Advent III, Year A – Isaiah 35:1-10
The Rev’d Charles Everson
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
December 15, 2019
If you haven’t figured it out by now, at St. Mary’s, we are very intentional about observing the seasonal traditions of the church. For example, during Advent, we wear violet vestments and put up an Advent wreath. Most Episcopalians and other liturgical churches do all of that. But in typical St. Mary’s fashion, we lean into even the obscure customs that may have died out in many corners of the church. You may have noticed that Fr. Bob is wearing a chasuble that is a rather unique color. On the third Sunday of Advent, along with the fourth Sunday of Lent, the Church gives us a bit of reprieve from the penitential and self-reflective themes of the season and bids us to “Rejoice!” The color of the day is rose, or pink, rather than penitential violet, and we get to dust off the old pink chasuble that is faded and almost falling apart. Another tradition that has all but died out is the practice of preaching on the “four last things” on the four Sundays in Advent: death, judgment, heaven, and hell. These themes may seem odd in the weeks preceding Christmas, but the old topic for Advent III seemed like a natural fit for our first reading from the book of Isaiah.
At the time of this prophesy, the Hebrew people were in exile in Babylon and living as slaves to evil foreign overlords. They were desperate to be rescued and to finally go home. All hope was lost; families had been destroyed; pain and suffering abounded. Isaiah had a vision of a place where waters break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert. Weak hands are strengthened, and feeble knees made firm. What he sees is a reversal of everything that’s wrong with creation. For the curse in Genesis chapter three because of human sin extends not only to humanity, but to all of creation. He sees a world in which the eyes of the blind will be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped. The passage culminates in the homecoming of the Hebrew people via a highway called the Holy Way. This highway didn’t lead to Mount Sinai like the first Hebrew Exodus from Egypt; this highway led to Mount Zion, an important distinction for Isaiah, with Mount Sinai representing life under the Law and Mount Zion representing Jerusalem. The ransomed of the Lord shall enter Zion with singing, and obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away. The heart of this prophetic vision is verse 4: “Say to the fearful of heart, “Be strong, do not fear!” Look, your God in vengeance shall come, God’s retribution shall come and rescue you.”
The text says that the unclean shall not travel on this highway, but Isaiah isn’t saying, “Clean up your act so that you are pure and clean and can properly travel on the Holy Way.” This prophetic vision is about God’s action in the world, not ours. The message is this: in the midst of your pain and suffering, despite your being away from home against your will, there is hope! God will come and rescue you and bring you home, but your home will not be as you remembered it. All will be right as it was before the sin of Adam and Even in the garden. The blind will see, the speechless sing, the lame will leap, waters will break forth in the desert. You will obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
Friends, this promise given to the Hebrew people so long ago is a promise given to us today. Jay and I usually listen to NPR in the morning as we’re getting ready for work, but the other day, Jay said to me, “Can we please change our routine and listen to something else? I’m really tired of setting the tone for the day with such awfulness and anxiousness.” Many of you are suffering from physical or mental maladies, have trouble paying the bills, or are dreading another lonely Christmas separated from your loved ones either by miles or by death.
Like the Hebrews, we are waiting to be rescued. We long to go home to Mount Zion, a place that the author of the book of Hebrews calls “the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem.” We long to go to heaven to be with God and our loved ones who have gone before.
During Advent, the Church reminds us that as we wait for that day, joy is just around the corner. For the One who will lead us to the highway that leads to Mount Zion is coming soon. The One who will redeem us from sin and death – the One who will give us joy and gladness and do away with all sorry and sighing is coming to save us. The One who strengthens the weak hands and makes firm the feeble knees will be with us very soon indeed right here at this altar, and in the manager at Christmas, and at the last day when all will be made whole. “Be strong, do not fear!” Look, your God in vengeance shall come, God’s retribution shall come and rescue you.”
 Though this is in the section generally referred to as First Isaiah, most scholars believe chapters 34-35 comprise a displaced section of Second Isaiah (generally chapters 40-55). David Bartlett, and Barbara Brown. Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008, 51.
 Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary (New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2019), 734-735.
The sermons preached at High Mass at St. Mary's Episcopal Church, Kansas City, are posted here!