of mind really qualify as joy? Can we will ourselves to be joyful? Does joy reside within us all the time, and do we simply tap into it or release it? Or is joy a gift, something that comes to us by grace?

Scripture teaches I believe mediates between these extremes; we do not simply work ourselves up into a joyful state, but joy is nevertheless a matter of the will; yet it is also a gift, a visitation; it comes to us as we choose to obey the life-giving teachings of Jesus, as we enter into the life of love and thanksgiving which he has shown us:

Jesus says in John 15:10-12:

If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.

We desperately need this love and joy; the times we live in demand that we have the inner resources; we cannot afford to live joyless Christian lives; to be blunt a joyless church is a weak church – the joy of the Lord is my strength; if we cut ourselves off from the sources of joy, we will fail and we will fall

And yet I fear sometimes that we hold back from entering fully into the life of joy; like the elder brother in the Prodigal Son parable, we prefer to brood outside in the dark rather than joining the celebration; perversely, we prefer the desert, the dry place of our own making, to the well-watered garden of God; I wonder if there’s a hint of that in John the Baptist’s message to Jesus from prison; John was a long-time desert dweller, a man of the wilderness; he was tough, he was grim; he knew how to survive on the bare minimum

Jesus says in Matthew 11, “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense in me” the word offence in Greek is “scandalon” which is often translated “stumbling block”; it’s a hint to John’s disciples and John himself, don’t be scandalized by the work Jesus is doing and the way he chooses to do it; John encouraged his disciples to fast, Jesus encouraged his disciples to party, to celebrate the fact that he the bridegroom was with them

I suspect that the “scandal” of Jesus for John was the perceived lack of “vengeance” and “recompense” in Jesus’s message; after all, that’s a central theme in John’s preaching – warning his listeners to escape the coming retribution, the ax being laid to the root of the tree; every tree that does not bear good fruit being cut down and thrown into the fire;  the Messiah carrying a winnowing fork in his hand,  clearing the threshing floor and burning the chaff with unquenchable fire;  John expected imminent judgment, and he must have felt a bit foolish; like like Jonah he delivered a message of retribution, doom, but Jesus was ‘soft’ on sinners and made him look like a crank and a doomsayer

-Jesus gently turns this aside in Matt. 11; no need to brood about retribution; there will be judgment and wrath enough to come; there is a cross on a hillside where the demands of justice will be met; but look at what I’m doing John; I’m turning the desert into a garden; I’m releasing the streams of living waters; the blind, the deaf, the lame, the lepers, the poor – they are the signs that God is breaking in, he has come to the wilderness to save and redeem

So let us not hang back or retreat to our desert places.

Messiah has come, and he is coming again. Rejoice.

Aslan is nearer. Rejoice.

Bless the Lord, O my soul,
    and all that is within me,
    bless his holy name.

and let us rejoice with an exceeding great joy.