Sunday Services: 9:00am & 10:45am

Joy to the World

Joy to the World

Preached by Benjamin Vrbicek

Opener

This morning we continue our Advent series. Advent means “coming” or “arrival.” It’s the time that Christians throughout the world focus on the arrival of Jesus—his arrival as a baby, his arrival into our hearts by faith, and his future, glorious second arrival. At our church during Advent we are doing a series we’re calling “The Songs of Christmas,” where we’re pairing themes from a beloved Christmas hymn with a passage in the book of Isaiah. Our song this morning is “Joy to the World,” and our passage is Isaiah 35.

Often when people sing “Joy to the World,” the third verse is left off. I don’t know why that happens. We didn’t leave it off this morning because it’s so good. “No more let sins and sorrows grow / nor thorns infest the ground / he comes to make his blessings flow / far as the curse is found.”

And that’s exactly what we see promised in Isaiah 35. Wherever there is the curse, which in in the passage is depicted by desert and danger, God promises to transform the cursed places into places of life and blessing. Jesus comes to make his blessings flow, far as the curse is found. And in light of this kind of promise, Isaiah 35—just like “Joy to the Word”—calls the people of God to lift up our heads and not just speak but sing.

Scripture Reading

Follow along with me as I read from Isaiah 35:1–10. After I read, we’ll pray that God would be our teacher.

35 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.
10 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.

Prayer

This is God’s Word. Thanks be to God. “Heavenly Father . . .”

Introduction

I had a difficult time sorting out this passage when I was first studying it. That’s actually true for me most weeks. Sometimes I have difficulty because I’m not sure exactly what a passage teaches, or at least parts of the passage. Sometimes I feel a passage is difficult because I do know what it says, but I also know it might be hard for some to hear. Other times, if I’m honest, I think I try to make a passage harder than it really is because we all want to justify the importance of our own jobs, and if a passage is really hard, well, then my job matters.

These are not the reasons I had a difficult time with this passage. I had a hard time with this passage because I didn’t know how it was organized. Early in the process of studying Isaiah 35, it felt to me like God had told Isaiah to take a bunch of wonderful things that are true because of the work of the Messiah, write them down, toss them in a sack, sake it up, and pull them out one idea at a time. At first that’s what I felt like Isaiah 35 was, and after spending more time with it, I think that’s what it is. It’s a bunch of really awesome things that God is doing and will do among his people because of the Advent of the Messiah. So probably the best way to begin the sermon is to dive right into these promises.

1. What is God promising?

What is God promising to us in these verses? Let’s read vv. 1–2.

35 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…

In v. 1 the central image is introduced: the wilderness, the dry land, and the desert all burst into a lush garden. And the blossoms of the flowers are not small, pitiful blossoms, but bright and abundant blossoms. And not only are the blossoms abundant, but they are happy. You see that, don’t you? Nature doesn’t just bloom bright; nature sings.

In v. 2 God speaks about the glory of Lebanon and the majesty of Carmel and Sharon being “given to it” (i.e., the desert), which was confusing to me at first, and likely is to you as well. But I think God means something like this: those places around the land of Israel that are renowned for their beauty (for example, in the Bible Lebanon is known for its massive cedar trees), the glory of these renowned places will be imparted to other places, ugly places. It’d be like saying the glory of redwoods in California, the glory of the Rocky Mountains in Estes Park Colorado, the blue glass of the Caribbean Sea, the autumn view along Skyline Drive in Shenandoah forest, will all be brought to Harrisburg. That would be nice, wouldn’t it? If you want to see the beauty of the mountains, look out one window, and if you want to see the beauty of a forest, look out another. And if you want to feel the beach breeze on your face and to see an ocean sunrise, just go out the front door. You and I are not as familiar with Lebanon, Carmel, and Sharon as we are familiar with these other places of renown in our day, but that’s what God is promising.

What will be most special, however, comes in the last part of verse 2. We will see the glory of the Lord. The glory of the Lord covering the earth as the waters cover the sea is the crown of this renewed creation.

Let me skip vv. 3–4 because I’ll come back to them at the end of the sermon. They contain our application.

Look again at 5–7,

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.

We’re told the blind will see, the deaf will hear, and a man who couldn’t walk will leap like a deer. Have you ever seen a deer jump? That’s a wonderful promise. And the place where desert jackals used to hide becomes a safe, wetlands preserve.

Now look again at vv. 8–10,

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.
10 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.

A highway emerges in this desert, and the highway has a name. It’s called the Way of Holiness. In America, we name some of our roads and highways, like Eisenhower Boulevard here in Harrisburg. But I don’t know of any roads called the Way of Holiness. God promises this holy highway to the Lord is safe to travel—no fear of lions or other beasts anymore. There are parts of Harrisburg some of you might not want to walk through during the day, let alone at night. Imagine them transformed in a moment to be holy and safe and bright. That’s what God is talking about.

And the place the “redeemed” and “the ransomed of the Lord” travel, is traveled with “gladness and joy” and without “sorrow and sighing.” I think that’s worth dwelling upon for just a moment. The highway that is called the Way of Holiness is not only the safe and holy passage to seeing the glory of God, but it is a happy highway. This highway is not only the way and the truth, but the life (cf. John 14:6). How like God to make holiness and happiness merge together on this highway.

If you’re a Christian, you have glimpses of this joy in your life, times when following God is your highest delight, times when as you seek holiness and Christlikeness, and you’re filled with a joy that can’t be explained. In the future day promised in these verses, that wonderful but fleeting feeling of both happiness and holiness will be an all-the-time thing. “Everlasting joy shall be upon their heads” (10). Sin will be no more. Sorrow will be no more.

And what makes these promises even more special is where they are situated in the book of Isaiah. Chapters 34 and 35 are foils for each other. They speak of opposites. I won’t go back and teach through Isaiah 34, but let me tell you what is there. It’s a passage about the destruction of the godless nations and specifically the land of Edom, which was just south of Israel. The people of Edom were enemies of Israel, but often they were also the envy of Israel. The land of Edom was green and lush. It was garden-like. But no more, God says. Look at just one verse from the chapter:

Thorns shall grow over its strongholds,
    nettles and thistles in its fortresses.
It shall be the haunt of jackals . . . (34:13)

The point God is making in these two chapters of Isaiah is a point central to the whole book and central to the entire Bible. If you trust in man, in the end, you get a terrifying desert of punishment, but if you trust in God, you get everlasting joy in a garden of grace. Don’t trust the promises of the world, God says. They are a mirage. Through the prophet Isaiah, God was calling his people—indeed he calls to us right now—to place our hope only in God.

The next two points in the sermon move more quickly. But before I say them, I’ll set them up by noting one challenge for us to really squeeze all of the goodness out of these promises, and one challenge to singing “Joy to the World” with meaning. The challenge for us is that Christmas promises often become nothing more than sentimentality and platitudes.

What do I mean? Advent can become nothing more than red and green decorations, getting family together, watching movies, opening presents, and putting lights on a freshly cut Christmas tree. I like these things. But is that what Christmas is about? No.

And Christmas can be full of platitudes. A platitude is a nice sounding saying that has been hollowed-out of power because it is no longer anchored in God. Consider the sayings, time heals all wounds; everything happens for a reason; what doesn’t kill me will only make me stronger; live each moment like it’s your last; everything always works out in the end; have a merry Christmas and a happy New Year. These sound nice, but they don’t have much effect on us because they are powerless by themselves.

Is that what Isaiah 35 is—hollowed out promises from an impotent God? How do we know the glorious promises spoken about here in Isaiah 35 will come true?

2. How do we know God can do this?

Let me go to my second point. I want to consider two things, one in the book of Isaiah and one in the New Testament book of Luke.

First, if you flip over a page from chapter 35 of Isaiah to chapter 36 and 37, we have dramatic proof that God can destroy the powerful representations of man’s strength and that he can protect those who trust in him. Someday we’ll have to teach this passage in detail, but that won’t be today. The context is that the army of Assyria has come down to surround Jerusalem. The spokesperson for the Assyrian army stands up and essentially cry’s out to the people of God, “Repent or perish. If you surrender to us, we won’t kill you. But if you don’t, we will.” Buried in his speech is this fascinating line in v. 7:

But if you say to me, “We trust in the Lord our God,” is it not he whose high places and altars Hezekiah has removed, saying to Judah and to Jerusalem, “You shall worship before this altar”? (36:7)

This line from the Assyrian spokesperson implies that the people of God had become so overrun with idolatry, that when King Hezekiah actually removed the high places of idolatry, to the outside nations, it seemed as though the people of God had turned their backs on God, which of course is the opposite of what Hezekiah was doing. Removing the high places was returning to trust in the Lord, not idols. But the people of God were so dysfunctional that it seemed like when they turned from idols, they were turning from the Lord because their idols, to outsiders, seemed like her gods.

I won’t read more of the passage, but as it goes on, King Hezekiah, with weak hands and an anxious heart, prayerfully brings this taunt before the Lord. The Lord had heard the taunt, and he hears the prayer. And in the middle of the night, the angel of the Lord comes and slaughters most of the Assyrian army. Those still alive, along with the Assyrian king, go home. But when the king gets home, he’s assassinated. The point of Isaiah 36 and 37 is that trust in the Lord is not sentimentality, and trust in the Lord is not trusting in a powerless platitude.

We see this in the book of Luke, too. Consider a section from chapter 7. John the Baptist gets thrown in jail, which creates doubts in John’s mind that Jesus is the Messiah he thought he was. This is how the conversation goes:  

18 The disciples of John reported all these things to him. And John [from jail], 19 calling two of his disciples to him, sent them to the Lord, saying, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” 20 And when the men had come to him, they said, “John the Baptist has sent us to you, saying, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?’” 

21 In that hour he healed many people of diseases and plagues and evil spirits, and on many who were blind he bestowed sight. 22 And he answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them. 23 And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”(Luke 7:18–23)

“You want proof, John, that I’m the Messiah, and that your trust in me is not sentimentality and platitudes? Look at what I can do.” And if we’ve been reading Isaiah 35 carefully, it’s the very same things that are promised in vv. 5–7: blind see, deaf hear, and lame leap.

3. What should we do in light of God’s promise?

Let’s come to the final question of the sermon: because God promises his people blessings they can hardly imagine, and because he is able to bring these blessings about, what should we do? Isaiah tells us what we should do. Let me re-read vv. 3–4,

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.”

The idea of retribution from the Lord that’s promised here, as Jason pointed out from a different passage last week, is actually a good thing for the people of God. It means that any and all injustices that have been carried out against the people of God throughout time will be made right by the holy, all-knowing, and all-good God.

So, in light in of the coming blessings that will be poured out on the people of God, we are to use our words to build hope in other believers. To those believers with cancer, to those persecuted for their faith, to those who have been cheated and wronged, to those who have sorrow and sighing, we are to say, “Be strong; fear not! Behold, your God will come.”

This means that what we are doing here at Advent, indeed what I am doing for you right now, is, I believe, proper application of this passage. We have gathered here to sing songs of worship, to hear the Word preached, and to fellowship with God’s people so that we could all say and sing to each other—even as I’m saying to you now—“The Messiah came to begin his work of salvation, and he will come again to complete it. Lift up your heads.”

Christian, give hope to people this Christmas. Don’t give merely sentimentality nor hollow promises, but give the rock-solid, blood-bought promises that God loves you, cares for you, and has redeemed you.

But I should clarify something here. This passage in Isaiah uses what we might call, “in-house encouragement.” The passage says “behold your God,” “redeemed,” and “the ransomed of the Lord.” What if God is not your God? What if you have not come into a relationship with the living God? If that’s you, I’m so glad you are here. What better day than today to embrace the love of God in the Messiah? What better time to turn from trusting in the salvation the world offers, and to receive the salvation God offers, which is the only true salvation a salvation where holiness and happiness merge into your life because of Jesus.

And I know the Christians here at our church, we all have friends and family and co-workers who don’t know the Lord. What better season to invite them to church? What better time to explain to them the true meaning of Christmas?

Conclusion

Isaiah 35 was given to people who would later go into exile for their sins. But, as one commentator points out, the glory of what is promised in this passage is too great to simply say it was fulfilled in the eventual return from exile. They go away, and they come back, which is good, but the good is not good enough to be what is described here. The promises here are just too exalted (Oswalt, Isaiah 1–39, NICOT, 621).

No, what is being described here is the great, glorious reversal that is promised throughout the Bible. That’s what Isaiah 35 is talking about. What do I mean? Here’s what I mean. In the garden of Eden, our parents failed to trust the Lord. And thus paradise became a desert, a place with thrones and thistles infesting the ground (Genesis 3). But in the work of the Messiah—in his birth, in his life, in his death, in his resurrection, in his ascension, in his future, second advent—we have the promise that as far as the curse is found, God will come and make his blessings flow. All sorrow and all signing, as the passage says, shall flee away.

If your hands are weak and if your heart is anxious, know that one day, as we’re promised in the book of Revelation, God “will wipe away every tear from [your] eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (21:4).

Prayer

Pray with me as the music team comes back up to lead us in “Joy to the World” one more time. Let’s pray . . .

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