Fellow Passengers: This week’s Prophetic Passage* (Isaiah 35) transports me to a desert land where nature stands on its head and sings for joy. The backdrop of the prophet’s poem is a vivid description of what it feels like to be exiled from hope, from home, from wholeness in mind, body, and spirit. Any individual or family or faith community that has wandered and wondered through woeful wildernesses, anyone who has felt the absence of God more than the presence of God, can relate to the prophet’s imagery. He portrays exiles walking painfully through burning sand; hands grow feeble and knees give way. Eyes slowly close and ears stop up. Hearts grow fearful. Jackals and lions haunt the sleep, but screams are stifled in parched throats. It is a captivity that they cannot free themselves from. Release would take a mighty milagro, a miracle.
It is to this situation that Isaiah proclaims some powerful good news of God’s impending arrival. The prophet paints road signs for the weary people traveling the highway, the Holy Way. Up ahead – Watch for the lame leaping over gushing water like deer. Next exit – See the desert blooming in technicolor. Just around the bend – Burning noonday sand becomes midnight at the oasis. It’s homecoming. It’s freedom. It’s a Way out of the darkness. No more nightmares. Stifled screams are transformed into sacred shouts of gladness as sorrow and sighing flee the scene. It is joy to the world; heaven and nature sing. And at least for one biblical scholar, Walter Harrelson, it truly is a passage of joy to the world, and not just to the faithful of Israel’s covenant community. He makes a good argument that the Hebrew of verse 8 should be translated: A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not pass it by, but it shall be for them; no traveller, not even fools, shall go astray. Even the outsiders won’t miss it; the road is there for everyone and the signs are there for everyone to see.
For people in and out of faith communities, for the “clean” and “unclean” alike, life tends to cycle through experiences of exile and homecoming, captivity and release. The prophet reaches beyond the boundaries of organized religion to offer a poem that nourishes the soul at each stage of the cycle. The images serve as a container to hold the universal human experiences of exile and homecoming, darkness and light. The good news is that we are not the ones who have to free ourselves – the gospel story echoes Isaiah, revealing Jesus to be quite familiar with the wilderness, understanding that God comes to us there, ready to strengthen our hands and knees, ready to bring courage to our hearts, ready to open our eyes and ears. So in the midst of our desert wandering, with eyes and ears of faith we can pause and hear Jack in the Pulpit preaching liberation. And we can march along the Way Out carrying joy on our heads like African women carrying baskets of food. As a follower of Jesus, I see him leading the Way, making water gush out of burning sand, and causing the desert to bloom and sing. Ever wonder what song the desert might break into? Here’s a line from what came to my mind – Shadows paintin’ our faces, traces of romance in our heads, heaven’s holdin’ a half-moon, shinin’ just for us. . . (anyone get the reference? Hint #1: Send your camel to bed. Hint#2: The song title is in in this post.)
*Daily Passages are the weekday reflections of Stan Dotson, connecting culture to biblical texts. Each week takes its guiding theme for the daily posts from the gospel reading on Monday, the “Primary Passage.” This week’s theme is “Seeing the Signs.” As always, your feedback and comments are welcome. Feel free to share where the passages take you in your journey of faith.