A sermon based on Isaiah 35:1-10 preached by Pastor Jonathan Werre at Good Shepherd Lutheran in Sioux Falls, SD on December 15, 2019.
www.gswels.org

“A highway will be there, a road that will be called the holy way.  The impure will not walk there.   It will be reserved for those who walk in that holy way….only the redeemed will walk there….They will enter Zion with a joyful shout…Happiness and joy will overtake them and sorrow and sighing will flee away.”

The road that you get to travel on is like no other road in the world.
(The holy road reserved for you who made holy by Christ’s holy blood)

PART 1—The Context

If you would be a Christian, you must join the ranks of Bilbo Baggins, and Odysseus,  and Lewis and Clark, and Dora, and Gulliver, and Huckleberry Finn, and the Jews returning from Babylon.  If you would be a Christian, then you must needs be a traveler.  And if you are such a traveler, then what lies before you is great adventure…and great hardship…and a great destination.  For the road that you get to travel on is like no other road in the world.  It is a holy road reserved for you who are made holy by holy blood, Christ’s holy blood.

First, let’s get the context of what’s happening when Isaiah was inspired by the Holy Spirit to write these words.

Isaiah was a pastor for Israel in the 700’s B.C. He was married.  Had two sons that we know about.   When he went to his pastor study club meetings, he would have seen Amos, Hosea and Micah there.  Got to live in the capital city, Jerusalem.  Even had access to the king.  Though in the end, that did not help him.  Legend has it that he was sawed in two by wicked king Manasseh.  Every job has its risks, and being a pastor is no exception.

Isaiah did his preaching when his country was past its prime.  The up and coming powerhouse was Assyria, which is northern Iraq today.  Assyria had the meanest, nastiest army on the planet.  And God made sure they came to Israel.   God did.  Because she, and all the countries around her, had about used up God’s patience.  The problem was not that they were not religious enough; the problem was that they were holding to the wrong religions—they believed all kinds of false doctrine, and it showed.  Not unlike today.  And you wonder, how much more patience does God have for our country?

So God through Isaiah warned all those countries.  And when no one repented, here came the Assyrian army.  And it was not pretty.  In 722 BC Assyria carries off the 10 northern tribes and they disappear in the pages of history.

The two southern states, or tribes, Benjamin and Judah, dodged this bullet.  But the lesson did not stick.  So in 586 BC God sent the Babylonians to bust up Judah and Benjamin and carry them into captivity.  But those Jews were not lost to the pages of history.  God told them, through Isaiah, that they would get to come back home, to their own country, after 70 years in captivity.  And that’s what Isaiah is describing here.  He is predicting how the Jews will come back to Jerusalem after 70 years in captivity.

But there’s only one problem with this description.  It’s not just good, it’s too good.  What it predicts is just too good, too perfect.  “Waters will flow in the wilderness, and streams in the wasteland.  The burning sand will become a pool.”  That’s not what happens to deserts and wastelands.  “The eyes of the blind will be opened.  The ears of the deaf unplugged.  The crippled will leap like a deer.”  That doesn’t happen just because you get to move back home.  “Happiness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away.”  Meaning, they would be permanently happy and never ever have sorrow or sighing.  Again, that isn’t just good, it’s too good, too perfect.  Permanent happiness and joy just don’t happen, not in this world.

So, do you get it?  Do you understand what the Holy Spirit was having Isaiah do here?  He’s describing heaven.  He was having the journey from the Babylonian Captivity to Jerusalem be an analogy to our journey through life to the heavenly Jerusalem.

And that’s why I started this by saying, if you would be a Christian, you must join the ranks of Bilbo Baggins, and Lewis and Clark, and Huckleberry Finn, and the Jews returning from Babylon.  If you would be a Christian, then you must needs be a traveller.  And if you are such a traveller, then what lies before you is great adventure…and great hardship…and a great destination.  For the road that you get to travel on is like no other road in the world. It is a holy road reserved for you who are made holy by holy blood, Christ’s holy blood.  Only, do not destroy yourself by wandering off this road by neglecting the Word/Sacraments or become impure by using them as an excuse for sin instead of your reason to struggle against sin.

“A highway will be there, a road that will be called the holy way.  The impure will not walk there.  It will be reserved for those who walk in that holy way….only the redeemed will walk there.”    Before we consider that road, let us sing v.3-4 of Hymn #14.

PART 2—The Road

The author of the classic book, “Pilgrim’s Progress,” John Bunyan (no relation to Paul), wrote a story about a dream he had.  It was about a Christian traveling from The City of Destruction (aka, this world) to the Celestial City (aka, heaven).

Christian is a determined traveler, and he has adventures, missteps, difficulties.  But then, when he is over halfway to the Celestial City, he runs into one of the most dangerous situations that a Christian can run into.  Christian runs into a giant and his wife who are especially cruel.  They capture Christian, take him back to their castle.  Their castle is named “Doubt,” “Doubting Castle.”

And that’s a danger for every Christian who is traveling through this world.  Doubt.  Doubting what the Bible says.  Like Adam and Eve did, who doubted that what God commanded was good, like we might, doubting for example, that it is good to be humble, doubting that it is good to practice firstfruits giving, doubting that it is good to submit to your husband.  Doubting. Doubting that God is good, or that he even cares.  Doubting that he hears my prayers.  Doubting that I’m forgiven.  Doubting that I am therefore able to forgive those who have hurt me. Doubting that Christ will return soon. Doubting my need to daily repent and remember my baptismal forgiveness.   Doubting that my life matters.  Doubting that I can ever be happy again, no matter what the Bible says.  Fellow travelers, are you familiar with this cruel giant’s castle, named “Doubting Castle”?

In John Bunyan’s story, the travelling Christian’s situation goes from bad to worse.  Once he is in Doubting Castle, the giant drags him down, down, down, into bottom of the castle where the air is thick with stench and the floor is thick with filth and there is not even a smidgeon of light.  And he locks Christian in.  And he says something to the effect that, “No one cares about you.  Your situation will never change.  You will always feel this bad.”

The cruel giant says that because the giant’s name is Despair.  He lives in Doubting Castle and his name is Despair.  Have you come across this cruel giant and his castle in your travel’s?  If you have not, you will.  And it will probably be about 2 in the morning when it happens.  And when despair comes, you are in a very dangerous situation.  For despair, surrounded by doubt, is a prison so terrible that you might wish you were dead.  You might even think of making it happen.  You might even try to make it happen.

This is what was happening to Christian in John Bunyan’s story.  The situation is hopeless—ever been in a situation that seems hopeless?  Suddenly Christian remembers that, at the beginning of his journey, he had been given a key, a key with a special power.  He remembers that this key has the power to unlock any door.  He feels his way to the dungeon door, puts in the key, and “click”, the lock springs open.  But he still has more doors and locks to make his way through.  At each door, he puts in the key, and “click”, it unlocks.  Until finally he has made his way out of the castle and he is in the beautiful light of day.

It would be good to have a key like that, wouldn’t it.  And you do.  Because the key that Christian had been given at the beginning of his journey is the same one you were given at the beginning of your journey, which is to say, at your baptism.  It is the key of God’s promises.  The promise that he will always wash away your sins because Christ died and rose for you.  The promise that he will take you to heaven, the Celestial City, because Christ died and rose for you.  The promise that you are now his child and he will never let anything harm you.  Yes, he will allow painful things and difficult things and sad things, even tragic things.  But none of it will be allowed to harm you.  It will not always stay this sad.  Our Lord will work it for good, that is his promise.  For he who means for us to have perfect happiness in heaven, as it says,  “Happiness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away”—he also means for us to have a foretaste of that happiness in this life, as well—didn’t we hear that at the beginning of our service, “Rejoice in the Lord always”? (Phil. 4:4)

That’s the key that will unlock the prison door of your despair in your own Doubting Castle.  Because this key has the power by the Holy Spirit to give hope.  And not the maybe kind of hope.  The sure kind, the certain kind, because when God makes you a promise, he must keep it.  Which means that we are not like a virgin who hopes to be a mother someday, we are like a woman who is eight months pregnant. This kind of hope is stronger than any lock on any door in despair’s Doubting Castle.  But remember, there may be many doors that are locking you in.  But that’s why there are many promises in the Bible.  And as Paul writes in 2 Cor. (1:20), “For no matter how many promises God has made, the are ‘Yes!’ in Christ.”

If you would be a Christian, then you must needs be a traveller.  And if you are such a traveller, then what lies before you is great adventure…and great hardship…and a great destination.  For the road that you get to travel on is like no other road in the world.  It is a holy road reserved for you who are bought with holy blood, Christ’s holy blood.  Only, do not destroy yourself by wandering off this road by neglecting the Word/Sacraments or become impure by using them as an excuse for sin instead of your reason to struggle against sin.

“A highway will be there, a road that will be called the holy way.  The impure will not walk there.  It will be reserved for those who walk in that holy way….only the redeemed will walk there….They will enter Zion with a joyful shout…Happiness and joy will overtake them and sorrow and sighing will flee away.” Amen.