Isaiah 35:1-10 (3rd Sunday in Advent—Series A)
Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer, Enfield CT
December 12, 2010
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Our text is the Old Testament Lesson from Isaiah 35:
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. 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 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 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; in the haunt of jackals, where they lie down, the grass shall become reeds and rushes. 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. 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.
Roads are an important part of our country’s infrastructure. Roads move people and goods from one destination to another over a smooth surface (more or less) that allows for faster travel times than over, say, dirt, grass, or sand. We think of the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System in our own country which was prompted in part because of President Eisenhower’s liking of the German Autobahn. Going back in time, it was the old Roman roads of that grand empire that revolutionized travel. Roman roads allowed unprecedented movement and relatively safe travel by merchants and traders as the Roman legions moved along the same thoroughfares. Caesar’s armies could swiftly move from one spot of trouble and unrest to next.
In the Bible, the life of faith of God’s people is compared to a road. Walking in the ways of God or His Law would make up a small anthology of biblical verses. There are over a hundred references in Psalms and the Book of Proverbs alone! In Psalm 1 we hear that “the Lord knows the way of the righteous.” David prays in Psalm 27, “Teach me your way, O Lord, and lead me on a level path.” God’s Word is described as a lamp to our feet and a light to our path. (Ps. 119:105) Last week we heard that John the Baptist is the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy of a “voice calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord; make His paths straight.’” In the Upper Room on the night of His betrayal and arrest Jesus told the apostles, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” Then there is our text from Isaiah 35 this morning, “And a highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Way of Holiness.”
The Holy Way, that sounds like a road to be traveled. It is a road described as not having anything bad or sinful traveling on it. It will be impossible for a traveler on this road, even if he doesn’t have any sense of direction, to get lost. No GPS needed. It will be a protected road without danger or risk of injury. Truly, this sounds like the road we want to travel, doesn’t it? But are we qualified to be on such a path?
At first, it doesn’t sound like you and I have permission to be there. Isaiah says that the “unclean” shall not pass over it. It shall belong to those who walk on “the way.” I’m unfit for this road because I am unclean. I am not holy. Along with each one of you I confess week by week that I am this way—sinful and unclean—by my very nature as a human being who has inherited sin from my parents, who inherited it from theirs, going all the way back to Adam and Eve, our first parents. It’s not just that you and I do sinful things, but rather that we have a nature that is corrupt and evil. In this post-modern world that we live in there is a temptation to see people in such a positive light that the fact of human sinfulness is dismissed. “Oh, she’s a good person.” “He’s not that bad.” “Everybody has a few faults, but for the most part people are decent.”
Are they, really? My fifth and sixth grade teacher at St. Paul’s Lutheran School told us one day in religion class that, “Nice people go to hell.” “Nice” doesn’t get you anywhere as far as God is concerned. The Lord didn’t say, “Just be nice and everything will be okay.” The Lord didn’t say, “Try to be as good as you can. I know you have some mistakes, but they are no big deal.” God said, “Be perfect! Be holy! Be without sin!” Nice isn’t perfect. Good enough isn’t holy. Neither are without the corruption of sin. “Nice” people go to hell because they are sinners. “Good” people go to hell because they are sinners—sinners who can’t get rid of their sins on their own by behavior modification or medication; sinners who have no standing before God except as His enemies.
Left to myself, left to yourselves, we will never walk on the Way of Holiness. God will come with vengeance. God will come with recompense, with payment for our sins and our sinfulness. He will come in judgment against our unholiness and our uncleanness. His justice will force Him to condemn us, to measure out the punishment we have merited—eternal death and hell. This is our fate if God should keep a record of our sins. Who could stand before Him? (Psalm 103:3-4) No one. Not me, not you, not that “nice” man you know, not that “good” woman you associate with.
But hear what Isaiah promises. Listen carefully to what God does for us! “Say to those who have an anxious heart, ‘Be strong; fear not! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you.’” (Isaiah 35:4) God will come with punishment for sin; He will come with full payment for sins. But you and I He will save.
Because God is a just and holy God, He can’t let sin go unpunished. There must be death and hell as consequence. The payment has to be met! Blood must be shed for forgiveness. But it is not you nor I who suffer the consequence and punishment for sin. God Himself does in our place.
The Second Person of the Holy Trinity, the Word of God, Jesus the Christ took on human flesh and became incarnate among sinners. He humbled Himself and became fully human, except without sin. Jesus took on flesh so that He might fulfill God’s holy, perfect Law for us because we cannot. Jesus took on human flesh so that He might be able to suffer God’s wrath against sin. Jesus shed His blood to atone for our sin and He died our death, suffering the hell we deserved. Christ bought us back. He redeemed us from all sins, from death, and from the power of Satan with His holy, precious blood and His innocent suffering and death.
The result of Christ’s death and resurrection is our complete forgiveness for the sins that we do, for the good we fail to do, and for the sinful nature with which we are conceived and born. It is a totally complete forgiveness that covers all our sins and failures to be holy. What’s more, having our sins forgiven by Jesus’ death for us, Jesus, by His loving choice, bestows His holiness upon you and me! In a great exchange, Jesus took our sins and covered Himself with them when He died on the cross. And He gave to you and me His perfection, His holiness, His perfect life.
So Martin Luther could preach at the baptism of Bernhard von Anhold on April 2, 1540, “Is not this a beautiful, glorious exchange, by which Christ, who is wholly innocent and holy, not only takes upon himself another’s sin, that is, my sin and guilt, but also clothes and adorns me, who am nothing but sin, with his own innocence and purity? And then besides dies the shameful death of the Cross for the sake of my sins, through which I have deserved death and condemnation, and grants to me his righteousness, in order that I may live with him eternally in glorious and unspeakable joy. Through this blessed exchange, in which Christ changes places with us (something the heart can grasp only in faith), and through nothing else, are we freed from sin and death and given his righteousness and life as our own.”
In Christ alone are you and I made fit, qualified, to walk the Holy Way. Jesus is the Way and the Truth and the Life—our Way, our Truth, our Life everlasting! In Christ our Savior, we are the redeemed of the Lord. We are the ransomed of the Lord whom He bought with His own blood. Sorrow and sighing because of sin and its punishment has fled away. Covered in the blood of Jesus through baptismal waters, you and I are holy in Christ and so are able to pass over the Way of Holiness in confidence and without fear to meet our God face to face. You and I walk the way of life and faith in Christ and we will come into His eternal presence with singing with everlasting joy as we walk with our Lord on the Way of Holiness. Amen.
Martin Luther, vol. 51, Luther’s Works, Vol. 51 : Sermons I, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald and Helmut T. Lehmann, Luther’s Works, 51:316 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999, c1959).