Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis
August 28, 2022
Scripture: Isaiah 35
On our recent vacation to the British Columbia province of Canada, we visited a vineyard in the countryside to do some wine tasting. At one of the vineyards, as we were arranging with a steward to do our tasting, when she discovered that we were United States citizens, she immediately began to lament some of the conflict and crises in our culture and politics, making explicit reference to the radicalization of one of our political parties, the recent Supreme Court decision on reproductive rights for women, and the backlash against LGBTQ people. She admitted that Canada and other nations had their own problems but that she was worried about the United States. While I was not surprised by her judgments and ideological concerns, what surprised me was how carefully articulated those concerns were. She was not ranting unfairly or rudely. Her approach was not overly polemical. She was not simply saying what she was against. She did something more profound and more remarkable. She articulated her hope for the United States. She wanted our country to be safe, prosperous, and good. She was expressing her hope that the United States would be a good place, not just for us but everybody. She wanted us all to be okay. But I admit I was caught short not because of anything she said but because I had no words of assurance about the things she hoped for.
The prophets of God are good at offering words of assurance to God’s people. We focus most of our attention on the prophets’ announcements of God’s judgment against the people and nations for their injustices. Still, the prophets are equally eloquent and proficient in articulating God’s assurances that God can be trusted to make good on the promise to restore, liberate, and prosper God’s beloved creation, especially when things are at their bleakest. In the prophetic oracles of Isaiah 35, we get God’s assurances to Israel that their hope will be satisfied, not just for the return and continuation of Israel, which was their most pressing concern, but for the unleashing of God’s vision, intention, and promise for the whole creation. Isaiah 35 is usually a text we read during the season of Advent because of its hopeful expectation. It is Isaiah’s oracle of deliverance, a prophetic description of God’s intention to restore Israel, transforming the people and the environment to facilitate the people’s return from exile to their homeland. It is the stuff of hope realized and satisfied because God remains sovereign and determined to be reconciled to all that God created.
Please note that this is not the voicing of a formless, toothless hope. Isaiah is not showering the people with platitudes about hope. This is not the feel-good bumper sticker and social media meme kind of hope with pithy phrases like, “Hang in there” or “It will all work out.” This is not the kind of hope that springs from reading metaphorical tea leaves for signs of progress amid chaos and crises. Instead, this hope is born out of a trust in a God of covenant whose fundamental character is faithfulness and lovingkindness, the trust that God will judge what’s wrong and demonstrate boundless grace to make it all right. And the outcomes are concrete: rehabilitation, resuscitation, and re-creation of humanity and the natural world.
“The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad; and the desert shall rejoice and blossom.” (Isaiah 35:1) Those with weak hands, feeble knees, and fearful hearts will be strengthened, comforted, and liberated. The bodies of those who can’t see, can’t hear, can’t walk, and can’t speak will be healed and made whole. Dry and barren places like deserts, wildernesses, and the drought-blighted ground will overflow with life-giving water. This is God’s invitation to a hope that stretches Israel’s imagination and expectation toward fulfillment of what the world says is impossible. God offers Israel total, cosmic salvation beyond their parochial, individual interest. The redemption and restoration that God promises won’t simply be a spiritual transformation of people, but it will be a cosmic transformation of all things. It won’t just be spiritual even for the individual, but it will be emotional, physical, political, and economic for all people and nations.
Now, even as Isaiah articulates Israel’s hope and offers God’s assurances that they shall see the glory and majesty of God, Israel knows that before we see God’s decisive acts of redemption and restoration, God will first judge the world’s oppression, domination, and unfaithfulness. Before Isaiah could speak these words of return and repair, of God’s transformation of human bodies and the land into the healthy, whole, and thriving testaments to God’s loving, creative impulse, he prophesies God’s judgment of the nations.
Unfortunately, Israel also often misunderstands judgment. Unfortunately, we have inherited that misunderstanding. God’s judgment of the nations is all about making things right and bringing justice to the people and the land. But in our pain and suffering, we often want judgment that punishes our enemies and chooses us over them. In their hope of return from exile, Israel demonstrated an exaggerated faith that enlisted God in a project to utterly destroy their enemies, who they declared to be irredeemably evil and must be eliminated. They hoped to wield God’s vengeance against the nations that made their life hard. If this is the substance of faith—God’s vengeance over God’s grace, we have missed out on who God is and intends to be for the world.
Israel will learn that unleashing God’s vengeance would not exonerate them from God’s judgment. Yes, God is reliable and faithful. Isaiah’s oracle of deliverance can be trusted. All those who oppose what God wants for God’s people and creation are put on notice that their project of chaos, injustice, and oppression will be judged. Ultimately, God’s grace and mercy will unleash abundant restoration for the whole creation.
That wine steward’s articulation of hope for the United States reminded me that what we have primarily seen in our context is an exaggerated faith that wants judgment for one’s opponents with qualified hope articulated for one’s tribe. We have seen too many religious people invoking God’s vengeance against LGBTQ people, against those of other religions or no religions, against the political opponents rather than God’s grace. We are less likely to hear a prayer from the faithful asking God to protect them from their enemies than one asking God to destroy their enemies. Despite the claims and agenda of some religious folk, what is on offer in Isaiah’s prophecy is not a theocracy. The prophetic utterance here does not call for wresting control of the world’s systems, structures, and institutions to realize our hope for justice. Our cultural, political, and economic categories are not enough to contain the vision, intentions, and promises of the kind of transformation articulated in Isaiah’s prophecies. And so, frustrated religious folk can easily succumb to exaggerated faith out of fear and frustration. I’m talking about a faith so impatient with what appears to be God’s delay in bringing justice that people and communities of faith look not to the prophetic assurances of a reliable God to guide their witness but largely to the political process and economic structures to get quick results.
We are experiencing the impact now of exaggerated faith. Exaggerated faith can lead to misplaced hope. To deal with the chaos, injustice, and oppression, we have churches and people of faith placing all of their hope in politics, courts, wealth, capitalism, violence, political parties, our preferred candidates, and weapons of mass destruction. But in this oracle of deliverance, the prophet Isaiah invites us to right hope—hope in God. Trust in God’s vision, intention, and promise for a transformed cosmos. Let God stretch our imagination and expectation beyond just “a continuation of ourselves” to see God reclaiming and restoring all creation.
Come on, preacher, the poetry is pretty, but we live in the real world, and the likelihood of the cosmic transformations the prophet speaks about doesn’t seem realistic. Therein lies our opportunity: to engage the hopes of a people desperate for change in the world; to present to the world the possibilities, prospects, and imagination about the future reign of God, who remains faithful and reliable. Perhaps a world so broken, chaotic, and violent is just waiting for people and communities of faith to share God’s vision for the world rather than our personal preferences for this world, preferences that will maintain our power, control, and comfort. Perhaps it is in our work and witness that people can get their minds around images of a restored environment and healthy and whole human bodies, not just as a future reality but as a present possibility and a lasting gift for God’s creation.
Even as hopeful people we need some assurances that God intends the kind of liberation and restoration of all things that God promised. Isaiah assured Israel that “here is your God . . . [who] will come and save you . . . Be strong, and do not fear.” This is our assurance even now. Our hope for justice will be realized and satisfied. What a day of rejoicing that will be! Amen.