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 are of a fearful heart,
‘Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God.
He will come with vengeance,
with terrible recompense.
He will come and save you.
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the speechless 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.
A highway shall be there,
and it shall be called the Holy Way;
the unclean shall not travel on it,
but it shall be for God’s people;
no traveler, not even fools, shall 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 joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
“This text shouldn’t be here.” (Barbara Lundblad, Commentary on Isaiah 35:1-10, December 15, 2013.) That’s what theologian Barbara Lundblad says about this passage. Some scholars agree that it was actually supposed to be the opening for Second Isaiah, starting 5 chapters later, to open chapters 40-55. First Isaiah (chapters 1-39, which should include our text today) was all about the 8th century prophet Isaiah trying to get God’s people to repent, to turn around and walk in a new direction of justice, so that they could avoid the situation they find themselves in in Second Isaiah – the horrific trauma of the Babylonian exile. But the tone of chapter 35, our passage today, is one of hope, which does not at all fit with the “call to repentance” tone of the First Isaiah passages surrounding it on all sides. We don’t know why this text got placed here. This word of hope is too early. It’s not supposed to be here.
Maybe that shocking placement is a metaphor for how this word of hope must have felt to those hearing it for the first time. The audience of Second Isaiah is a people who have had all their ways of life torn apart by Babylonian armies who destroyed their place of worship, stole them away from their homes, and carried them off to live in a completely unfamiliar place under an oppressive ruler. And before I go much further, I should mention that the lines that talk about the healing of deafness, blindness, and the inability to walk or talk should be handled with care. There’s a spectrum upon which folx with disabilities define their own identities and experiences. Disability justice theologian Amy Kenny puts it this way: “…disability is not always cured or killed off in Scripture. Disability acts as a blessing, a revelation, and a prophetic witness to the community. It even becomes a mark of the covenant for Jacob, who becomes disabled at a crucial phase of the narrative. His disability acts as the catalyst for radical transformation.” (Amy Kenny, My Body is Not a Prayer Request: Disability in the Church, “Disability Blessings,” pgs. 76-77) And – we can hold that in tension with another reality of this text, which is that some of the people Isaiah is speaking to here had been physically maimed as a result of the warfare that led to their exile. King Zedekiah, for example, while trying to escape Jerusalem as the Babylonian army laid siege to the city in 2 Kings 25, was captured and brought to the king of Babylon, where they slaughtered his sons right in front of him and removed his eyes, blinding him and then binding him, and carrying him off to Babylon. So, yes, this text is out of place literally in the book of Isaiah, but it is also out of place in the sense that it is a bold word of hope spoken to a people still carrying the trauma of oppressive systems in their bodies.
We, too, are a people still carrying the trauma of oppressive systems in our bodies, albeit in different ways. I think of the veterans in our community, many of whom are living with the terrible cost of our nation’s constant war-mongering in their own bodies and minds when they return home. I think of teachers, students, parents, administrators, staff in our schools – who completely reinvented how to do their work during the pandemic, all while seeing so many disparities in access sharpen in the lives of kids and their families who had already been struggling. I think of family relationships that frayed or completely broke apart as misinformation campaigns aimed at our beloveds set them on paths where many of us didn’t know how to follow them. I think of all the loved ones who died during the pandemic for any number of reasons. Many of us never really had a chance to grieve those losses as part of an enfleshed community. I think of our own precious bodies and the ways aging accelerated during COVID, hastening memory loss, mobility issues, and more. I imagine each one of us is holding in our bodies our own experience of exile.
And then we hear about streams gushing forth right out of the desert sand. Fragrant blossoms bursting gloriously from the crevices of a forlorn wilderness. Dried out grasslands filling with water and exploding with reeds and rushes. If you can feel those descriptions in your body, that is the point. These words of shockingly abundant joy coming out of nowhere are meant to disrupt the traumatic stories we are living inside of, day in and day out. To help us feel the hot sand cool with relief as the water emerges beneath our bare toes. To fill our nostrils with the scent of perfuming flowers we never thought we’d smell again after a long winter. To remind us that the world God created to be full of life, overflowing with an abundance where everyone has enough, that world is. Still. Possible. Even here. Even in the desert of your grief. Even in the wilderness of compounded trauma. Even in the wasteland of losses we still don’t have words to describe.
These words of disruptive joy are Isaiah’s way of giving a weary, exhausted people a bodily experience of shalom, wholeness, when our bodies have just about forgotten what that feels like. Because perhaps if he can help us feel that shalom for just a moment, that enfleshed joy disrupting our despair, maybe we’ll have the bit of energy we need to pass it along. The bit of energy we need to make a little more dinner than planned so we can invite over the neighbor who’s been isolated and lonely. The bit of energy we need to say “no” to taking on one more thing in an already packed schedule inside a system that tells us our productivity is our worth. The bit of energy we need to make the phone call to that person we trust to say, “Actually, I’m not ok. I need some help. I can’t do this alone.” All those little bursts of joy that connect us again to our bodies and to one another – they add up, y’all. It’s how this world God made us for comes to be. Through our hands. Our feet. Our hearts cracking open. Isaiah’s words of disruptive joy jolt us – like a pink candle among a bunch of purple – into remembering again in our bodies the juicy world of pleasure that’s possible for all beings. And as our own Rev. Dr. Sharon Tuck is so good about reminding me, a better translation of the Hebrew describing a highway through the desert where the “unclean shall not travel on it” is actually that the unclean “shall not pass it by.” That means the highway home to this new world is FOR EVERYONE. We are all included and the text says that not even fools like me can go astray. As we build up communities that care for each other and share what we have and trust each other with our lives – maybe we’ll discover that Isaiah’s word of bold hope wasn’t out of place after all. Maybe it was right on time. Amen.