This blog is written in the hope that the Christian Bible can provide daily wisdom. It uses the daily readings of the Episcopal Church, along with a daily headline from world news.
Daily headline: New flowering or new strife in Egypt
The Return of the Redeemed to Zion
The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus2it 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.
3 Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees.
4 Say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God. He will come with vengeance,
with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.’
5 Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
6 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;
7 the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water;
the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp,* the grass shall become reeds and rushes.
8 A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way;
the unclean shall not travel on it,* but it shall be for God’s people;* no traveller, not even fools, shall go astray.
9 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 joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
This beautiful prophetic song has been displaced from the work of the “second Isaiah” (Chapters 40-55) who celebrates the release of captive Jews from Babylon and their return to Jerusalem/ Zion. Opinions differ as to how many Jews in fact returned, but there is no doubt that the exile-and-return becomes perhaps the most crucial story in the religious thinking of the Jewish people and is instrumental in the collection and interpretation of their ancient traditions. They believed that God himself had been in exile with his people and that God himself led them back home across the desert just as He had once led them from slavery in the land of Egypt. Except…somehow… the reality of the return to Jerusalem never quite lived up to the joyful hopes of the prophets, so that an element of them remained to be fulfilled; an element gladly seized by Christian interpreters who applied it to the revelation of Messiah Jesus.
We can appreciate the different elements of the vision:
1. The desert blossoms. The sudden flowering of the desert after rain is used to suggest the blossoming of communal life. The buried seeds of goodness and loveliness in the life of the exiled people flower again. Such imagery speaks across time to all who suffer political, economic, psychological or spiritual oppression. There is a moment when the rains come and scarcely remembered plants burst into flower.
2. Justice heals. God’s justice is done, the oppressor is punished, the timid slaves stand up in freedom, the lame leap, the blind see, the dumb sing. The justice of God is indeed the powerful stream which the prophet Amos demanded. (Amos 5:24) It brings fruitfulness everywhere. Justice is good and the mother of goodness in individuals and communities.
3. There is a journey to complete restoration. Although the prophet announces restoration it is not yet complete. Led by God those who are being liberated must travel along the highway of holiness. The road is without danger and the journey is itself joyful. Every step of the way to peace is itself peaceful. The image of the exiles returning to Zion with singing is powerful enough across the centuries to move the hearts of all who know that here they have no continuing city. The image of the way in which even fools cannot go astray is of a truth that goes beyond religious boundaries, it is Tao, Islam, Torah, The Way the Truth and the Life. Christians find it in Jesus.
The lectionary places this passage on Christmas Eve because it expresses so beautifully the advent of God in the world.
67 Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy:
68 ‘Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favourably on his people and redeemed them.
69 He has raised up a mighty saviour* for us in the house of his servant David,
70 as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
71 that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.
72 Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant,
73 the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us74that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,
might serve him without fear,75in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
76 And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.
78 By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon* us,
79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.’
80 The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.
This song is given by Luke to the father of John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin, who will be the last of the prophets and will identify Jesus as Messiah. Perhaps Luke composed the song or perhaps he received it, along with other songs in his birth narrative from a community of messianic Jews from whom both John and Jesus came. In either case, the song is modelled on the kind of prophetic song produced by Isaiah and others. Indeed, verse 76 picks up the ancient prophecy of Isaiah about the voices which announce the return of the Lord. Verses 78 and 79 are especially eloquent: the word translated “dawn” is Greek anatole, which means rising of heavenly bodies, or the place of their rising (the East), and was splendidly translated “dayspring” in the King James Version. Verse 79 echoes First Isaiah’s words about the “people who walked in darkness” and all the verses in the Jewish Bible about the way or path of peace.
The Bible is so hopeful and yet so sober: all good things are possible for those who walk the way, but only if we walk it.