This passage is yet another of Isaiah’s prophecies that Christians have used to apply to Jesus, the Messiah. In today’s gospel reading from Matthew, Jesus also refers to this text. But the people of Isaiah’s time knew nothing of Jesus. Jesus wouldn’t be born for another 500 years. When God spoke these words to His chosen people back then, it was because they needed to hear from him. They were in exile, and facing assimilation and or extinction. What did God intend His words to mean back then? Let’s find out. We’ll apply them to Jesus soon enough!
- Most of the first paragraph describes a time of ecological upheaval. Everything will be turned on end. They are to expect the unexpected.
- The desert will blossom. (vv. 1-2a)
- The cedars of Lebanon will flourish in the desert, the desert will become fertile, like the valleys of Carmel and Sharon. (v. 2b)
- God’s power will be obvious to everyone because of this. (v. 2c)
- Get ready, and get fit—you’re going to be going back home soon! (v. 3a)
- God will rescue His people, which will become a vengeful act to their captors. (vv. 3b-4)
- The miracles continue, this time with God’s people. (vv. 5-6)
- The changes to the desert continue. They signal the mighty power that God has and uses in rescuing His people. (v. 7)
- There will be a clear and safe way homeward. God’s redeemed are the only people who can travel on this path. (More vengeance, or is this a hint of the future?) (vv. 8-9)
- The prophecy ends with the return home in joyous gladness. (v. 10)
In this time of climate change, I would love to take these hopeful words literally. God does have the power to reverse the damage that mankind has done to the environment. But this message of hope was given to strengthen the faith of those who wait for their Messiah. For them, it was the one who would lead them home. For me, it is Jesus, when he returns.
Martin Luther did not have a high opinion of this epistle, because it puts a heavy emphasis on “works”. Martin Luther knew that “works” did not get us to heaven; faith does that. But the words in today’s reading from this little book are perfect words for those of us who wait.
- James tells us to be patient, just like a farmer is patient after sowing his crops. (v. 7)
- In like manner, we must strengthen our hearts and be patient. Jesus could come any time now. (v. 8)
- The previous chapter indicates that there was some suffering within James’ church(es). James encourages them to not focus on these troubles and grumble against one another. Jesus is near—don’t let him catch you grumbling! (v. 9)
- Finally, James reminds his readers of the suffering and patience of Jesus, who loved everyone, even from the cross. (v. 10)
We live in the “in-between times” between Jesus’ first and second coming. Waiting for Jesus’ return, we also need patience. We need the patience of a farmer, or the patience of the prophets, who also waited for the coming of the Messiah.
This is an interesting story. John the Baptist has prepared the way for the Messiah. He is in Herod’s jail now, where he will be executed. John has a large following. Through them, he sends an interesting message to Jesus.
- John asks his cousin if “he’s the one, or not”! This question always puzzled me. You think he’d just know! But then again, John was expecting the one who followed him to come with “His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” Matthew 3:12. And did Jesus act like this? To an innocent bystander, you might see Jesus doing some healings and exorcisms, but also attending banquets with sinners and tax collectors. Where was the fire? (vv. 2-3)
- Jesus is the ever patient, ever loving teacher. Rather than be angry with John, he asks him “What do you see?” Then, he quotes Isaiah 35:5-6a from today’s first reading. (vv. 4-5)
- He also throws in a little encouragement for John and others to simply watch, and not take offense. (v. 6)
- In the second paragraph, Jesus turns to the crowd, and praises John. He reminds them that they were surprised by what they saw in John. Maybe Jesus is also telling his followers that they might also be surprised by what they will see in him. (vv. 7-11)
Even John let his expectations of the Messiah cloud his vision. Jesus tells us to observe what is happening around us, and decide for ourselves. Don’t let expectations cloud our vision. Yes, Jesus is coming. And yes, we should count on being a little surprised that are expectations might be a little off.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
If Jesus came tomorrow, what would you expect him to look like? Would he wear sandals and a linen robe, or Dockers and a golf shirt? What would you expect him to do that would convince you that he truly is the returning Jesus?