As is often the case, I’ll be preaching not Isaiah 35:4-7a on Sunday but all of Isaiah 35. Although the Lectionary is a good discipline for me, something that keeps me from visiting and revisiting my “pet texts” when I preach, I do sometimes wonder why the Revised Common Lectionary in particular so often breaks up paragraphs and even verses where it does.
I love reading the prophets when they envision the return of Israel to the land of Canaan. These grand pictures of forests rising up around desert roads remind us moderns just how uninspiring we are when we mouth our platitudes like “she’s in a better place” at funerals. Now don’t get me wrong: I don’t correct people when they say that in their attempts to surmount grief; I’m not the idiot seminary boy any more. But when on occasion I speak rather than listen, I prefer the prophets’ world-sized oracles to the individualistic (and thus dull) picture of the silent journey.
When we’re present in the face of death, be that in a funeral home or a hospital or a crime scene, we see clearly the exile that we live with silently from day to day. We’re faced with the reality that the inevitable demise of another human being draws from us, if we’re honest, a protest, the sort of utterance that we normally reserve for those things which could change. And that’s the difference between an atheist and a believer: one will regard that urge to cry out as a mental defect or at most a vestigial psychological coping device, a leftover from a more dangerous era in the development of the species. The faithful know that the desire for what-lies-beyond-death is the stirring of what the Bible calls hope.
When Isaiah brings the faithful the image of the return to Zion, nobody wants to “escape the earth.” We want the earth to start acting like our home again, to be rid of the death and distortion that keep us at arm’s length, to see deserted places rise up with forests, inviting life to run joyful through all parts of the earth. We do not want to huddle in the oases, fearing the heat of the sands or the hunger of the lion; it is our love for the Earth that makes us long for that day when we can properly live in it.
And we know that our bodies, like the deserts, also long for that restoration. Isaiah’s oracle, when spoken in full truth, brings sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf, makes the lame leap and the dumb sing. Just as we long for the deserts to welcome us, we reach out, for ourselves and our neighbor, and beseech God to let us live in this world as bodies ought to, enjoying rather than struggling. Such is not “able-ism” any more than our longing for life-not-defined-by-death is “alive-ism.” (Sorry, Chesterton.) Such things are simply the eternity that resides in the hearts of mortals, always reaching forth and looking beyond, never able intellectually to say what beyond might look like but nonetheless never quite satisfied with the cold comfort that declarations of fate attempt to lend.
Certainly, as a Christian, I’m bound to say that Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ sent by God, the Son of the Father, is the consummation of such things, that His coming-to-earth and dying-for-sins make such things as Isaiah’s vision real horizons rather than pious wishes. Certainly the Church remains the Church Militant so long as deserts remain deserts and bodies are dying bodies. But Isaiah’s ministry is precisely for those dying and those struggling and those weeping: blessed are those who mourn, because it’s the one who weeps whose tears make visible the greatest comfort, the bringing-together of all things that sin and death have torn apart.
May the visions of Isaiah make our hopes all the more vivid.