Once again, the lectionary truncates a beautiful poem (Isaiah 35:1-10) by grabbing just a portion of the poem that is rich in imagery. But the impact of this imagery comes alive as we tend to the entire poem and its context, so we need to begin there. First, we should tend to the literary context. Here is how Gene Tucker summarizes the location and importance of chapters 34-35 in the overall literary flow of the book of Isaiah:
The location and the character of these two chapters raise the question of the extent of the prophetic book associated with Isaiah of Jerusalem. Furthermore, the question of the place of these chapters in their context in the book is closely related to the issue of the date of the composition. Isaiah 34 stands out in sharp contrast to the immediately preceding chapter as a harsh prophecy of judgment with almost apocalyptic overtones, finally against Edom, Judah’s neighbor. Chapter 35 returns to the theme of chap. 33, the future of the exiles, and closely parallels the language and ideas of Isaiah 40–66. The subsequent section, Isaiah 36–39 is an appendix to the prophetic collection containing narrative accounts concerning Isaiah of Jerusalem. Literary style, historical perspective, and theology indicate that neither of these chapters originated earlier than the end of the Babylonian exile.
And so we have, toward the very end of the section ascribed to Isaiah of Jerusalem (Isaiah 1-39, otherwise known as First Isaiah), an oracle of salvation that looks forward to a day of future restoration and hope. Remember, Isaiah of Jerusalem, whose words are anchored in the eighth-century kingdom of Judah, has announced the judgment of God upon God’s people, because of their failure to keep covenant with YHWH. While there are interspersed words of hope throughout his prophetic oracles, the majority of Isaiah’s oracles announce God’s coming judgment (exile) upon Judah because of the people’s idolatry and their associated acts of social injustice. But Isaiah 35 dares to look far into the future – beyond the exile – to remind a people who will be soon devastated by God’s judgment and their own failure that God is not finished with them yet.
One of the phrases that stands out in this passage and becomes an immediate point of contact for the contemporary listener is the threefold description of God’s people in verses 3-4 as those with “weak hands, feeble knees, and fearful hearts.” Let’s ponder that powerful phrase for a moment. As I write these words, our people have trudged through a wearying 16 months of Covid infection, hospitalization, death, and social distancing that has wearied us all. And now, with vaccination rates falling and the rise of the Delta variant, we find ourselves battling new surges, overwhelmed health care systems, politization of masks and vaccines, and a future that promises more pain, more suffering, more death, more isolation, and more division. If ever there were a people “whose hands are weak, whose knees are feeble, and whose hearts are fearful” it is us. These words from Isaiah are words speak directly into our current context.
One of the Bible’s favorite images for times like this – times of weary struggle, unending danger, and deathly fear – is the image of the desert. It is a real place, don’t get me wrong, but it also functions metaphorically in the imagination of Israel (and all of the people of God) as a place of testing. Yet here we also learn to trust in God’s ability and faithfulness to provide and guide – even in this deadly environment. The desert conjures up memories of the 40 years that Israel spends wandering in the wilderness… and for the church, we remember it as the place where Jesus was tempted. By its very nature it is a place of limited resources for the sustaining and flourishing of life.
Which is what makes this text so remarkable! This desolate wasteland is going to blossom abundantly – its lush growth, greenery, and beauty will match “the glory of Lebanon and the majesty of Carmel and Sharon” (v. 2). This is a miracle which is repeated again in the lectionary portion of our text as we read that the “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” (vv. 6-7). How can these things be?
The answer is clear – this is the work of the God of Israel, a God who comes with a vengeance (against all the forces that oppose God’s will, which, to be honest, included Israel in the earlier Isaiah prophecies), but a God whose coming is ultimately designed not to destroy, but to save. When God shows up, “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” (vv. 5-6). This is the good news – God invades the wilderness places of our lives and, even as God corrects us for any wrongdoing on our part, God’s work is finally a healing, redeeming, saving work – all because of God’s amazing grace.
God’s activity creates a highway through this desert wasteland – a road called the Highway of Holiness – where the redeemed of YHWH will not only be safe (v. 9), but filled with joy and praise as they make their journey back to Mount Zion, the place where our God dwells in His holy temple, and from which the God of Israel rules the world. The end of this journey through the wilderness is life lived in the presence of God – a life of “singing, everlasting joy…and gladness” and no “sorrow and sighing” (v. 10)
There are a number of possible approaches to preaching this passage. One would be to make use of the central image of “the desert” and allow that image to become the focal point of what Tom Long calls a “jewel” sermon. By stitching together various stories and memories of wilderness experiences (Israel, Jesus, news stories of people who get lost in the desert, Joshua Tree, etc.) you will paint a picture of the desert as a place not only of danger and death, but also a place of God’s surprising grace and salvation. End the sermon with testimonies (yours and others) of how God has shown up in surprising and healing ways in our own wilderness experiences.
Or one might follow the method of Paul Scott Wilson’s Four Pager Sermon. You begin with Trouble in the World – the story of one who is going through terrible times that cause us to have “weak hands, feeble knees, and a weary heart.” The situations that create such an experience abound. Then you move to Trouble in the Text – here you will need to do some research on both the literary context of our passage, and the historical situation (the coming exile) which lies behind our text. Be careful here to show the exile as God’s judgment on Israel’s failure to live up to her covenant responsibilities. You can draw on much of Isaiah 1-34 as well as the work of the other 8th century prophets (Amos, Hosea, and Micah) to show the shallowness of Israel’s worship and social life. Exile was a time of deep loss, despair, and a sense of hopelessness – will we ever get out of this mess? Those concerns still resonate with God’s people today. Once you have developed this troubling picture, move to Grace in the Text. This is what we reviewed above – the surprising and wonderful news that God shows up in our wilderness moments – God comes to save. Our text (Isaiah 35:4-10) surely preaches itself with visions of blossoming deserts, burning sand transformed into refreshing pools of water, and a highway of safety and joy built by the God who is determined to bring all of God’s children home. As we see this gospel promise unfold in the text, invite your listener to imagine what Grace in the World might look like. How might God step into your wilderness experience with transforming power and healing love? Here you need not imagine all the ways God might work. As you describe God’s activity in the text, you really can trust the listener to find themselves in this story and imagine their own lives re-narrated by the gospel we discover in Isaiah 35. Thanks be to God!
 Tucker, Gene. “Isaiah” in New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume VI. Nashville: Abingdon Press