The Third Sunday in Advent
Isaiah 35, Psalms 22:23-31 and 99, 1 Corinthians 4:1-5, St. Matthew 11:2-10
At Christmastime our thoughts turn to home. Family, friends, firesides . . . the smell of gingerbread and the taste of eggnog . . . laughing children and grinning grandpas . . . pretty packages, maybe even a pony.
But where is home? Home, some old sage once said, is where the heart is. That’s not a bad definition. It’s better than definition No. 1 in my online dictionary: “a house, apartment, or other shelter that is the usual residence of a person, family, or household.”
Could be a prison cell.
Let’s try definition No. 2: “the place in which one’s domestic affections are centered.”
Could be a dog house.
Words fray at the edges – especially when marketers or people with an ideological agenda grab hold of them. One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. An illegal alien in a red state is an undocumented worker in a blue state.
The National Football League would never dream of charging admission for an “exhibition game,” which doesn’t count in the standings, but will charge the regular-season tariff for a “preseason game,” which also doesn’t count in the standings.
And a builder or real estate agent would not consider selling you a “house,” which is but a building, but would love to sell you a “home,” which is a state of mind. Or once was. My online dictionary gives me a synonym study for “house” and “home”:
House “always had reference to the structure to be lived in. Home has recently taken on this meaning and become practically equivalent to house, the new meaning tending to crowd out the older connotations of family ties and domestic comfort.”
If “house” and “home” are equivalent, can we now say “house is where the heart is”? Not exactly poetry, is it?
For the Christian, those “older connotations of family ties and domestic comfort” are more than a little hard to turn loose of, especially when we speak of our eternal home. Our Father tells us we will dwell there forever with our family – all those united to one another through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
And it will be a place of surpassing comfort, of perfect peace: shalom. Home is where our peace is.
In his gospel of peace, the prophet Isaiah gives us a glimpse of home today. “And the desert shall rejoice and blossom as the rose; it shall blossom abundantly and rejoice, even with joy and singing.”
He is projecting an image of Mount Zion, but not that lump in the earth’s crust on which the city of Jerusalem hunkers. No, this is the same Zion we find in the Book of Revelation, God’s new creation, that glorious state in which He has made all things new:
“Then I looked, and behold, a Lamb standing on Mount Zion, and with Him one hundred and forty-four thousand, having His Father’s name written on their foreheads.
“And I heard a voice from heaven, like the voice of many waters, and like the voice of loud thunder. And I heard the sound of harpists playing their harps.
“They sang . . . a new song before the throne, before the four living creatures, and the elders; and no one could learn that song except the hundred and forty-four thousand who were redeemed from the earth” (14:1-3).
Isaiah has been pronouncing God’s judgment on all the unrighteous nations, notably including Israel, but in chapter 35 he takes a breath and reveals what the future holds for those who love God and live according to His law.
Now, don’t try this at home – however you think of home – but Isaiah, being a prophet, stands on the timeline of history and looks in both directions at once. He looks to his left 750 years and to his right 750 years . . . and on both ends of this spectrum he spies someone named “Jesus.”
To his left he sees one we call “Joshua,” from the Hebrew Yeshua. The Greek version of this name is Iessous, or, in English, “Jesus.” If you look up the Greek translation of the Old Testament you will find Joshua called Iessous.
And by the way, the name means “Jehovah is salvation.”
The great prophet Moses is dead. His successor Joshua stands on the east bank of the River Jordan and gazes across into the land God has promised to His people Israel, a land flowing with milk and honey.
At long last Israel will complete her exodus and find her rest. God’s chosen will take possession of this good land and then they will study war no more. They will be home.
They will enter God’s peace, and their reward will be their Lord’s bountiful provision for them . . . but that will not be their great reward. He will dwell there among them on Mount Zion, and they will have uninterrupted communion with Him. God’s very presence is their great reward.
Joshua – “Jehovah is salvation” – has been accorded the great honor of leading God’s people into their promised rest and peace. When he entered the land 40 years before with nine other spies and found giants lurking there, he was one of only two who trusted in God to deliver victory to His people.
Now that generation of doubters has died off and Joshua peers into the land their children will inherit. The milk and honey remain . . . and so do the giants. God speaks to Joshua.
“I will not leave you nor forsake you” (Joshua 1:5). “Be strong and of good courage” (v. 6) . . . “Only be strong and very courageous” (v. 7) . . . “Be strong and of good courage; do not be afraid nor be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go” (v. 9).
Consider Joshua’s position. If his knees were not knocking already, I suspect that after hearing God’s command, “buck up, old boy” three times in four verses those knees are clanging like tin pots. But maybe I’m projecting myself onto him. He has God’s assurance that He will be always with him.
Isaiah takes up exodus language and invokes God’s encouragement to Joshua as, centuries later, the prophet addresses the descendants of those who crossed the Jordan. “They shall see the glory of the Lord.”
The Hebrew word for “glory” here speaks of a manifestation of God, as when He led the children of Israel through the wilderness in the form of a cloud, called the “glory cloud.” This glory would fill the tabernacle and then the temple and Moses and the Psalmist and the prophets would speak of the glory of God filling the earth – of making the creation His sanctuary.
And then comes the exhortation, “Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are faint-hearted, ‘Be strong, do not fear!’”
For the people of God – in Joshua’s day, Isaiah’s day, Christ’s day on earth, our own day – all of life is an exodus, for while we are in this life we are never at home. St. Paul tells us we are “members of the household of God” (Eph 2:19) and our “citizenship is in heaven” (Phil 3:20).
Home is indeed where the heart is . . . but our wayward hearts sometimes lose the signal in the homing device. I heard a story of a missionary who spent more than 50 years in Africa. He buried his wife long before his return to America and never came back on a furlough.
Finally too frail to continue God’s work, he returned. On the steamship as he journeyed back he spent long hours and days thinking of how alone he was. He had outlived all of his family members and his childhood friends as well.
When the ship docked in New York harbor he found a hotel in which to spend his first night back on his native soil in more than half a century. He went to his knees and cried out to God, “At long last I have come home and I have no one. Have mercy on me, Lord, for I am so alone.”
And then he heard a voice: “You’re not home yet.”
Isaiah looks to his right as well, and there he sees another Jesus, the Christ. Of Him the prophet says, “He will come and save you.”
And so indeed, one greater than Joshua has come. St. John tells us God has made Himself manifest among us, putting on flesh so that we might behold the very glory of God (St. John 1:14). And just as the God in the cloud led his people on an exodus, the God in the flesh does as well.
This time, He leads His chosen people not out of captivity in Egypt but out of bondage in sin. This time, He dispatches them not onto a patch of ground tucked away by the Mediterranean Sea but onto the entire globe. Yet this time as last time, He sends them out among hostiles, commanding them to trust in Him:
“Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God.”
Those without trust are without hope, and hope is the elixir of the children of God. We must have hope, for this world teems with enemies, this world is not our home. Yet Christ sends us out to overcome it, to overpower the giants, to annex all the nations to the kingdom of God. And He fills our quivers with words to assault wickedness with His all-conquering gospel of peace.
And what did our Lord say to His first disciples as He sent them out to conquer? “And lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
He who has hope will persevere to the end, and in the end he will reap his eternal reward. But as the great reward for Israel was not the abundant fruit of the land, the ultimate reward for the Lord’s disciples is not streets of gold or walls adorned with sapphires and emeralds.
As in Joshua’s day, the ultimate reward is God Himself, and life in His glory.
How we grunt and grasp for what is already ours, great glory. If we have placed our hope in Christ we are fellow heirs with Him and the inheritance He shares with us is the glory the Father shares with Him.
We who carry the taint of sin within us can generate no glory of our own, yet how we strive when all we need do is bask in the reflected radiance of our King. In the cross of Christ is our glory.
Of this God who will save us, Isaiah says, “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped. Then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the dumb sing.”
The prophet gives us a glimpse of the resurrection body, the one we will put on when our Lord makes all things new. But Jesus will not wait for His second coming to begin His ministry of healing.
As we heard from St. Matthew’s gospel this morning, when John the Baptist sends disciples to ask Jesus if He is the promised one, the Lord cities these words of Isaiah as evidence that He is indeed Messiah.
But Isaiah does not stop there, nor does Christ. “For waters shall burst forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert. The parched ground shall become a pool, and the thirsty land springs of water.”
God created through our Lord Christ and He re-creates through Him as well. This is the picture of newness of life, sin-rent bodies made whole and barren land healed by the caress of cool waters.
Life begets life and the creation sings the praises of the Creator who redeems, restores and re-creates, bathing all He has made in His grace. Our home is Eden restored, washed clean of sin by the blood of the Lamb.
“A highway shall be there, and a road, and it shall be called the Highway of Holiness.”
Here is the way into the very presence of God, but who may travel it? “The unclean shall not pass over it.”
These “unclean” are the ones in Israel who did not use the sacrifices, the means of grace God provided. They are the ones today who do not avail themselves of the final Sacrifice.
“Whoever walks the road, although a fool, shall not go astray.” God does not deny passage to the untutored or even the feckless, if only they will hope in Christ and seek His way.
Whose road is it? “The redeemed shall walk there, and the ransomed of the Lord shall return.”
This road is the route of the redeemed, those Christ has ransomed with His blood.
They shall “come to Zion with singing, with everlasting joy on their heads. They shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”
This is Mount Zion where the Lamb stands, and with Him those on whose foreheads the Father’s name has been written. They are singing a new song before the throne.
In the year King Uzziah died, Isaiah saw the Lord in a vision. Around His throne seraphim cried, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts. The whole earth is full of His glory.”
Overcome by the sense of his own sin and uncleanness and that of his people, Isaiah despaired . . . until one of the seraphim took a burning coal from the altar with tongs and flew to him and touched the coal to his lips, purging his sin.
From that moment forward, God used Isaiah to proclaim the holiness of the Lord and to reveal the Highway of Holiness, which is the route of the Lord’s redeemed. And the Highway of Holiness, beloved, is our way home.
As long as we follow it we will not go astray. The way of holiness is the way of salvation God provides. The pursuit of holiness is the pursuit of God, the only Holy One.
The end of holiness is the glory of God, who has shared Himself with His creation so that His glory is seen in all the things His hands have made. The fruit of holiness is the peace of God which surpasses our understanding.
At Christmas, we think of home. Let us think of the One who came to lead us there through the exodus each one of us must make, the One who has gone on before us to prepare a place for us, the One of whom the prophet said, “He will come and save you.” Amen.