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 have an anxious heart,
“Be strong; fear not!
Behold, your God
will come with vengeance,
with the recompense of God.
He will come and save you.”
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then shall the lame man leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the mute sing for joy.
For waters break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert;
the burning sand shall become a pool,
and the thirsty ground springs of water;
in the haunt of jackals, where they lie down,
the grass shall become reeds and rushes.
And a highway shall be there,
and it shall be called the Way of Holiness;
the unclean shall not pass over it.
It shall belong to those who walk on the way;
even if they are fools, they shall not 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 gladness and joy,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
There are few passages of Scripture which depict more vividly the redeeming work of the Lord than Isaiah 35. Everything responds to him—the desert, the blind, the lame, the deaf and mute, the wilderness—and responds spectacularly. This is a picture of flourishing. It is not mere survival. It is fullness and plenty. It is a restoration of all that is broken. It is the manifestation of peace and safety—no lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up to it. It is the gathering of the faithful. It is everything we are longing for—masterfully, hopefully, depicted for us in these words.
All of this is the work of God. It is the impact of the coming of Jesus into our world to die and rise again for us and of his coming again in glory as our judge. Isaiah here describes the fruit of the Gospel among us. It is comforting and encouraging—and those seem like small words. We might now sigh with delight and satisfaction. Except for these verses:
Strengthen the weak hands, make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who have an anxious heart, ‘Be strong; fear not.’ (Isa 35:3-4)
Despite the fact that our redemption—and the world’s—is the sovereign work of God, these brief verses do ask something of us. Why else would feeble hands need strengthening, except that they have something to do? Why would the anxious heart need to hear “fear not” except that it will be asked for courage?
It sounds good and pious to proclaim that redemption is Jesus’s work and his alone. It sounds good because it is true, but it can very easily lead us into a slothful spirituality that presumptuously does nothing; makes no decisions, repents of no sin, practices no disciplines, grows in no virtue because “Jesus saves.” In my observation much of American Christianity lives either in this spiritual sloth or its opposite: a frenetic, despairing activity that has forgotten that Jesus saves. Both are errors.
St. Paul exhorts us in Romans 13 to “cast away the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” The BCP takes up this biblical exhortation in the collect for Advent 1. This is wisdom. Because while Jesus may—and indeed does—give me grace to do it, I have to cast away my own works of darkness and put on the armor of light.
So, as we look forward to his coming in hope, may our hands, knees and hearts be strengthened and ready for that coming.