Coming Home to a New Place
Scriptures: Isaiah 35:1-10; Matthew 11:1-6
Near the end of my daughter’s first quarter at Seattle Pacific University, we received a letter from student services warning us that our children might be different when they came home for Christmas break. The letter explained that our children had been away from home and on their own for three months. They had made new friends, experienced new things, and discovered a whole new world of ideas. Because of this, the letter said, we should not expect our relationship to them to be the same as it was before.
After that, when my daughter got home for Christmas break, I kept looking at her, watching to see if there was some dramatic change. But she seemed pretty much the same. After two days her room was just as messy as it was in high school.
And then I remembered coming home after my first semester of college at Whitworth. I had been away from home on my own for four months, making new friends, managing my own schedule and finances, even doing my own laundry. I thought I was so grown up. But the minute I walked in the door I reverted to old patterns of behavior. My parents started arguing about something, and I retreated to my room, closed the door, and started reading a book. It was just like I was back in high school.
Sometimes what makes us nervous about going home is not the fear that things will have changed, but the fear that nothing will have changed. It is the fear that we will go back and fall into the same behaviors and the same pattern of relationships that we had before.
Believe it or not, this is relevant to Isaiah 35. As I have mentioned before, in the time of Isaiah the land of Israel and Judah was devastated by foreign armies. In 587 BC the Babylonian army marched in Judah, broke down the walls of Jerusalem, set fire to the city and its surrounding fields, and took most of the healthy and educated people as slaves to Babylon. The land that they left behind became a wilderness of devastation and drought, and the people they left behind were generally the sick, the blind, the lame, and the helpless.
With that in mind turn back to Isaiah 35, verse 10: “And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion (Jerusalem) with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”
This verse dreams of a time when the people of Israel who have been taken into exile in Babylon can return to their homes and their land. But when they do, what will they find? Will their land still be a drought-stricken waste? Will the people in the land be the same sick, lame, blind, helpless people that were left behind? Will they be easy prey for every marauding tribe of bandits that comes along to steal what they produce? If they go home again, will anything be different?
Isaiah 35 answers that question. Verse 1: “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly.” Their land will become fertile again. But not only will the land be transformed, so will the people. Verses 5-6: “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.”
These last two verses have a spiritual meaning as well as a physical meaning. Earlier in the book Isaiah describes the people of Israel as blind and deaf, meaning they are blind to God’s presence and deaf to God’s word. But here is the good news: it is not just the land that will be healed but the people. The people who have been blind to God will see, the people who have been deaf to God’s word will hear, and that will make their home a different place than it was before.
It did not happen right away. When the Jewish people were finally allowed to return to their homes in 538 B. C., their homes were still in ruins and their fields were still desolate. Nothing had changed. The situation remained that way for about six centuries. Times were better or worse, but for much of the next six hundred years the people of Israel continued to live under foreign rulers in a land periodically ravaged by drought and suffering. For six hundred years they waited for the promises of Isaiah to be fulfilled.
Then someone came along who finally began doing the things Isaiah envisioned. We heard about it in our first scripture from Matthew 11. John the Baptist is in prison. In a way he is like the people of Israel in exile. He is wondering if he will ever get to go home again, and if he does he wonders if anything will be different. So he sends a couple of his disciples asking Jesus a question. Verse 3: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Are you, Jesus, the one who will finally fulfill the promises of Isaiah, or should we wait for someone else? In verses 4-5 Jesus replies, “Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”
Jesus is quoting here from Isaiah 35: “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.” During his earthly ministry Jesus literally gave sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, legs to the lame, and food to people in the desert. But these great works were not important only in themselves, they were signs of something greater. When Jesus opened the eyes of the blind, he opened all of our eyes, helping us see how God is at work in the world. When Jesus opened the ears of the deaf, he made it possible for all of us to hear God’s word in a way we had not heard it before. And when he made the lame to walk, he empowered all of us to serve God in ways that we did not realize we could do. Jesus accomplished the miracles Isaiah 35 both literally and metaphorically. He brought us home to a new place, a place where not just sight is restored but so are relationships, a place where not just the wilderness rejoices and blossoms, but so do people.
I once read a story about a man at the Union Gospel Mission named Joe. When he came to the mission he was heavily addicted to alcohol, cocaine, and methamphetamine. His addiction had cost him his marriage, his children, his job, and his apartment, and at that point he found himself out on the street. In a sense he was like the people of Israel in exile.
But then Joe came to the Union Gospel mission and entered their Life Regeneration Program which includes Bible study, prayer, job training, and group support. God worked through that program to turn his life around, giving him sobriety and a new purpose for living. After 18 months he thought about going home, at least going back to see his oldest daughter and her children whom he had not seen for six years. Nervously he called her up. Here is how he tells the story:
I said hello, and she said, “Dad?” Then we talked for 45 minutes. I was nervous about asking her if I could come visit this Christmas, but she said yes. … [He continues] This Christmas I’ll be getting to know my grandkids again. They’ll have a lot of questions for me, like, “Where have you been?” That will be hard to answer, but I want to be part of their lives as they grow up. I’m nervous but happy when I think about seeing my family again. … [He concludes] What I learned at the Mission gave me a chance to dream again. I learned that you can’t change the past. I also learned to turn my problems over to God through prayer. He answered one for me I thought would never happen: restoring my relationship to my daughter.
The good news of Isaiah 35 is that you can go home again, and with God’s help it can be a different place. But the key to that is not expecting other people to be different but for yourself to be different. To go home to a new place means we have to be different people, responding to situations in a different way than we have in the past. In some cases it may mean confronting things that have not been confronted before. In other cases it may mean forgiving things that have not been forgiven before or accepting people that you have not previously been willing to accept. It may not be easy, but Isaiah 35 says that you can go home again to a different place: a place where people who are blind to God can see, where people deaf to God can hear, where feeble hands are made firm and fearful hearts given courage, a place where the wasteland of old destructive relationships can blossom with new life.