Isaiah 35 CEB
The desert and the dry land will be glad;
the wilderness will rejoice and blossom like the crocus.
They will burst into bloom,
and rejoice with joy and singing.
They will receive the glory of Lebanon,
the splendor of Carmel and Sharon.
They will see the Lord’s glory,
the splendor of our God.
Strengthen the weak hands,
and support the unsteady knees.
Say to those who are panicking:
“Be strong! Don’t fear!
Here’s your God,
coming with vengeance;
with divine retribution
God will come to save you.”
Then the eyes of the blind will be opened,
and the ears of the deaf will be cleared.
Then the lame will leap like the deer,
and the tongue of the speechless will sing.
Waters will spring up in the desert,
and streams in the wilderness.
The burning sand will become a pool,
and the thirsty ground, fountains of water.
The jackals’ habitat, a pasture;
grass will become reeds and rushes.
A highway will be there.
It will be called The Holy Way.
The unclean won’t travel on it,
but it will be for those walking on that way.
Even fools won’t get lost on it;
no lion will be there,
and no predator will go up on it.
None of these will be there;
only the redeemed will walk on it.
The Lord’s ransomed ones will return and enter Zion with singing,
with everlasting joy upon their heads.
Happiness and joy will overwhelm them;
grief and groaning will flee away.
Psalm 146:5-10 CEB
The person whose help is the God of Jacob--
the person whose hope rests on the Lord their God--
is truly happy!
God: the maker of heaven and earth,
the sea, and all that is in them,
God: who is faithful forever,
who gives justice to people who are oppressed,
who gives bread to people who are starving!
The Lord: who frees prisoners.
The Lord: who makes the blind see.
The Lord: who straightens up those who are bent low.
The Lord: who loves the righteous.
The Lord: who protects immigrants,
who helps orphans and widows,
but who makes the way of the wicked twist and turn!
The Lord will rule forever!
Zion, your God will rule from one generation to the next!
What does it mean for us to praise the Lord? Psalm 146, ends with the reminder, “Praise the Lord!,” an imperative that is echoed in Isaiah 35 as people find all creation overflowing with rejoicing and singing while they journey along the Lord’s highway to where God dwells. What then does it mean to praise God? As with any time we need help with defining a concept such as praise, a dictionary isn’t a bad place to start, so how can we define praise? The American Heritage Dictionary defines the act of praise as “To extol or exalt; worship” a deity. If that’s the extent of praise, we are well covered today with joyous hymns and even a cantata to praise our God and join together in joyful worship! However, what if praise means more than that, after all, while Psalm 146 ends with “Praise the Lord,” it begins with “I will praise the Lord with all my life; I will sing praises to my God as long as I live” (Psalm 146:2 CEB). All along the Lord’s Highway, God’s people should be praising, so perhaps we need to give praise a closer look, and we might find that our praise to God is more than upbeat music, boisterous singing, and Sunday worship. Praise reorients our whole lives toward our source of everlasting joy.
Would it surprise you to learn that the book of Psalms derives its name from the Greek word psalmoi, which means “instrumental music?” A fitting name for Israel’s hymn and prayer book! It is no wonder that Psalm 146 invites rejoicing with song and singing! Even the original Hebrew word for the book of Psalms, tehillim, translates to Praises. While Psalm 146 from this morning certainly sounds like something praiseworthy, the Psalms have many different kinds of praises in them. There are those that are anguished cries, “By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down, and there we wept when we remembered Zion” (Psalm 137:1 NRSV), and others question God’s seeming absence, “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?” (Psalm 13:1 ESV). Not all of them sound like the psalmists are extolling or exalting God, so perhaps our dictionary definition is not enough. How then, should we understand praise? How in turn can it help us to understand getting to joy’s source at end of the road we walk?
For the Hebrew people and the psalmists, praise was more than simply singing songs and playing music. It was more than prayerful words that lifted up God’s glorious character. Praise also happened outside the confines of worship. For the Hebrew people, the act of praise is the act of orienting a person’s whole life toward God. That means recognizing God’s reign over your life and over all of creation. In reorienting your life, it means being willing to listen to and learn from God as our Lord directs us all down this road. Look to our passage from Isaiah 35, where we are commanded in verse three, “Strengthen the weak hands, and support the unsteady knees. Say to those who are panicking: ‘Be strong! Don’t fear!’ [...] God will come to save you.’” Praise is not a moment of worship, but rather is seen through its constant action. Praise should be seen in lips, hands, knees, and hearts of those who walk the Lord’s path. Each and every action we take should be in praise of our God, and those actions include helping others along the way. Afterall, look at Isaiah’s words, according to the prophet, it is you and I who are strengthening hands, supporting knees, and easing panic! Every way we impact another’s life should be cause for their rejoicing and their praise for God at work through us!
If you are not sure about this, look at who is described as walking The Holy Way, the Lord’s Highway. Twice Isaiah tells us, there in verse 9, “only the redeemed will walk on [The Holy Way],” and again in verse 10, “The Lord’s ransomed ones will return and enter Zion.” These are those who have been saved in Christ and have found salvation in our God, but not simply from sin and into eternal life. We need to delve deeper, inquiring how are these redeemed ones saved and from what have they found salvation? For Isaiah 35, salvation is freedom from the actual physical slavery in Babylon, where God’s people had neither economic nor political freedom. Isaiah 35 hopes for a day when God’s people in bondage will be free and able to fully praise God every day of their lives!
What about us? What about all of God’s children today? What holds us back from fully walking the Lord’s Holy Way? What chains do we need ransoming from to orient our whole lives toward God? What about our siblings in this body, this family of Christ? If our sibling frets if they will survive from paycheck to paycheck, can they orient their lives fully toward God? If our sibling is shackled to drugs or to alcohol, are they free enough to walk this highway with ease? What about those siblings of ours who have been hurt by those who call themselves Christians, those who claim to represent the Church? Are they even willing to walk God’s path any longer? What other economic, political, spiritual, emotional, and religious captivities hold others down? Our lives are to be one of continual praise, and how we act toward others should be a cause for their rejoicing! How are we then redeeming and ransoming our siblings in Christ, so that we may all enter Zion? How are we through Christ causing groaning to be turned into singing?
In my life, I have driven along many wide stretches of empty highways. During the day, these drives can be beautiful or boring as you see scenery splayed out for miles all around, but they are altogether different at night. Those are the drives when I worry about losing my way when only my twin headlights give any sense that the road is truly still there ahead. On those trips, I have even begun to wonder whether I am even headed the right way. Gradually though, the light will catch on something, a slight green shimmer in the distance. Drawing closer, the light takes hold, and yes, I can now see a sign. A sign reflected in my light! Home is this way, only thirty miles ahead! I am going the right way. If ever there was a time to praise God, it has been when I have seen the sign letting me know that my destination is just a bit further ahead, even when I cannot see it myself.
Isaiah 35 is about transition, providing hope and reassurance for everyone on the journey. It sits between what scholars call Isaiah 1 and Isaiah 2. Isaiah 1 is about warning God’s people that they are headed the wrong way, the road they are on leads only to destruction and exile. Isaiah 2, meanwhile, is about hope and going back home. Isaiah 35 does not fit neatly into either, because it describes the transition between the two. It is about walking a road between where things are not quite right yet and getting to a place where all will be right, where “Happiness and joy will overwhelm” God’s people. In the meantime, they are in transition on the Lord’s Highway, which is good, because so are we in this time of Advent. The Lord has come, is here, and will come again. We are between things not being right and things being overwhelmingly good! As the Apostle Paul would say, “We know that the whole creation is groaning together and suffering labor pains up until now” (Romans 8:22 CEB). Everything is in upheaval! We are all on a journey, and like those night-time drives, we cannot see the end for ourselves.
I mentioned those green destination signs on my nightly drives, but how can I trust such signs? I trust because another has gone before, measured the distance, prepared the way, and left a marker to guide the way. Do you remember last week where a camel-hair-laden prophet, John the Baptist told us to change our hearts and lives because the kingdom is coming? Do you recall the Gospel of Matthew quoting Isaiah? These were Isaiah’s words: “‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God’” (Isaiah 40:3 NRSV). Tell me, in Isaiah’s words, is the road for us to get to God? Think again to John. Did John go to God? No, God met John at the river to be baptized. The Lord’s Highway is the route God has taken to bring us home. God is with us on the journey, God has come down this road before.
“Praise the Lord! Let my whole being praise the Lord! I will praise the Lord with all my life; I will sing praises to my God as long as I live” (Psalm 146:1-2 CEB). I praise the Lord because he has come and is bringing all of us home. I praise God to follow God, but some do not know the way. Some cannot lift their eyes above the weight of their chains to see the road ahead. Some lose strength. Some grow weak. God has provided signs, and reminders along the way, to guide us back. Can any of us walk toward joy, toward home, and leave another behind on the road? Should we perhaps instead shine like a headlight in the night to light another’s way? Can we help another up? Are we willing to do all we can to make sure everyone can journey on this road together? Can we follow where God leads in order to take this highway together, so all might share in the joy at its end? Who knows, somewhere down the road, those others we have helped might help light the way for us all. Amen.
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Pastor Paul Grossman