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"Fountains in the Wilderness": Isaiah 35

Isaiah gives us a resounding hope strengthening us in our wilderness of affluence and indifference. Fountains will break forth in the wilderness; the lion and lamb will lie down together... The Lord will be our righteousness and all the world will dwell securely!
"Fountains in the Wilderness"
Sermon on Isaiah 35

By Eckhard Gorka

[This sermon delivered on the 2nd Sunday in Advent, December 10, 2000 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web, www.gwdg.de.]

Grace be with you and peace from Jesus Christ, who was, who is and who is coming. Amen.

... Each and every one of you has come to church service this morning with very personal motives. Each and every one comes with different expectations, a hymn, one's voice in the choir of others, a reading, the promise of forgiveness, a neighbor with a friendly greeting, a beautiful prayer or the atmosphere encountered only here on Sunday morning. Today's sermon text is suited to raise expectations. The church lives with this phenomenon when it reads the Bible.

In the Book of Isaiah (35,3-10) we read...

Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart, Be strong; fear not!
Behold your God will come with vengeance,
With the recompense of God. He will come and save you."
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the
Ears of the deaf unstopped;
Then shall the lame man leap like a hart,
And the tongue of the dumb sing for joy.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
And streams in the desert;
The burning sand shall become a pool,
And the thirsty ground springs of water;
The haunt of jackals shall become a swamp,
The grass shall become reeds and rushes.
And a highway shall be there, and it shall be
Called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not
Pass over it, and fools shall not err therein.
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,
With everlasting joy upon their heads;
They shall obtain joy and gladness, and
Sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

What good prospects! People are promised new strength. The blind see, the deaf hear, the lame leap like deer. The dumb praise God. Water breaks forth in the wilderness and transforms it into fruitful land. Fountains gush forth and displace the hot sand. A holy path appears where previously wild animals sought prey. God's redeemed come to Zion. Eternal joy and jubilation can be heard there. Pain and sighing gave no room any more.

This is a promise that entices to God and makes faith attractive for people who do not only have their own profit in mind. Nothing against stock market halls and lotto gambling. Who knows whether they will allow the poor to share in their happiness?

Isaiah describes a political vision. The salvation that seizes a whole people comes from God. We must be aware of this. This salvation announcement did not come first to us Christians. It was and is valid for those living at the foot of Zion and awaiting redemption, the visible success of salvation prophecy. Respect for God's liberating and electing also shows the limit of the transferability of this vision.

There is certainly a border passage. Jesus answered John the Baptist's question "Are you the one to come or should we wait for another?" with a quotation from this Isaiah passage. The Gospel of Matthew gives neith4er a Yes nor a No but rather the words of Jesus: Go and tell John what you see and hear: the blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, the dead rise and the gospel is proclaimed to the poor.

The conversion of the Bible's pictures of hope to the reality of the world is entirely in God's hands. Isaiah knows this. What appears to us as a dream is easily possible to God. The future is his land. The Advent time is rich in pictures and symbols for the light in the darkness. Isaiah knows and names the fine balance that can easily be disturbed. The political and religious dimensions of the promise may not be played off against one another. The promise is spoilt in its effect when one seeks to derive the glorification of a world-arrested person at God's expense. It is also disturbed in its effect when one seeks to derive the transfiguration of a world-forgetting God at the expense of people. Whoever reads the promise purely secularly has only understood half the truth like one who understands it purely of the world to come. The future salvation follows a twofold perspective. Everything comes from God and God depends on his people for everything. A double impulse is inescapable: expect everything from God and meanwhile do what is humanly possible.

Concretion 1

The change of the world can not succeed without people ready for change. Still no renewed person unhinges the old world. This experience encounters us every day, sometimes in the morning in the mirror. Against all attempts to replace "pain and agony" with "joy and delight" through human incursions, a sociologist wrote 100 years ago: "One imagines a society of saints, a perfect and exemplary monastery. Crimes in the current sense of the word are unknown there. On the other hand, crimes that seem forgivable to the average person today cause the same offense as common crimes." (Emile Durkheim)

When the ideal person becomes normality, what is regarded as normal today will be defined and outlawed as evil in the future. The chances of helping the unfortunate patient humanity through genetic, surgical or sociological incursions are not particularly good. If sociology were stronger than biology, we could say soberly that we have problems in creating a humane world by agreement. We cannot produce God's reign.

Isaiah knew that long ago. He offered a hope in the world against the resigned perspective that the lasting fades and transitoriness comes. The transient fades and the lasting comes. Jesus expands the promise of Isaiah with the resurrection of the dead. We can count on God where we least expect him. God is underway with transitory persons. Expect everything from God and meanwhile do what is humanly possible.

Concretion 2

The announcement of the healing of human ailments presupposes God's mercy and that the God of Israel, the Father of Jesus Christ, regards blindness, deafness, paralyses and drought as needy of healing. Healings of sicknesses and renewals of creation are signs of God's nearness. Still fulfillment takes another dimension. Those not named, the healthy, will also feel a change. Since Jesus the promise of Isaiah was a central theme of his commission and proclamation. The path that is called the "holy way" is seen as a road of world transformation and renewal of humanity. Those persons come into view who live beyond our boulevards in the slums of the world. Those persons appear on God's invitation list who have the least conceivable expectations of profit. We have to expect everything from God and do what is humanly possible: recognize the intolerable division of humanity in poor and rich, fight the outrageous injustice and stop the devastation of human living space. As matters stand, our successes will not be so overwhelming that we as human trailblazers will no longer need God's word and promise.

Concretion 3

Still there are good signs. There is not only stabbing pain but also its end. There are peace treaties and the homecoming of prisoners, not only wars. There are not only conflicts but also reconciliation of former enemies. There is not only Germany's separation but also the fall of the wall and new freedom. Often we interpret the good ending of a dispute as God's intervention. However we are easily ready to abandon this interpretation when the concluded peace begins to crumble, when the reconciliation of enemies breaks down, when the end of apartheid triggers new violence or reunification reveals differences in mentality and great costs. When I rightly understand the promise of Isaiah, this gives me courage to see God at work in these healing processes. Why is respect for God's work so quickly lost to us? Why do we allow blindness, deafness, paralysis and wilderness where we adopt a new course with rejoicing? The promise of Isaiah includes the critical question whether and where we stand in the way of God's course with the world, whether we have an expectation of profit and dare our commitment. Expect everything from God and in the meantime do what is humanly possible. If God endures that his work is misused, how long will people endure this disdain?

Concretion 4

December 10, 2000 was declared the day of human rights. The Evangelical church in Germany (EKD) emphasizes freedom of worship, its necessity, its vulnerability and its contribution to human dignity. With all skepticism about the range of such theme days, remembrance days at least yield a profit when they are observed. That we celebrate this church service together, publically confess our faith and can diversely express our faith in buildings, symbols and signals up to the "Word for Sunday" on public television programs is a result of a freedom for which people have long fought, for which many still fight and about which many brothers and sisters of faith dream. Saudi Arabia, Greece, Colombia, China, Pakistan and Indonesia belong to the list of countries in which the right to freedom of worship does not exist. This list is not complete. Only these countries that violate freedom of worship and people and their faith are first included. Religious groups are often oppressed because they can be dangerous to dominant ideologies. People are excluded because they see through the provisional nature of human structures. Their faith can be dangerous to the powerful. I say "their" faith because it is not always our faith. We want to hold intercessions for threatened communities today, to pray for freedom of worship even for persons of a different faith and human rights for dissenters. This does not mean that we abandon the truth claim of the gospel but that we remain faithful to Jesus' mission where the Lord of the church praises the compassion of the Samaritan. Proclaiming God has top priority for us. Christians can be found among victims and perpetrators, the persecuted and the persecutors. In some countries, Christians are punished for building churches. Freedom of worship is also a precious asset worthy of protection which is legally safeguarded in everyday human life. Believing God capable of everything and doing what is humanly possible always points beyond us.

2nd Advent. We prepare for the second and final advent of Jesus Christ. We have no reason for inactivity. Whoever has no expectation of profit becomes an ear-witness of the promise of him whom with Christ we call Father. That God is merciful does not mean that he expects nothing from us. The waiting period will be full. The path on which we are certain is opened. Too many people see the movement without profiting from it. People are often without hope for change, without a spirit of adventure and expectation of profit. More people always have more interest in the drawing of lotto numbers than in the word for Sunday even though people co9uld gain more with Isaiah's word for Sunday than with drawing lotto numbers.

Wait for better times and a better life. Expect everything from God and meanwhile do what is humanly possible. Amen.

And the peace of God which is higher than our reason keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

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