Tags

, , , , , , ,


A Highway for God’s People

Isaiah 35:1-10 NRSV

35:1 The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus

35:2 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.

35:3 Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees.

35:4 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.”

35:5 Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped;

35:6 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;

35:7 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.

35:8 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 traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.

35:9 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.

35:10 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.

An American Story of Exile

In Pasadena, California, in 1905, several churches in the area began to minister to recent Japanese immigrants. The churches established housing and a night school, as well as spiritual guidance, to help these newcomers to America adjust to their new surroundings. By 1913, 23 people chartered the Pasadena Union Church. By the 1930s, over 200 people were attending. The future of the church looked bright for these newly arrived Americans and their growing families.

These Japanese immigrants, arriving on the shores of the west coast of the United States, came with few possessions, and fewer skills. But they learned quickly, adapted to American life, and became successful business owners within a few years. Children were born to these families, and because they were born on US soil, were themselves citizens of the United States of America. The American dream of freedom of religion, prosperity, and self-determination seemed to become a reality to these transplanted Japanese families.

But, on a Sunday morning in December of 1941, all that was to change. When the imperial nation of Japan staged a surprise attack on the home of the United States Pacific fleet at anchor at Pearl Harbor, Haiwaii, the lives of all Japanese-Americans would be forever altered.

On February 19, 1942, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued Executive Order No. 9066, which stated in part —

NOW, THEREFORE, by virtue of the authority vested in me as President of the United States, and Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy, I hereby authorize and direct the Secretary of War, and the Military Commanders whom he may from time to time designate, whenever he or any designated Commander deems such actions necessary or desirable, to prescribe military areas in such places and of such extent as he or the appropriate Military Commanders may determine, from which any or all persons may be excluded, and with such respect to which, the right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave shall be subject to whatever restrictions the Secretary of War or the appropriate Military Commander may impose in his discretion. The Secretary of War is hereby authorized to provide for residents of any such area who are excluded therefrom, such transportation, food, shelter, and other accommodations as may be necessary, in the judgment of the Secretary of War or the said Military Commander, and until other arrangements are made, to accomplish the purpose of this order. — Executive Order No. 9066, FDR

With that order, large areas of the United States were declared off-limits to Japanese-Americans. The forceable removal of Japanese-Americans began in what would become a dark chapter in American history. Fear and politics won out over commonsense and compassion, and Japanese-Americans were rounded up and shipped to internment camps for the duration of World War II.

The churches in Pasadena rallied to the support of their Japanese Christian friends at the Pasadena Union Church, but to no avail. Long-term residents, many natural-born US citizens were detained and relocated to internment camps. These Japanese-Americans were removed from the homes they owned, and from their church they loved. With only enough time to lock the doors, and carry a bag or bundle of personal belongings, they were forced to leave behind all they had worked for, and all their families before them had worked for over 35-years. Few expected to see their homes or their possessions again. And the land that they hoped would provide freedom became instead a place of exile.

Judah in Isaiah’s Time

In the passage we have read this morning, Isaiah is preaching to the nation of Judah, a nation that has made a bad alliance with the Assyrian king against their own kinsmen, Israel. Isaiah is preaching to a nation that has turned from following God to following the gods of foreigners, if any god at all. Mostly, they are a nation who has forgotten who they are, who has forgotten the story of God in their midst.

But this passage from Isaiah 35 sounds hopeful —

  • v1 — The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and bloom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly;
  • v2 — the glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty Carmel and Sharon, they shall see the glory of the Lord and the majesty of our God.
  • v4 — Say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God.’
  • v5 — Then 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..

So, this doesn’t sound so bad. As a matter of fact, it sounds absolutely wonderful. Can you imagine the desert blooming like a crocus? Or desert sand becoming pools of water? Or blind seeing, deaf hearing, the speechless speaking, and the lame leaping like a deer? It was a wonderful vision of what God’s people could experience.

But, Isaiah 35 — this glorious vision of God in the midst of his people, of creation as God intended it — this chapter comes after Isaiah has some other things to say. And they aren’t pleasant or promising.

In Isaiah 13, Isaiah proclaims an oracle against Babylon, the nation that would eventually take Judah into captivity —

v19-20a — And Babylon, the glory of kingdoms, the splendor and pride of the Chaldeans, will be like Sodom and Gomorrah when God overthrew them. It will never be inhabited or lived in for generations.

  • In Isaiah 15, there is a oracle against Moab.
  • In Isaiah 17, an oracle against Damascus.
  • In Isaiah 18, an oracle against Ethiopia.
  • In Isaiah 19, an oracle against Egypt.
  • In Isaiah 21, more oracles against Babylon, Edom and Arabia.
  • In Isaiah 22, a warning of the destruction of Jerusalem.
  • In Isaiah 23, an oracle against Tyre.
  • In Isaiah 24, impending judgement on the whole earth.
  • In Isaiah 28, God’s judgment on corrupt rulers, priests, and prophets.
  • In Isaiah 29, the future seige of Jerusalem foretold.
  • In Isaiah 30, the futility of an alliance with Egypt and judgement on Assyria.
  • In Isaiah 34, judgment on all the nations, with these words…

    For the Lord is enraged against all the nations, and furious against all the hordes; he has doomed them, has given them over for slaughter. Isaiah 34:2

The Exile Comes

And, then comes Isaiah 35, this glorious vision of what creation and the nation of Judah will be like once all this is over. But, sadly, no one listens to Isaiah. And so less than a hundred years later, the Babylonians will overrun Jerusalem, sack the Temple of God, level it to the ground, and take captive thousands of Jews, leaving only the poorest in Jerusalem amid the rubble.

These defeated, captive people are herded like cattle 700-miles across the desert to live the rest of their lives in exile. Along the way, hundreds die. But worse than the death and long march into captivity is the humiliation. The shame. The loss of life as they knew it. The loss of who they were as the people of God.

Like the Cherokee nation of the southeastern United States, the nation of Judah was forcefully relocated along their own “trail of tears” into a land of exile. A land in which they were strangers and aliens. A land in which they mourned,

1 By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.

2 There on the poplars
we hung our harps,

3 for there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

4 How can we sing the songs of the LORD
while in a foreign land? — Psalm 137:1-4 NIV

Eugene Peterson says that when the Jews arrived in Babylon, the contrast between their failed religion and the conquering religion of the Babylonians was stark. Peterson says of the Jews —

“They had left behind a city in rubble, a temple in ruins…. They were now living in cities that made Jerusalem look like the country town it was. Wealth and temples now marked the skyline, far surpassing anything of Solomon’s that the Queen of Sheba had marveled at…Just what place was there in it for Yahweh, the erstwhile protector of a ravaged petty state whose ruined temple gaped to the sky on a mountain in Judah?”

Back to Pasadena

Remember our Japanese friends in Pasadena, California? Well, let’s check in on them, again. When Mark Branson and his family joined Pasadena Union Church, which had now become the First Presbyterian Church in Altadena, in the fall of 2000, he found a church that was not flourishing. The church had declined from a high attendance of 600 in the 1960s, to less than 100. Leaders were confused and frustrated. Young families had left the church because larger churches provided more programs for their children. Children of long-standing members were no longer active in the church, even though they still lived in the community. And the community itself was changing. No longer a predominantly Japanese community, other ethnic groups had moved in and this conservative, Japanese Presbyterian church with members who averaged 70-years old did not understand how to reach them, and weren’t sure they wanted to.

Mark began asking questions. Questions about the history of the church. Not the history of dates and buildings, but the history of the people now known as the First Presbyterian Church of Altadena. Mark learned several things, among them —

  • The story of how the California highway department condemned and took the church’s property in the early 1960s for a new highway. Because the church had become a gathering place for the entire Japanese-American community, non-members responded to the church’s need to find new property. Within 10-days they raised $220,000 — quite a sum in the early ’60s. With that money, they bought new property and moved to their present location in Altadena.
  • The story of how their parents, the original founders of the church, used to meet for prayer meetings that lasted hours. Now hardly anyone talked about their faith, even at church.
  • The story of the fall festival, started as a way to unite the community, but which in later years had languished and grown stale. “Not enough people to help,” was the reason given by members.

But in the asking of questions, and listening to the responses, something else was happening. Mark tells the story of how his teenage son would go with him to one of the elder’s homes to talk. This elder, named Jim, was dying of cancer. Mark said Jim would lie on the couch, and tell stories about the congregation in the years long past. Stories that would be lost if there was no one to hear them and pass them on. Stories of how immigrant Japanese who spoke no English, became a community of successful business owners, and contributors to the society that had welcomed them at the turn of the century in 1905.

One day, Jim asked Mark’s son, “Why do you come to hear an old, dying man?” To which, Mark’s son replied, “Because I like your stories.”

The Stories of God

And so in exile, in Babylon, the people began to tell the stories they liked, too. The old stories of God creating the world. The old stories of God calling Abraham. The old stories of God delivering his people from slavery in Egypt. And they reminded themselves of the words of the prophet Isaiah —

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 traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.35:9 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.

35:10 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.

A highway. A highway back to Zion. A highway back to Zion where they would go singing, joyful to be returning home. With joy, not ashes, upon their heads. With sorrow and sighing gone and forgotten. And so, after they mourn by saying,

1 By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.2 There on the poplars
we hung our harps,

3 for there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

4 How can we sing the songs of the LORD
while in a foreign land?

They go on to say —

5 If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
may my right hand forget its skill .

6 May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
if I do not remember you,
if I do not consider Jerusalem
my highest joy.

They remember their stories.

And that is why we have advent.

So we can tell again the story of the coming of the Christ, the saviour of the world. The Messiah, the hope of the people of God. For the stories of God’s creation are always coupled with the stories of God’s salvation. The stories of God’s judgment are always followed by the stories of God’s mercy. The stories of need and want are always answered by the stories of God’s provision.

We are today’s people of God and the stories we tell are not of long ago, but are of today. Of now. Of God present with us, Immanuel all over again. They are stories of God’s presence in the past, of God’s presence in the future, of God’s presence with us now.

There is a highway for God’s people, a way back to all that we have forgotten. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No man cometh unto the Father but by me.” Now some have a problem with that statement because they don’t believe that Jesus is the only way. Well, he is. He said so himself, and if we believe the other things Jesus said, we have to believe this, too. But, what does Isaiah say about this highway,

no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.

Now that’s the kind of highway I need. One that I can’t get lost on. One that takes me to my destination. One that brings me back to the promised land. A highway for God’s people.

The People of God Find a New Future 

And what happened to the Japanese-American members of the First Presbyterian Church, when they were taken away into the internment camps, forced to leave their homes and church behind?

The other churches in the community came together. They protected the homes and the church building that belonged to the Japanese-American Christians. They watched out for the material possessions of their brothers and sisters in Christ. And when the war was over, and the Japanese-americans returned home, they found their houses and their church building safe, preserved by friends and neighbors.

And what about the church today? Through a series of conversations, and remembering and retelling their stories, the church has regained it’s identity as a people of God. They even developed what social scientists call “provocative proposals” of the future they saw for the church. Not things they ‘hoped’ to do, or would ‘try’ to do, but their vision of what the future will look like. A new future, a future as the people of God once again. A future where they envision the desert blooming like a rose, the sand becoming pools of water, the blind seeing, the lame walking, the deaf hearing, and the speechless singing. A future that can only be brought about by God. But they, the people of God, participate with God in creating it.

So far they have reinstituted the fall festival with help from the community. They spread the word of their found hope, their new vision for the future. The buzz in the community has grown, as have the number of new families and children. They are on the holy highway, walking together with joy down the highway for the people of God.

What is our vision for the future? What do we see as the work of God in our church, in our community, in our world? Do we see the unlikely event of deserts that bloom, blind people that see, lame people that leap? Do we see God making all things new? And, most importantly, do we see ourselves as the people of God walking down our own holy highway, singing with joy on our heads? Because that is what Advent should do for us.

[ The story of the First Presbyterian Church in Altadena was compiled from Mark Lau Branson’s book, Memories, Hopes, and Conversations, published by The Alban Institute.  Details not found in the book were from my notes in the DMin seminar at Fuller Seminary where I heard Mark tell these stories. ]