Worth the Wait: Advent Scripture Readings and Devotion for December 13

            As we proceed in our preparation for Christmas, our Advent readings for today speak of a highway, a ‚Äúway of holiness.‚Äù What a beautiful description of the path to be followed on our journey of faith. This passageway begins in the desert of decay and death, proceeds into lush pastures, and eventually, to Zion and the Promised Land. As we study these passages, be open to revelations about the restoration of Israel, the restoration of a paralyzed man, and our restoration!
 
Isaiah 35:1-10

 
            The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom. Like the crocus, it will burst into bloom; it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy. The glory of Lebanon will be given to it, the splendor of Carmel and Sharon; they will see the glory of the Lord, the splendor of our God. Strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way; say to those with fearful hearts, ‚ÄúBe strong, do not fear; your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you.‚Äù Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy. Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert. The burning sand will become a pool, the thirsty ground bubbling springs. In the haunts where jackals once lay, grass and reeds and papyrus will grow. And a highway will be there; it will be called the Way of Holiness; it will be for those who walk on that Way. The unclean will not journey on it; wicked fools will not go about on it. No lion will be there, nor any ravenous beast; they will not be found there. But only the redeemed will walk there, 10 and those the Lord has rescued will return. They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads. Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away.

            Let‚Äôs begin by pealing back the layers of Isaiah 35. Judah had strayed from God. They claimed the privilege of being God‚Äôs people, but lived as if God did not exist. They offered empty rituals instead of heartfelt worship. What was once a delight had become a duty. What‚Äôs more, they plotted with foreign nations, and lived as an unfaithful spouse. So, God‚Äôs judgment had fallen and in 586 BC they were exiled to Babylon. But, God‚Äôs punishment is not just punitive, it is restorative. Isaiah 35 is a beautiful example of God‚Äôs desire to bring restoration and redemption.

 
            In verses 1 and 2, the image is of life coming from death. The desert, parched land and wilderness will alternatively be glad, rejoice greatly and blossom, like the crocus. What had been dry and lifeless will be transformed into new life. God would restore His people. Even the land between Babylon and Judah, the path that they must walk to return to their home, was reborn into a verdant and hospitable garden much like the fabled forests of Lebanon, and the flourishing vegetation of Carmel and Sharon. New life was coming, but to experience this new life and restoration to its fullest, a journey had to be taken.

            Verses 3 and 4 mark a change of tone. Many of the remnant of Judah are fearful and frail. They are reluctant to take the journey back to Zion. Encouragement is needed to strengthen the weak hands and steady the wobbly knees. Isaiah offers them the good news. ‚ÄúSay to those with fearful hearts, be strong, do not fear; your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you‚Äù (vs. 4). Adding to this convincing message, in verses 5 and 6, is the fact that the weakest will be the most blessed. The blind will see, the deaf will hear, the lame will leap like a deer and the mute will sing for joy!  This transformation will be so great that streams will gush in the barren desert, pools will form, and the thirsty ground will give way to bubbling springs. Where grass once grew, tall reeds will be their replacement. God was bringing dramatic transformation, restoration and new life!

 
            God will call His people on a journey, much like the Exodus. They will travel on a highway, called the way of holiness. It is to be utilized only by those on the ‚ÄúWay.‚Äù The unrighteous and the predator will not be found on the way of holiness. Only the ones the Lord has ‚Äúredeemed‚Äùand ‚Äúrescued‚Äùwill walk there. This is the language of the Exodus, when God ‚Äúredeemed‚Äù His people from the bondage of Egypt and Pharaoh. At the end of their journey, just like the Exodus, ‚ÄúThey will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads. Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away.(vs. 10).

            Surely, Isaiah spoke of the restoration of Judah which transpired beginning in 539 BC. But, it is unmistakable that he was also writing about the coming of Jesus to restore mankind and to offer new life. The remnant of Judah was called to take a journey back to Zion. Jesus calls us to a journey that will lead to the Heavenly Zion (Hebrews 12:22). Will the path lead us through verdant and fruitful lands. John 10:10 quotes Jesus as saying, ‚ÄúI have come that they may have life, and have it to the full (or more abundantly).‚Äù For the weak and fearful ones of Judah to go on the journey, they will need to be strengthened by hearing the good news that God has come to save them? In the New Testament, lost people need to hear the good news that Jesus has come to save them! Paul wrote that, ‚Äú‚Ķfaith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ‚Äù (Romans 10:17). When Isaiah speaks of miracles taking place, like the lame man leaping as a deer, as we will see in our Gospel reading, it is Jesus who fulfills this prophecy! Isaiah tells the people that there is a highway, the Way of holiness.  Jesus said, ‚ÄúI am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me‚Äù (John 14:6). Only those in Christ will be on the Way of holiness! Isaiah said that there would be no unrighteous or ravenous beast on this path. In other words, there will be no threat to kill or rob us of our faith. Jesus said in John 10:27-29, ‚ÄúMy sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father‚Äôs hand.‚Äù Isaiah speaks of rivers and pools in the desert. Jesus came to give us ‚Äúliving water‚Äù (John 4:10, 7:38, Revelation 7:17). Isaiah spoke of the people arriving in Zion with singing and rejoicing. The parallel with Revelation 4 and 21 is striking. In chapter 4, the 24 elders surround the throne, wearing crowns and singing to the Lord. In chapter 21 we read that God will wipe every tear from our eyes, and there will be no more death, mourning or pain. Our destiny is not an earthly Zion, but the Heavenly Zion and the Temple of God where we will join that throng of worshipers around the throne for all of eternity! Now that is cause for rejoicing!

 
Psalm 85:4, 9-13

            Restore us again, God our Savior, and put away your displeasure toward us. Surely his salvation is near those who fear him, that his glory may dwell in our land. 10 Love and faithfulness meet together; righteousness and peace kiss each other. 11 Faithfulness springs forth from the earth, and righteousness looks down from heaven. 12 The Lord will indeed give what is good, and our land will yield its harvest. 13 Righteousness goes before him and prepares the way for his steps.

 
            In our Psalm passage, the author cries out for restoration! God‚Äôs displeasure leads to righteous judgment, such as was experienced when Judah was sent into exile. The psalmist cries out for mercy and grace. What was needed was a return to the fear of the Lord. With a proper disposition toward God, salvation and restoration was very near. Salvation would mean restoration to the land      God had promised and through this reconstitution, God would be glorified. Love, faithfulness and righteousness are all intricately linked in God‚Äôs economy. It is as if they kiss together. When these holy characteristics are present, God will send forth His blessing and the land will become fruitful, yielding a great harvest. But, righteousness must be established ‚Äì it must go before Him and prepare the way for His actions. Consider for a moment that Jesus is our righteousness (1 Corinthians 1:30). Before Jesus came, John was the forerunner who preached repentance to the people (Luke 3:3). Why did he preach about repentance? Psalm 85:13 states, ‚ÄúRighteousness goes before him and prepares the way for his steps.‚Äù If we desire the Lord to bless us and to be close to us, we need to repent and live ‚Äúrighteously‚Äù before Him. Restoration follows repentance!

Luke 5:17-26

            One day Jesus was teaching, and Pharisees and teachers of the law were sitting there. They had come from every village of Galilee and from Judea and Jerusalem. And the power of the Lord was with Jesus to heal the sick. 18 Some men came carrying a paralyzed man on a mat and tried to take him into the house to lay him before Jesus. 19 When they could not find a way to do this because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and lowered him on his mat through the tiles into the middle of the crowd, right in front of Jesus. 20 When Jesus saw their faith, he said, ‚ÄúFriend, your sins are forgiven.‚Äù 21 The Pharisees and the teachers of the law began thinking to themselves, ‚ÄúWho is this fellow who speaks blasphemy? Who can forgive sins but God alone?‚Äù 22 Jesus knew what they were thinking and asked, ‚ÄúWhy are you thinking these things in your hearts? 23 Which is easier: to say, ‚ÄòYour sins are forgiven,‚Äô or to say, ‚ÄòGet up and walk‚Äô? 24 But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.‚Äù So he said to the paralyzed man, ‚ÄúI tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.‚Äù 25 Immediately he stood up in front of them, took what he had been lying on and went home praising God. 26 Everyone was amazed and gave praise to God. They were filled with awe and said, ‚ÄúWe have seen remarkable things today.‚Äù

 
            Our reading from Luke demonstrates in a dramatic way the need for the New Covenant. There were two groups of people who confronted Jesus that day. First, there were religious leaders who had come to hear Jesus. They had traveled from a variety of places, including every village in Galilee, from Judea and Jerusalem. This indicates that there might have been a fairly large group. Why had they come? These religious elitists were not there to learn from Jesus. They wanted to trap Jesus in some heretical statement. Matthew 22:15 records the reason for following Jesus. It says, ‚ÄúThen the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words.‚ÄùTheir goal was to destroy Jesus before he ever developed a following and usurped their power and authority. These men represented the Old Covenant system that had degenerated into an unmanageable system of 613 laws.

            The second group of folks who confronted the Lord were simple men who had great concern for their paralyzed friend, and great faith in the Lord Jesus. In reality, they embodied the two greatest commandments as articulated by Jesus. That is to, ‚Äú‚ÄòLove the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.‚Äô‚Äù And, ‚ÄúLove your neighbor as yourself.‚Äù These guys understood that and put it into practice. Apparently the crowd was so large that they could not get to Jesus in a conventional way. They wanted Jesus to heal their physically challenged friend. But, rather than give up, they climbed up, raised up their friend and then lowered him through a hole to where Jesus was. What happened next is epic!

            Jesus was moved by their faith and said, ‚ÄúFriend, your sins are forgiven.‚Äù That was not exactly what these men were asking for, but you notice that they did not complain. Who was it that complained ‚Äì accusing Jesus of blasphemy? It was those Frigid Pharisees and teachers of the Law. They were incensed (no pun intended) that Jesus claimed to have the authority to forgive sins. If Jesus had just healed the man, that would not be a problem. But to forgive his sins, that is going too far. How dare He say such a thing! Jesus knew the wickedness in their hearts and responded, ‚ÄúWhich is easier, for me to say, ‚ÄòYour sins are forgiven,‚Äô or ‚Äòtake up your pallet and walk?‚Äô‚Äù After confounding the religious leaders, Jesus told the man to get up and walk, and he did.

            Jesus demonstrated three powerful points in this narrative. First, Jesus has the power to forgive sins because He is God. Second, we must remember that ‚Äúrighteousness goes before Him and prepares the way for His steps.‚Äù Before Jesus healed the man physically, He healed the man spiritually. By forgiving his sins, Jesus was establishing him in righteousness. Then his next step could be taken. He told him to get up and walk. Finally, by healing this lame man, and many others, Jesus was fulfilling Isaiah 35. ‚ÄúThe blind will see, the deaf will hear, the lame will leap like a deer, and the dumb will sing for joy.‚Äù As the Promised Messiah, it is Jesus who brings true forgiveness and restoration!

            The lesson for us is this ‚Äì if we want to be restored, we must walk the ‚Äúway of holiness.‚Äù As we move ever closer to Christmas, may we resonate with the faithful friends who came in great faith to Jesus and laid their friend and his needs before the Lord. Jesus met the greatest need of the paralytic man first ‚Äì to forgive His sin. Perhaps we should spend some time considering what we might want Jesus to forgive. Then, we need to confess our sins to Him. 1 John 1:9 says, ‚ÄúIf we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.‚Äù Only when we are forgiven can we be restored. And restoration means getting back on the journey ‚Äì back on the Way ‚Äì the Way of holiness.

Have a most meaningful thirteenth day of Advent.

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