Isaiah 35:1-10 At this time of the year we are overwhelmed with media images designed to manipulate us into feelings of joy. The perfect, smiling family gathered around the table for their holiday feast. The beautiful young woman kissing the handsome young man and thanking him for his perfect gift of a diamond necklace. The cherubic carolers crunching their way through glittering snow up to a New England cottage in a scene suitable for Norman Rockwell’s signature.
These are the cultural Christmas images that we see in every possible venue throughout this season. And as we draw nearer and nearer to December 25, the joy promised in these images-- seems to fade farther and farther away into the distance as the reality of living real human lives in a broken world comes closer and closer.
Our family won’t be together for Christmas because physical or emotional distance. Finances this year are not what they’ve been in the past and so there won’t be as many presents as last year. Health concerns make us wonder if this will be our last Christmas together. And so on-- right up until Christmas morning when we wake up wondering how we could have missed the joy of Christmas-- and what went wrong-- and why we don’t feel like the media images say we ought to feel?
The answer to those questions is very simple: there is no Christ in these cultural Christmas images.
Though the world does its best to convince us otherwise, the real joy of the Christmas season does not come from stores or meals-- or even from families and good health.
The joy of Christmas comes from the promises of God fulfilled in the Baby of Bethlehem: the sure and certain sign that our God is the God of kept promises who has sent his Son into human flesh to ransom us from sin and sorrow. That gift of a Son—that good news of salvation--is what gives this season its joy.
And if you have no family- and if your health is failing- and if your finances are stretched thin-- it will not matter. Your Christmas will not be a disappointment--if you fix your hearts and minds and dreams and desires on the manger—on what God has promised in his son Jesus. If Jesus alone is the reason for your season then: “everlasting joy shall be upon your head; you will obtain gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing will flee away.” That is the promise of God to his people.
For years the Israelites set their hearts and minds, dreams and desires on the things of the world. They believed the message of the unbelieving world around them who said that what really mattered was wealth and power-stuff they could see and touch.
Such was the deceptive power of this message that even in the dark moment in which Isaiah lived, when God’s righteous judgment was almost upon them, the Israelites were still hoping for some kind of political solution to their national problems.
None would be found. They would undergo the Lord’s hard discipline at the hands of the Assyrians and Babylonians.
But as serious and painful as their chastisement would be--and as much as it would seem to crush the very life from them--God wouldn’t abandon his people-he himself would come to them--judge and punish their enemies--and set his people free. Isaiah promised,
“Strengthen the weak hand and make firm the feeble knees. 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.
God kept his promise–he always does. He raised up a deliverer for them in Cyrus who would set them free and return them to their homes and place of worship.
Though there was much hardship for them to endure until that moment of freedom, they knew that God had already made plans for their release from slavery and their return home-- and so those years of waiting were filled with joy in what was to come. And it did come—they went home.
As wonderful as that return from exile was for the ancient people of God--it was still merely a sign of something greater to come 700 years later as God himself, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, entered into the world to set us free from sin and death and bring us to our heavenly home.
God’s righteous vengeance and retribution over our sins was poured out upon his own Son and his shed blood on the cross was the ransom price that was paid to redeem us from sin and death–to set us free and bring us to our heavenly home.
And yes, just like the ancient Israelites, there is still hardship for us to endure until we make it to our heavenly home–but it is joy and gladness, not sorrow and sighing, that characterizes the life of a child of God-- for we know that the One who keeps his promises will lead us home-- just like he led the Israelites home.
Well, you can imagine the joy of the people of God as they set out for home from their slavery in Babylon. As though it were already accomplished, Isaiah wrote of that glad day when they would begin their journey through wilderness towards home:
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. 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. 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.
You can almost hear the singing and thanksgiving that must have filled their hearts and mouths as, step by step, they rejoiced in the God who sets his people free.
Just think about what they were leaving behind: The indignities of being a slave. The loneliness of being separated from loved ones and the presence of the Lord in his temple. The sinful ways of their captors. All of it left behind. Why wouldn’t they rejoice? It must have been like waking up from a bad dream!
But it was a long trip home and they grew weary along the way. Still, they were going home-- and the hope that sustained them day after day on that long journey-- was to once again stand upon Mt. Zion in the Lord’s presence.
In these verses, Isaiah tells us not only what was true for the children of Israel, but what is true for all of God’s people. It’s our story too. The Lord has paid our ransom and set us free from slavery to sin and death. He has raised up a deliverer for us in the person of his Son Jesus Christ and set our feet on that narrow way that leads to eternal life.
And yes, there is still a long way to go for us until we get home--we still have to live as strangers and pilgrims in this dark and dying world. We are ridiculed for believing the promises of God. We are separated by death from brothers and sisters in Christ. We witness the sinful ways of those who deny the Lord’s will and reject his redemption. We experience our own share of the world’s broken-ness.
But the Lord has set our feet on the way home–on the way of holiness that leads to a new heaven and a new earth where we will live in the presence of God forever with the crown of everlasting joy on our head.
That is the life we live-- and that is the hope we have-- and so we must take the warning of Isaiah seriously, that no unclean person will journey on that way-- but only those whose sins are washed clean and made white by the blood of the Lamb.
It is a long journey and like the children of Israel we grow weary along the way–we lose patience and falter in our faith—we are tempted by the deceitful images and false promises of the unbelieving culture around us. Joy and gladness seem to be a challenge for us at times. So what was it that sustained the children of Israel on their way home? It was the Lord’s promise of what awaited them.
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. 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.
That’s what sustains us and strengthens us on our journey to our heavenly home as well–the vision of a new heaven and a new earth promised in God’s Word–a new, eternal life in Christ’s presence where there is no more sorrow but only joy.
Fixing our eyes of faith on that promise, we are called by God to reveal that wonderful reality in our lives right now by alleviating as much sorrow here on earth as we possibly can–by sharing the glad Good News of our coming King with others-- and by showing forth in our lives what a joyous blessing it is to be God’s children.
The Good News for us tonight is that this vision of what already is--and what will one day be-- is no media image that will fade away–leaving us sorrowful and empty and disappointed. It is a rock-solid promise from the “God of kept promises” and it shapes our lives every step of our journey home.
As the Holy Spirit directs our eyes away from cultural Christmas images and to the Bethlehem manger where all the promises of God are found to be true--we take to heart the promise of Isaiah: We shall obtain gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing will flee away. May God grant you a joyous Christmas for Jesus’ sake. Amen.