New Life! New Joy! (Isaiah 35:1-10)

As Christians we look forward to our ultimate homecoming to be with God in joy forevermore. But how can we be confident that we can make it there?

Sermon as recorded at St. Luke’s Ramsgate on 11/12/22

Football’s Coming Home?

‘Football’s coming home!’ It’s the slogan of one of the most popular football songs, written by David Baddiel and Frank Skinner for the 1996 European Cup.

The song is full of hope that England might once more win a major international competition and so bring the game, ‘home’ to the country where football first began.

This hope is against a backdrop of despair that with one exception our national team have never won and international competition. Two lines in the song sum this up:

“No more years of hurt

No more need for dreaming…”

Of course football did come home once when England won the world cup in 1966, but it ‘hasn’t come home’ since then and after last night’s result it may not ever return home. There are no guarantees that we will ever win another World Cup or even European Cup.

Driving Home for Christmas

Chris Rea sung the song, Driving Home for Christmas,

It’s a song about someone looking forward to being with his family at Christmas time, but stuck in his car in a traffic jam.

The lines say,

“It’s gonna take some time but I’ll get there

Top to toe in tailbacks

Oh, I got red lights all around

But soon there’ll be the freeway, yeah

Get my feet on holy ground”

I guess this Christmas, with all the train strikes, “Driving Home for Christmas” may be harder than ever, but in the song it’s the hope of returning that keeps him going. He wants to have his feet on, ‘Holy ground’, presumably referring to being home with the family as a kind of sacred space. He also looks forward to the freeway, the open road, where he will be out of the traffic jams and on his way!!

The Christian Life as a Journey

The Christian life is often likened to a journey or a pilgrimage. Indeed, in our reading from Isaiah, the last verse is all about the joyful return of the people of God:

“…and the ransomed of the LORD 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.!” (Isaiah 35:10)

This will be far greater than arriving home for Christmas or winning the world cup, this is the ultimate glorious homecoming that will bring about everlasting and ultimate joy.

Yet, there is still a journey to be had to get there and we may be so daunted by the journey, that we may feel we will never make it. For some of you it may be that you long to have that wonderful eternal hope promised by Christ, but you are not sure you can keep cope with living as a Christian in the meantime. Following Christ can at times feel too difficult and it may be that you are even thinking of giving up. But Isaiah says in verse 3,

“Strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way!” (Isaiah 35:3)

So how does this chapter in Isaiah encourage us to keep going with the Christian faith as we head for our eternal home?

Focus on the Saviour – 35:1-7

Firstly, it reminds us that it is God who saves us, it is not we who save ourselves. This is clearest in verse 4, where the sense is of God rescuing his people from their enemies, the ones who are oppressing them and are keeping them from their home.

Just as to bring football home, another team has to lose if we are to win, so if we are to be saved, whatever or whoever is oppressing us needs to be defeated, if we are to be freed from its clutches.

This looks back to the time of the Exodus, where the Egyptian Pharaoh refused to let God’s people go. God responded by sending a series of Ten Plagues, that forced Pharaoh into releasing the people. The judgement of Pharaoh and the Egyptians went hand in hand with the salvation of the Israelites – just as the defeat of the Russians in Ukraine goes hand in hand with salvation for the people of Ukraine.

For Isaiah that was ancient history. In his time, it was the Assyrians, who had come and invaded the land and taken away many of God’s people and in the next chapter threaten Jerusalem itself. Yet, Isaiah is clear, that although the Assyrians in his time seemed to hold the winning hand, although they seemed unstoppable, God would bring victory against them just as he had against Pharaoh.

In Isaiah’s time the temptation was to give up and just accept the Assyrian rule and ways and forget about the true God of Moses and the Bible. Isaiah is clear, though, Assyria will face the vengeance of God – as they do if you read on in chapters 36 and 37.

Yet, in Isaiah, there is already a step beyond the historical problems of his time, to a greater vision of God acting for his people. Isaiah 35 does not specify the enemy or the oppressor, because the enemy or oppressor does not matter. It is whoever or whatever takes away our life and our health. What Isaiah 35 is clear about, is that God is the one who can overcome anything that causes death and illness, our God is the God who brings life.

That is the beautiful picture in the first few verses. Although, our lives may feel like desert places, dried up and dead from whatever it is that is oppressing us, Isaiah describes blossoms springing up in the desert. Something that happens when the rains come. Yet, here the new life is not caused by the coming of rain, but by the coming of God. It is seeing the glory of God that brings this new and beautiful life. This also extends to new life for humanity, it is when God comes, that the eyes of the blind are open, the ears of the deaf are unstopped , the lame leap like a deer and the mute tongue shouts for joy. All this happens, when God is there, he comes to save and give us life!

When John the Baptist was locked up by Herod and in jail. He began to have doubts about Jesus. Was Jesus the Saviour, God with us, the promised one of God or were they to wait for God to send someone else. Jesus responded to the messenger that John sent to ask this question with these words:

Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me.”” (Matthew 11:4-6)

They are words that echo Isaiah 35 and other similar Old Testament passages. Has God come to save us – yes he has in the person of Jesus.

And Jesus came to save us not from the Assyrians, the Romans, the Russians or whoever. He came to save us from our ultimate enemies, our sin and death. Those enemies were judged by God in Jesus’s death on the cross and his resurrection to eternal life. When we put our trust in Jesus, we become the redeemed, those whom God has rescued by paying the price of the death of his son.

So, if we think we might struggle on the way to God’s eternal home, then remember that God has already acted to save us and bring us life from death. We are redeemed not by our efforts, resilience or strength, but by the saving life-giving work of God in Jesus Christ.

Follow the Way – 35:8-9

Second, if we are to have courage to stick with God and come to the eternal home, then we need to follow the way. This idea also links back to the time of Moses. Once the people had escaped the clutches of Pharaoh, they found themselves in the inhospitable wilderness. How were they going to survive on a journey through such a place? The answer was that God was with them and God provided. He brought water out of stone and rained down manna from heaven. They had all they needed.

Again the idea of the Exodus is behind the imagery in Isaiah. The journey of the Christian life can sometimes feel a bit like travelling through the wilderness, but God is with you and he can make the wilderness spring to life.

More than that, though, Isaiah says, God will build a ‘highway’ for his people to travel. In the ‘Driving Home for Christmas’ song, the writer, longs for the ‘freeway’ so that he will be out of the traffic jam, so Isaiah looks to a highway, a specially constructed raised up road, that protects you from the threats and difficulties of travelling through the wilderness. There are two things that he stresses about this highway.

Firstly, it will be a place of safety and security. No wild animals or human bandits will be on it. You may fear that other people or other things can stop you on your journey to God’s eternal home. But God will ensure your absolute safety and protection:

“No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.” (1 Corinthians 10:13)

Secondly, this is a Way of Holiness, which means it is restricted. Only the redeemed will journey on it. In other words, to travel on this way, you need to have been saved by God, you need to have chosen to follow Jesus and embrace his ways and the truth he shows us. As Jesus says:

“I am the way and the truth and the life. No-one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)

So, as long as we have set our hearts on following Jesus as the Way, we can be confident that God will provide a safe highway for us to travel to his glorious and eternal home. So, we need to fix our eyes on that wonderful destination as Isaiah does at the end of the chapter.

Fix your Eyes on the Destination – 35:10

The home is called, Zion, which is another name for Jerusalem.

Just as the people led by Moses at the Exodus, looked forward to entering the Promised Land, in Isaiah’s time, it was the city of Jerusalem that became the focus of what it meant to return home.

His was a hope that those who had been taken away by the Assyrians would return home to Jerusalem, the city of their king. A 100 years later, when the Babylonians came and conquered and destroyed Jerusalem, this came to be a forlorn hope, but God did something amazing and brought his people back to Zion. One of the Psalms picks up the joy they felt when that happened:

“When the LORD brought back the captives to Zion,

we were like those who dreamed.” (Psalm 126:1)

In the Old Testament, Jerusalem and Zion are seen as the home of God and the place from which his king reigns. It says in Psalm 2:

“”I have installed my King on Zion, my holy hill.” (Psalm 2:6)

As Christians, we now know Jesus to be the true king, appointed by God. His home is not in the earthly Jerusalem, but at God’s right hand in God’s eternal home. So for us the Zion we look to coming to is God’s eternal home, the home that in a very real sense has become our home, because we are adopted as children of God.

In the song, ‘Football’s coming home’ there is a longing for a celebration of victory. In Isaiah there is a longing for the eternal joy, when all the enemies of God including sin and death are completely destroyed. This is not a temporary celebration until the realities of the struggles of life reassert themselves over the joy of winning a game of football, but an eternal joy, because sorrow and sighing will flee away after all is defeated by God.

And it is more than a joy of returning home to a loving family at Christmas – because we will be at home with our perfect heavenly family, where we will see our Father face to face and be welcomed home by Jesus as our brother.

No matter how well we do in the football or how much you are looking forward to seeing family at Christmas, fix your eyes on the ultimate destiny we have as Christians, confident that God in Jesus has saved you for it and that he will provide a safe and secure highway to his heavenly home!

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