Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
"Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God… He will come and save you." - Isaiah 35:4
In these days of pandemic and upheaval, we may do well to turn to the book of Isaiah for the hope it offers. Isaiah consists of 66 chapters. Biblical scholars believe that this extensive book, known by the one name, "Isaiah," was written by multiple authors over four or five centuries. Isaiah speaks of the destruction of Jerusalem that took place in 587 BCE and the resulting exile in Babylon. The people of Israel, in their fear, have turned to other gods. They have closed their eyes to the suffering and oppression happening around them. They have stopped listening to the word of God and the word from their neighbor. Kings and leaders have forgotten to trust God and have searched for other ways to survive. In their sin, God is still with them – loving them and making the promise reflected through Isaiah, "say to those who are of a fearful heart, "Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God… He will come and save you."
The author of Isaiah 35 is thinking primarily about those who need God's help in gaining freedom from Babylonian captivity. He paints vivid imagery as the people travel the long distance in the Middle Eastern region of southern Mesopotamia. The verses consist of beautiful poetry that proclaims the glorious and hope-filled day when the Babylonian exiles will return to Jerusalem. How glorious it will be for them on that day when, "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." (35:1-2)
This story gives us pause because it is so familiar it could be about us. Political divisions, church divisions, and the current pandemic crisis continues to alienate many people from one another and the lifestyle we have known - familiar days of family gatherings, time spent with friends and loved ones. Days when "COVID numbers" did not exist. Days when we hugged one another to show our love, rather than offering a fist or elbow bump to acknowledge that love. Days when masks were not part of our daily attire. A time when "social distancing" was not a common term. Days when neighbors lived in peace with one another instead of allowing our differences to divide us. In many ways, we are in exile, fearful and weary of our journey that appears to have no end in sight.
Perhaps, like the Jewish exiles, we do not see God's hand in our story, but God is at work. God brings the promise of restoration to us like those wandering in the wilderness. Isaiah calls out to us, "Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God… He will come and save you." These are welcome words because we are in need of God to redeem us from the bondage that possesses us. We certainly cannot do it ourselves. We need for God to turn our face toward hope. Our amazing and awesome God who created the earth is certainly capable of recreating us in God's holy image, so that we can set out on a journey toward eternal joy rather than distress. So, "Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong, do not fear!'" (35:3)
Isaiah indicates that those who are willing to step out in faith will gain the strength and ability to move toward hope in these days. As a result of God's protective providence, "the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water." (35:4-5) Whatever we need for our strength and healing is found in God who never leaves us nor forsakes us especially in our hardest days.
God, in Isaiah 35, promises a new and fresh wilderness. The coming of God in protective and powerful grace will change the beleaguered and distraught world. So, take hope, dear people! No wilderness is too wild for the activity of the grace-filled God. No desert is too dry for God not to find water and blossoms and reeds in it. No knee is too weak for God not to strengthen it. No situation is too hopeless for God not to find hope. This vision of a God of infinite and unstoppable hope is the one we need every day.