Sorrow and Sighing Shall Flee Away
Dec 11, 2022
Pastor Jean M. Hansen
Text: Isaiah 35:1-10
Pastor Jean M. Hansen
It is week three of Advent and of our focus on the readings from the Old Testament book of Isaiah. We have found hope walking in the light of God’s peace. We have looked toward the Day of the Lord, when peace will fully arrive, so that the wolf will live with the lamb and the lion sleep with the calf. What a transformation that will be as violence and death are no more and trust flourishes among all of God’s people and creatures.
Today we are basking in joy, even though that positive emotion may seem out of place in the context of the reading, and perhaps in our own lives. In her commentary, Pastor Barbara Lundblad says this passage should not be here. That’s because it is being spoken while destruction, violence and an unknown future continues to haunt the Prophet’s listeners. Also, in previous chapters, the description of the setting in which they live is grim – the soil has become sulfur and the land is burning pitch.
Then, in Isaiah 35, all this devastation and despair is interrupted with a beautiful description of what will be true one day. Once again, the Prophet is looking forward to a future event, not the Day of the Lord this time, but the day when the people of Judah, who have been in exile in Babylonia for decades, will return to Jerusalem. (What’s odd is that the exile has not even happened when these words were spoken, and yet the Prophet Isaiah see the happy day of its conclusion.)
The journey for the returnees would be 500 miles across a burning desert, or 1000-1600 miles if they wanted to be closer to supplies and civilization. The prospect of such trek would be daunting for a strong person, and certainly overwhelming for the weak and afraid. God will be with them, to strengthen them, and bring health to those living with disabilities and disease.
There is so much reason to rejoice at their return that it will be as if the desert itself will join in the celebration. The once barren landscape will burst into life. There will be a carpet of crocuses covering the ground and the scrub brush will be replaced by the soaring cedars of Lebanon and the mighty oaks of Carmel. Roses of Sharon will add to the colorful display. God will water the dry land with wells gushing water, streams in the desert and oases with pools of water, swamps filled with reeds and rushes.
And, best of all the Prophet says, unlike the return from slavery in Egypt, when they wandered aimlessly, this time there will be a highway straight through the verdant desert. It is only for God’s people, constructed by the Holy One of Israel, and those who travel it will not get lost, or be in danger. They will return with singing, with everlasting joy and gladness, as sorrow and sighing flee away.
All this strength and beauty is being promised before the pain of the exile and the challenge of the desert journey even begins, AND while the current situation is a disaster. Isaiah is speaking a word out of place, says Pastor Lundblad, a word that refuses to wait until things improve. Why is that the case? It is because this is a word that they, and we, need to hear. As Christian writer Walter Brueggemann notes, “Isaiah’s doxologies are characteristically against the data.” (1)
So, what is the 21st century data? It is not especially encouraging: climate change, inflation, war, racism, gun violence, as well as the personal challenges that plague people’s lives. To that Isaiah speaks and, quoting Pastor Leah D. Schade, “gives us a bouquet of images to describe the indescribable joy that comes when you know that despite the horrors around us, God is still paying attention. God has never stopped caring. God continues to be a work in way we cannot always see – unless we’re paying attention – paying close enough attention to find flowers in the desert.” (2)
We all have had, or are in the midst of, desert times. There are many reasons for that – illness, grief, broken relationship, scarce resources, an uncertain future, addiction – the list is long. On Tuesday, two different people who are struggling with the challenges of aging told me not to get old. My response to that is, “Well, either you do, or you don’t!”
As we face challenges, we are not alone. Isaiah 35 offers a picture of hope and joy, and the bold reminder that “God will come and save you,” transforming a desert into a garden and creating a highway from exile to home. That’s a promise for here and now, even for the most ordinary of circumstances.
Commentator Stan Mast tells this story as an example: “Recently I was lost in the desert of legal paperwork. Applying for a loan to provide for my mother’s long-term care, I encountered one obstacle after another. It was like the carnival game “Whack a Mole.” I would get one contract signed and think, “There, I’m done.” And then a complication would pop up … and another … and another. I got to point of saying, “How can I navigate this trackless wasteland? I don’t think I can get from there to here.” Hope faded and joy was hard to find.
But as I began to work on this sermon commentary, the lovely language of Isaiah 35 focused my mind on those wonderful Advent words, “Your God will come to save you.” And then he did, in the person of a traveling Notary Public, a humble, compassionate, aging Christian who heard me preach years ago. He showed me the way through the desert. And I am singing for joy. I wouldn’t say that everlasting joy has crowned my head, but at least I’ve had another foretaste. For the moment, “sorrow and sighing have fled away.” (3)
When sorrow and sighing is prevalent in our homes and communities, we come alongside those who are struggling, and when we struggle, we open ourselves to those who come alongside us. We all are a sign of God’s presence, made most fully known to us in Jesus. As we prepare to celebrate his birth, we are reminded that in him the promises of Isaiah 35 began to be fulfilled and will be completed upon his return. And what promise is more joyful than the one that closes the Prophet’s vision? “…they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.” May it be so. AMEN
“Sermon Commentary on Isaiah 35:1-10” by Doug Bratt, December 11, 2016, www.cepreaching.org
“Flowers Preaching in the Desert” by Leah D. Schade, December 15, 2019, www.patheos.com
“Sermon Commentary on Isaiah 35:1-10” by Stan Mast, December 15, 2019, www.cepreaching.org