Leaping in the desert
Isaiah 35:1-10 The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom. Like the crocus, 2 it will burst into bloom; it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy. The glory of Lebanon will be given to it, the splendor of Carmel and Sharon; they will see the glory of the Lord, the splendor of our God. 3 Strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way; 4 say to those with fearful hearts, “Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you.” 5 Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. 6 Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy. Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert. 7 The burning sand will become a pool, the thirsty ground bubbling springs. In the haunts where jackals once lay, grass and reeds and papyrus will grow. 8 And a highway will be there; it will be called the Way of Holiness; it will be for those who walk on that Way. The unclean will not journey on it; wicked fools will not go about on it. 9 No lion will be there, nor any ravenous beast; they will not be found there. But only the redeemed will walk there, 10 and those the Lord has rescued will return. They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads. Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away.
You don’t usually travel to a cemetery to be inspired. However, if you go to the Salt Lake City Cemetery in Utah, you will find a unique and stirring tombstone. You cannot look at this particular tombstone and not have an emotional reaction. You are drawn to it. You want to know the story behind it. … Yet, at the same time, as soon as you see it, you know the story.
The story is of Matthew Robinson, the son of Ernest and Anneke Robinson. Due to a lack of oxygen during birth, Matthew was born with many disabilities. He was blind, mostly paralyzed, and could only say a few words. He was confined to his bed and wheelchair for most of his young life.
Matthew died at the tender age of 10.
That sounds like a truly sad and tragic story. … But it isn’t. Matthew died, but he died with faith in Jesus.
Matthew’s dad wanted to express the hardships and difficulties of his son’s life, while at the same time expressing the joy and excitement that Matthew is now enjoying in heaven. This is the exact same joy and excitement that the prophet Isaiah expresses with these words: “Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy.”
The tombstone that Ernest Robinson designed for his son is a sculpture of a boy standing on the arm of his wheelchair reaching for the sky. Matthew is no longer blind. He can see. He is no longer lame. He is leaping out of his wheelchair. He is no longer mute. His voice is joining with the saints and angels in singing praises to His Savior and King.
When you are young, you dream of leaping off the ground to dunk a basketball or catch a football. As you get older, your goals change a bit. Rather than leaping, you are just happy to stay upright. A few more years go by and you hope to make it from the bed to the kitchen without falling over. And then in your twilight years, you are walking with a cane or a walker or you become like Matthew confined to your bed and wheelchair.
For many of us, leaping is no longer a major goal in life.
The believer’s in Isaiah’s day didn’t feel much like leaping, either. The ten northern tribes of Israel were on the brink of destruction. The Assyrian army was ready to overrun them. The southern tribes of Israel were only a few years away from the Babylonians carrying them into captivity. The future looked bleak. There didn’t seem to be much reason for leaping.
Perhaps you feel the same way. There are so many things in life than can ground you and take away your reason for leaping. The weight of exams. The struggle to find a job. The doctor’s diagnosis of cancer. The daughter going through a messy divorce. The grandchild battling depression. The friend whose spouse died unexpectedly.
Situations like these can suck the joy right out of life.
Often, we can also feel like we are traveling through a desert while we are traversing through this life. We are worn out, weary, dragging, sleep-deprived, and coffee-infused. We have been beaten down by the constant pressures of the world. We are distressed by the continuous temptations of the devil. We are wretched and sinful to our very core. There is no beauty at all about ourselves.
While we are crawling through this desert, the devil likes to put mirages in front of us. These mirages promise refreshment and nourishment, but they are only meant to trick our eyes and our souls. We might try to find happiness in our children’s athletics – while we are harried moving from one sport to the next. We might try to find fulfillment in our job – while we spend more time at work and less time in worship and with our family. We might try to find companionship on social media – while our noses are buried in our electronic devices we miss out on real and living companionship with our family and friends.
Outwardly, we may appear lame and mute, harassed and haggard, like we’ve been traveling for decades in the desert. But Isaiah promises that we are really lavish oases refreshed and nourished by the forgiveness and salvation of Christ.
“The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom. Like the crocus, it will burst into bloom; it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy. The glory of Lebanon will be given to it, the splendor of Carmel and Sharon; they will see the glory of the Lord, the splendor of our God.”
Lebanon was famous for its fragrant cedars. Carmel was noted for its mighty oaks. And Sharon was celebrated for its flowers and rich pastureland. Isaiah prophecies that the desert will bloom with an unnatural beauty.
This is a metaphor for the beauty of the grace and love God has for His people. As parched and dry as God’s Old Testament people were or – you, His New Testament people are – the Lord remembers His covenant promise. He will alter fortunes by grace. You cannot not bring forth beauty on your own so God graciously bestows this beauty. Grace is always unnatural to human soil. It can only occur if God acts. The Lord does not hide His work. It is for all to see.
Isaiah continues with God’s promises, “Strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way; say to those with fearful hearts, ‘Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you.’” The glory of the Lord is God’s presence among His people. The glory of the Lord was present among His people as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of cloud by night in the desert wandering. The glory of the Lord is connected with God’s saving activity on behalf of His people.
The glory of the Lord is present among us in the humble means of the waters of Baptism, the simple bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper, the amplified voice of the pastor speaking words of absolution, and in the spoken and written words of the Scriptures. These are the ways that God’s glory comes to God’s people. His saving activity is in His Means of Grace. His presence is among us in Word and sacrament.
God’s primary goal with His presence is not to terrify and threaten. However, if people will not accept God as their Savior, then they will respect Him as their Judge. He will come with divine retribution.
God is much more interested in bringing forgiveness, hope, and life. Those who hear God’s gospel message and believe it have their fears dispelled. Through Christ, sins that deserve fierce punishment from God are forgiven. Through Christ, death becomes a sleep from which we will awaken. Through Christ, every trial becomes a source of joy because God works it for our eternal good. Through Christ, even debilitating diseases and crippling accidents will be reversed. “He comes to save you.” This gospel that saves steadies weak hands and strengthens legs to move forward.
Isaiah is clearly prophesying Christ’s ministry. What a dramatic reversal there will be! A world previously destroyed by sin is filled with sorrow and sighing. But with Christ’s coming a desert will become a lush pool; the thirsty ground will be a future streambed. But that’s not all. The eyes of the blind will be opened. The ears of the deaf will be unstopped. The mute will shout for joy. And the lame will leap like a deer.
When Jesus appeared in this world with His first advent, these are the kinds of things that happened. These miracles verified the Messiah’s identity to John the Baptist while he was in prison (Matthew 11:4-6). They are signs that point us to Jesus as the Lord. The recipients of these miracles leapt for joy.
But these miracles only served as a prelude to a greater joy. Our Savior did not just come to save a few select individuals from their physical problems. He came to save the entire world from our spiritual problem of sin. We were spiritually crippled by our own wickedness. Christ healed us through His word of peace. We were spiritually blinded by our sinfulness. The Holy Spirit opened our eyes to see Christ’s saving work. We were in the desert created by our own barrenness. The Lord caused baptismal waters to flow and cause life to spring in our hearts.
Because of this we can dwell in the glory of the Lord.
When does all this take place? Right now! We are blessed to be living in the time of refreshment in the desert. Jesus has brought healing and health. With His presence, He has made it possible to be in God’s presence. With His humility, He has allowed us to see God’s glory. With His death on the cross, He has removed sin’s curse. With His resurrection from the grave, He has brought life and salvation.
All of this will become a final and lasting paradise of health and healing, sights and sounds with Jesus’ second advent.
Whatever desolation you are going through right now, Jesus provides refreshment. However lonely you may feel, experience the Lord’s glory in Word and sacrament. Whatever struggles you are dealing with, let your soul leap for joy in Jesus.
The story of Matthew Robinson is a sad story … until you realize it has a happy ending.
Your story may seem rather sad right now, as well. But your story has a happy ending, as well. All stories that have Jesus in them end happily … because they end with Jesus in heaven.
It seems odd, but we can go to a cemetery to be inspired. Whether the tombstone is an elaborate statue or a simple headstone, if it marks the grave of a Christian, then it is inspiring. For their stories have ended in heaven with Jesus.
That’s where our stories will end, too. But until that time, though our bodies may no longer be able to leap as high as they once did or move as well as we need them to, there are wonderful days ahead. Through faith in Jesus the deserts flow with water, the wilderness blossoms with flowers, the blind see, the deaf hear, the mute shout, even the dead are raised. And the lame leap for joy. Amen.