TLW50 for Sunday, December 15, 2019 (Advent 3)
Theme: Stages of revival in the promised coming of the kingdom
Isaiah 35:1-10 — The watered desert bloom is a picture of revival
A highway over the rough places will lead to the Lord
1-2 The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom. Like the crocus, it will burst into bloom; it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy. The glory of Lebanon will be given to it, the splendour of Carmel and Sharon; they will see the glory of the LORD, the splendour of our God.
“Desert and… parched land” – in the preceding chapters of God has spoken through the prophet of judgment for the nations , including fertile Edom becoming a desert, Isa. 34:1-17. This includes Judah and Israel for their own rejection of God. This picture of the Messiah’s reign is a complete reversal – the whole world as a garden.
3-4 Strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way; say to those with fearful hearts, “Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, He will come with vengeance; with divine retribution He will come to save you.”
“Your God will come” – the essence of the good news is God’s coming to save His people.
“Vengeance… divine retribution” – words that seem to conflict with a God whose overriding characteristic is mercy. In the preceding chapter, Isa. 34:8, this was about God’s justice in the context of Edom which had oppressed Israel at every opportunity. This is robust assurance to the faithful that their day will come.
• For further study, see Isaiah 40:9; 52:7; 62:11, Rev. 22:12, 20.
5-6 Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy. Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert.
“Eyes… opened… lame leap… mute shout for joy” – unmistakeable signs of the Messiah’s appearance. Jesus quoted this passage when John’s disciples asked if He was the Expected One, Matt. 11:4-5 below.
7 The burning sand will become a pool, the thirsty ground bubbling springs. In the haunts where jackals once lay, grass and reeds and papyrus will grow.
“Thirsty ground” – the Arabah (Wadi Arava, south of the Dead Sea) is difficult, rocky, arid terrain with little rainfall – but there are rivers deep in the rock and ‘dry’ rivers like the Nahan Paran which can flood widely. God’s blessing in such a dry place is rain coming and rivers appearing.
8 And a highway will be there; it will be called the Way of Holiness; it will be for those who walk on that Way. The unclean will not journey on it; wicked fools will not go about on it.
“A highway” – Isaiah saw a built up level road across the wadis and rock outcrops, the Holy Way leading pilgrims to Zion. It represents a reversal of Isaiah 33:8, 34:10 when none could pass through.
9-10 No lion will be there, nor any ravenous beast; they will not be found there. But only the redeemed will walk there, and those the LORD has rescued 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.
“Those the Lord has rescued” – the redeemed. The immediate picture is a safe and joyful homecoming from exiled captivity. Isaiah is also seeing beyond, to the sorrow-free time of final gathering of God’s people into God’s kingdom on earth.
• For further study, see Isaiah 25:7, 51:11; Hebrews 12:22-24; Rev. 21:4.
REFLECTION Prophetic pictures in the OT seldom depict one time or event. A description of a process or changes that happen in stages, like the coming of Jesus and His kingdom, challenge our time-related and experience-limited logic. Once travel was difficult and limited; then there were regular buses; now look ahead to a time when no transport needed. So it is with the coming of the kingdom, first inaugurated by Jesus, God with us and incarnate like us. We come to know and trust Jesus as the Son of God, our Saviour and Lord, and we enter into new life with spiritual awareness and a sense of God’s kingdom order breaking in to our lives as we pray. But the time is coming when Jesus will return again, a majestic but shocking event when He will gather all those who are truly His. This is the “divine retribution” or judgment when He will call His own and provide a spiritual highway of safe passage for them to come to Him, their lord and king. This is the good news: The kingdom is coming, even now in incremental ways, and we see it with eyes of faith.
QUESTION Are we intentionally journeying towards Jesus? If not, we are becoming more distant from Him; it is movement, one way or the other.
Matthew 11:2-11 – Jesus praises His forerunner, the great prophet John
Yet Jesus says the humblest born again believer is greater
2-3 When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples to ask Him, “Are you the One who is to come, or should we expect someone else?”
“John…in prison” – John the Baptist was imprisoned by the local Galilean ruler Herod Antipas for challenging the immoral relationship Herod has entered into with his half-brother’s wife, Herodias. John and his followers were confused – this captive was not set free, the “baptism of fire” had not yet occurred, Isaiah 61:1; Matt. 3:11-12. Hence the question.
4-5 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 cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.
“Report… what you…see” – Jesus’ priority with the needy of society and miracles that have been foretold are clear indications of his identity as the Christ, or Messiah. His quotation of Isaiah 35:5-6 and 61:1 would be clear to John, without Jesus prematurely declaring who He was to others.
6 “Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of Me.”
“Stumble on account of Me” – John and his disciples were shaken in their faith by expecting a more majestic kind of Messiah, and a more instant outworking of John’s prophetic words.
7 As John’s disciples were leaving, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swayed by the wind?
“A reed swayed” – a comparison of austere, unbending John, who cared little for public opinion, or the politician Herod whose emblem for his coinage was a reed, like the 5m-high ones that grew on the banks of the Jordan.
8 “If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces.
9 “Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.
“Fine clothes… a prophet” – many who claimed to be prophets in the former kingdoms of Israel and Judah were simply courtiers supporting corrupt leadership. John intentionally positioned himself as one like Elijah – who was no establishment figure.
10 “This is the one about whom it is written: ‘I will send My messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’
11 Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”
“Born of women” – normal human birth, contrasted (by implication) with new birth into the kingdom of heaven.
“Not… anyone greater than John” – John was the last of the OT prophets and also Christ’s forerunner, a unique role. Yet any born-again believer enter new life and becomes “greater” than John as part of the atoning work of Christ, something that John only saw in a shadowy way.
REFLECTION Jesus’ baptism and entry into His ministry, starting in Galilee, was in any understanding of the word, a spiritual revival. It was fulfilling in part what Isaiah had prophesied – leaving part to come. It was also a part-fulfilment of John’s prophetic appeal to the crowds who came out to the wilderness region where he was baptising people in an act of repentance. He was telling them to get their lives right with God because One far greater was coming, who would baptise, or drench, them in the Holy Spirit and also fire. This would be an encounter with the purifying fire and holy judgment of God as well as the impartation of the life and power of God by God’s Spirit. Any study of the various waves of spiritual revival over the past few hundred years cannot fail to see the common factors: people turning to God, acknowledging their sin and recognising what Jesus has done for them, having a spiritual encounter that is life-changing and enduring. The kingdom keeps on coming in different waves of revival and of course “the One who is to come ” is the same Lord who is certain to come again” at the end of time, the fulfilment of what both Isaiah and John saw. This time it will be final: eternal belonging, one with God, or cast out to the torment of eternal desolation.
QUESTION As the expectation and intensity of God’s presence with us rises in this Advent season, it reminds us what Advent is really looking forward to: not the first coming of Jesus, but the second. Are we ready for that?
James 5:7-10 — Be patient and know the Lord’s coming is near
Guard against judging others in the waiting season
7 Be patient, then, brothers and sisters, until the Lord’s coming. See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop, patiently waiting for the autumn and spring rains.
“Autumn and spring rains” – in a dry climate, critical watering times, seen as signs of God’s faithfulness and blessing, autumn rain to germinate and establish and spring rain to fill out the ear. The farmer saw the harvest coming in stages; so it is with the final harvest of the kingdom.
8 You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near.
“Be patient and stand firm” – early believers had to maintain faith while enduring cruel treatment, in the expectation of Christ’s imminent coming [parousia] when both oppressed and oppressors will receive their justice. Believers will be rewarded for their faithfulness, Proverbs 14:14, Matthew 5:12.
9 Don’t grumble against one another, brothers and sisters, or you will be judged. The Judge is standing at the door!
“The Judge is… at the door” – the last days technically span any time period between Christ’s ascension and second coming and it is a time of enemy activity, exploiting tensions to incite believers to sin and open themselves up to the devil’s oppression. James warns against this temptation to sin.
10 Brothers and sisters, as an example of patience in the face of suffering, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.
“As an example… take the prophets” – many prophets were persecuted for their obedience in challenging the prevailing opinions of those around them, like Moses, Elijah, Jeremiah – and John the Baptist, imprisoned by Herod Antipas and then executed on a whim
• For further study, read Matthew 11:2, 14:8-12.
REFLECTION It is fair to say that the Lord is always about the work of revival, turning people’s hearts back to Him, in preparation for the great and final revival when He comes again. This is the meaning of the season of expectation of coming, or Advent. Christmas rightly celebrates the time of His first coming, but all these passages remind us not to look back, but to live as those looking forward to what is to come – and it could be at any time. It is a call to preparation, in the awareness that the Judge is standing at the door. We need to be right with Him for when that time comes – and the only way is that of the One who said “I am the Way”, the only name under heaven by which we can be saved. However much different religious ideas dress it up, it comes down to a heart decision to accept Christ personally and live for Him and with Him – no one and no one’s action can do that for us. All three of this week’s Bible passages are like a theatre spotlight picking out Jesus in every scene and action – and reminding us WHO it is all about.
QUESTION What does it mean in practice to live as those who know that the Lord’s coming is near?
PRAYER Father, as we look forward to celebrating the day that remembers the incarnation of Your Son, help us to also look beyond that event and discern how You may be preparing for an even more sudden arrival to rule and reign in all of this world. Then all that does not already belong to You will be taken – and all of us that doesn’t own You as Lord. May Your Holy Spirit be active in our hearts and communities, leading us back to You in all our ways. Amen.