Sermon Text: Isaiah 35
Our text today is a beloved Advent prophecy. Isaiah foretells the great restoration which the Messiah will bring, and yes, this is one source for the famous Christmas hymn Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming: “The wilderness and the wasteland shall be glad for them, And the desert shall rejoice and blossom as the rose; It shall blossom abundantly and rejoice, Even with joy and singing.” We are told that the messiah will bring about a great reversal, turning the desert into a garden, the desolate place into a new Eden. But it is very important to see that this great reversal does not come about in spite of the judgment of the Lord but precisely because of it. Indeed, these blessings are the result of divine judgment.
The first question we should ask is what this text meant originally, in Isaiah’s own context. It very clearly fits in with the larger message of Isaiah that the Lord is bringing judgment upon Israel and upon the world. This will eventually result in a worldwide transformation, with all things being healed and made holy. All of Israel’s enemies will eventually be put down. But this will begin with Israel itself being judged, and the judgment of God which falls upon Israel will be the very instrument of Israel’s salvation.
It is very important to not read these verses in isolation. Chapter 35 follows directly after chapter 34, a chapter about terror, bloodshed, and vengeance:
Come near, you nations, to hear; and heed, you people! Let the earth hear, and all that is in it, the world and all things that come forth from it. For the indignation of the Lord is against all nations, and His fury against all their armies; He has utterly destroyed them, He has given them over to the slaughter. Also their slain shall be thrown out; their stench shall rise from their corpses, and the mountains shall be melted with their blood. All the host of heaven shall be dissolved, and the heavens shall be rolled up like a scroll; all their host shall fall down as the leaf falls from the vine, and as fruit falling from a fig tree. (Is. 34:1-4)
This is all described as “the day of the Lord’s vengeance,” and the blessed world of Isaiah 35 is a result of this vengeance. That is why verses 3 and 4 of chapter 35 say:
Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are fearful-hearted, “Be strong, do not fear! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God; He will come and save you.”
This is a gracious restoration, but it is a restoration after divine judgment. Why are the hands weak and the knees shaking, after all? It is because they have experienced terror. But there will be healing and global transformation as it says in vs. 5-7, and there will be universal peace and holiness as it says in vs. 8-10. The great return from Exile shall occur, and Zion’s exiles will rejoice as they behold His glory. And so the message is to take comfort, be strong, and do not fear! (vs. 3-4) Though this great and terrible judgment is about to fall upon Israel, it will lead to their salvation. This judgment is the necessary means for worldwide salvation.
Jesus is the Messiah
The basic message of the gospels is that Jesus is the Christ. He is fulfilling all of the messianic expectations, and his ministry will be the means of worldwide salvation and healing. There is close approximation of Is. 35 in Matthew 11:4-6:
And when John had heard in prison about the works of Christ, he sent two of his disciples and said to Him, “Are You the Coming One, or do we look for another?” Jesus answered and said to them, “Go and tell John the things which you hear and see: The blind see and the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear; the dead are raised up and the poor have the gospel preached to them. And blessed is he who is not offended because of Me.”
John the Baptist heard about the kinds of things Jesus was doing, and he asked if Jesus really was the fulfillment of the messianic prophecies. Jesus’ answer was that the signs of healing and restoration were being fulfilled. In other words, Jesus is claiming Isaiah 35 for his own ministry. But if that is true, then the obvious and appropriate question is: Where is the judgment?
Of course, John himself had been preaching about the judgment. He knew that the messiah was supposed to perform it. And so this all means that Jesus was supposed to bring the judgment of God upon an unfaithful Israel in order to also bring about salvation and restoration. The signs of healing were also signs that the judgment of the Lord was at hand.
Judgment Begins at the House of God
The third question we need to ask is how this prophecy applies to ourselves. We know that Jesus is the messiah, that he brought judgment and healing, and that he is bringing future judgment and healing, but we also need to know that we are in the position of Israel. We are going through the judgment of God. He is granting us salvation through this process, but our salvation always comes through the means of judgment.
Now why would I say that we, the church of today, are in the same position as Israel in Isaiah’s day? It is because this same prophecy is quoted in the Epistle to the Hebrews:
If you endure chastening, God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom a father does not chasten? But if you are without chastening, of which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate and not sons. Furthermore, we have had human fathers who corrected us, and we paid them respect. Shall we not much more readily be in subjection to the Father of spirits and live? For they indeed for a few days chastened us as seemed best to them, but He for our profit, that we may be partakers of His holiness. Now no chastening seems to be joyful for the present, but painful; nevertheless, afterward it yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.
Therefore strengthen the hands which hang down, and the feeble knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be dislocated, but rather be healed. (Heb. 12:7-12)
Notice that the lines from Isaiah 35 are now applied to the comfort we need when we are chastened by God within the church. We know that we will be chastened, and we have to remind ourselves that chastening is not condemnation. It does not mean that we are being held guilty before God. Instead, it is a confirmation that God loves us, and that, however difficult it is to bear, the times of chastisement are for our confirmation in the faith, growth in holiness, and peaceful righteousness.
Hear this word carefully, “no chastening seems to be joyful for the present, but painful; nevertheless, afterward it yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Heb. 12:11). The message is that same as Isaiah’s message. What looks like divine judgment will actually turn out to be the kindness of God.
And so what do we do about it? Hebrews tells us:
Pursue peace with all people, and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord: looking carefully lest anyone fall short of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up cause trouble, and by this many become defiled; lest there be any fornicator or profane person like Esau, who for one morsel of food sold his birthright. For you know that afterward, when he wanted to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no place for repentance, though he sought it diligently with tears. (Heb. 12:14-17)
The chief thing to avoid in times of chastisement is bitterness. Bitterness will destroy any capacity you have for grace, forgiveness, or charity. Bitterness will cause you to sell your birthright for the demands of your flesh. Instead, receive the chastisement of God as an expression of His love. Don’t lose heart. Pursue peace and holiness. Do this truly and out of faith in God.
This is how God always works. He brings us low in order to raise us up. He turns gardens into deserts and then back into gardens again. He brings death in order to bring resurrection. The New Testament also teaches us that judgment begins in the House of God. And so when He wants to bring worldwide transformation, salvation, and glorification, He begins by judging His people. He cuts us open so that we may see what is inside.
People of God, if you try to resist the judgment of the Lord—to ignore it or explain it away— then you will become bitter. But if you receive it as a form of His love and His kindness, then you it will be salvation unto you.
Strengthen the hands that have gone limp, steady the knees that shake! Tell those who panic, “Be strong! Do not fear! Look, your God comes to avenge! With divine retribution he comes to deliver you.” (Is. 35:3-4)
Let us pray.
O LORD Jesus Christ, who at thy first coming didst send thy messenger to prepare thy way before thee; Grant that the ministers and stewards of thy mysteries may likewise so prepare and make ready thy way, by turning the hearts of the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, that at thy second coming to judge the world we may be found an acceptable people in thy sight, who livest and reignest with the Father and the Holy Spirit ever, one God, world without end. Amen.