When He Comes

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Isaiah 35

One of the most beautiful of many promises Isaiah holds out for those who trust in God is found in chapter 35, a song for pilgrims who are on their journey home.


Being a pilgrim must be a bitter-sweet experience. There is the joy of a new start in life, but the journey to get where you’re going is often difficult, and the memories of all that’s been left behind must hurt. Americans have long celebrated the Pilgrim Fathers of Plymouth Plantation, those intrepid men and women who stepped off the Mayflower on to Plymouth Rock in the year 1620. We acknowledge their contributions to the founding of our new nation, without dwelling much upon how painful it must have been to leave all their loved ones behind, or the difficulties involved in getting to America, or the ensuing struggle to survive in a barren wilderness.

It’s not much different for many modern-day pilgrims. A recent award-winning film documents the lives of Sudan’s “Lost Boys,” the thousands of young men who lost or were separated from their families during Sudan’s long civil war. Many of them were orphaned, while others had no way of knowing whether their parents were dead or alive. These boys – just 12 or 14 years old – walked hundreds of miles across desolate and dangerous terrain to reach safety, only to be placed in African refugee camps where they lived for years.

And for the Lost Boys who were fortunate enough to be brought to America, new challenges awaited: adjusting to a new culture, learning a language, finding jobs, getting an education. Pilgrims don’t have it easy, even when they reach the promised land.

The people of God have always been a pilgrim people. Though God promised a land and children to Abraham, Abraham himself never settled there permanently. The letter to the Hebrews says that he and his descendants “acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth”; “pilgrims and strangers,” in the words of the old King James Bible (Hebrews 11:13).

In the Old Testament, the great event that created the nation of Israel was the Exodus, when God delivered his people from slavery in Egypt and brought them by means of a lengthy pilgrimage through the wilderness into the land of Canaan. Centuries later another pilgrim group set out through the desert, a remnant of the survivors coming back to the promised land from exile in Babylon.

The great prophecy of Isaiah was written between these two defining journeys, the exodus and the return from the exile, and it was written – at least in part – to provide encouragement and hope to the pilgrims along that way. An important passage describing this hope is Isaiah 35, a chapter that Old Testament scholar Alec Motyer calls “one of the most beautiful poems ever written.”

A River in the Desert

The poem in Isaiah 35 uses two powerful metaphors to evoke the blessings that the Lord bestows on his pilgrim people. The first metaphor is that of a river flowing in the desert.

I have a wonderful picture on my computer of the earth, one that’s been generated from satellite photographs. It’s actually a composite of many different images, each taken on a cloudless day and then assembled together to give a perfectly clear view of the different continents, like a map without any lines drawn in.

What’s especially striking about this “map” is the natural color of the various features. If you look at northern Africa, for example, you see above it the vivid blue of the Mediterranean Sea and the lush green of the forests and jungle near the equator. But in between is a vast expanse of brown, completely empty – the Sahara Desert.

Viewed from space that sea of sand looks utterly barren, nothing moving, nothing living, a dry, dead immensity. Except for way over on the right-hand edge, where you can see a ribbon of deep green slashing through the tan, tracing the course of the Nile. Wherever in the desert the waters of the river can reach, there is life.

And that’s how it is with the river of God that he causes to flow for his pilgrims in the wilderness. Isaiah sings of the miracle of life, blossoming in dry and barren places, when God comes to make his presence known.

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. . . .

Isaiah 35:1-2

“The glory of Lebanon” and “the majesty of Carmel and Sharon” that the prophet says will be given in the wilderness refers to the lush vegetation that carpeted the slopes of the mountains to the north of Israel. When God comes to his people, says Isaiah, it’s as though flower gardens will suddenly spring up in wasteland. It will be like mountain forests and alpine meadows planting themselves smack in the middle of the desert. You can’t explain how it happens, but it does. God brings life to our dry and thirsty souls. He makes the desert places in our lives bloom with flowers. He heals our brokenness and infirmities. Listen to the prophet again:

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
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;
the burning sand shall become a pool,
and the thirsty ground springs of water . . .

Isaiah 35:5-7

Isn’t that a beautiful image for the life that God can give us?

A Highway through the Wilderness

Here’s the second great image of Isaiah 35. It is the image of a highway, even a causeway built up and running straight through the wilderness. The same God who causes the waters of life to flow in the desert will also build a road through the wilderness. Roads don’t mean a lot to people my age or younger. We sort of take them for granted. We’ve always had them.

I’m a member of the interstate generation. When I was a child, the great interstate system was begun in the United States. And so we sort of expect to have a superhighway that will take us pretty much anyplace we want to go. And they’re all interchangeable; they all look the same. Just pick the right number – I-75, I-80, I-94 – and take it where you want to go. But it didn’t use to be this way. There was a time when roads were more special, when there weren’t so many of them. The most important highways sometimes even had names, and the names were magical: The Dixie Highway, Chicago Drive, Route 66. Isaiah’s highway has a name too. This is how he describes it:

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.
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.

Isaiah 35:8-9

The highway God promises to make for his people through the trackless desert will be broad and secure. It will be called the Holy Way, holy because the people who travel on it will be redeemed and sanctified, the ransomed of the Lord. It will be plain to see and impossible to lose. Even foolish travelers won’t go astray, once they have been brought into the way.

This road will be safe and secure. No wild beasts will set foot upon it, no evil can harm the pilgrims who walk the Lord’s Holiness Highway. So good that no wicked person will enter it, so clear that no one who is the Lord’s can miss it, so safe that nothing can hurt those who travel it – this is the way of the Lord through the wilderness of this world. Best of all, the travelers on this road sing songs of rejoicing, because they know that the highway they are on is leading them to Zion, to the dwelling place of God; in other words, it’s taking them home.

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.

Isaiah 35:10

When Will It Happen

Such a beautiful vision! But as you may have noticed, it’s all set in the future. All these blessings promised by the prophet: the rivers of life in the dry places, deserts in bloom, a safe way home “through many dangers, toils and snares”; they’re all predicted for some day, not necessarily for today.

So when will it happen? Beauty, bounty, health, happiness, holiness, homecoming. When will we receive them? The lame leaping, blind eyes opened, deaf ears unstopped, sorrow and sighing forever banished; when will we see that?

The answer is: when he comes. When our God comes to save us. For Isaiah’s first listeners that happened in a sense when the Lord delivered Israel from exile and brought the survivors back through the wilderness to the land of Judah.

It happened more fully when Jesus came into the world to bring salvation to those who trust and follow him. When he walked the earth the lame did walk, and the deaf did hear; the blind saw and the mute sang for joy. All these things were signs of his kingdom and clues to his true identity. Jesus was, and is, the Lord, the Savior God. And his salvation will be fully realized when he finally comes again to bring lasting healing. So the prophet’s word to us is one of encouragement.

Strengthen the weak hands,
and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who have an anxious heart,
Be strong; fear not!
Behold, your God
will come . . . .
He will come and save you.

Isaiah 35:3-4

He already has come to save us, once. Don’t you think we can trust him to return and finish the job?