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Getting a Handel on Christmas (5) - Opening the Eyes of the Blind

Series: Christmas Series: Getting a Handel on Christmas

Sermon by Derek Thomas on Dec 14, 2003

Isaiah 35:5-6

Isaiah 35:5-6; 40:11
Opening the Eyes of the Blind
Dr. Derek Thomas

Now last week we began a series of sermons based on the text, or in this case some of the texts, of George F. Handel's Messiah. And we've been concentrating primarily upon the Isaiahnic texts, the texts of the prophecy of Isaiah, and we heard a rendition so beautifully given to us this evening, from Isaiah 35 and also a section from the end of Isaiah 40 and also a little bit from Matthew's gospel. The text for us this evening is Isaiah chapter 35. Before we read it together, let's come before God and ask for the blessing of the Holy Spirit as we read it together. Let's pray.

Our God and our Father, we come into Your presence. We thank You for Your word that holy men of old wrote as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. We bless You that this is Your word, every jot and tittle of it; not one aspect of it can be broken. But we need Your help. We are blind by nature; we cannot see or understand Your word. We need the help of Your Spirit. So come, Holy Spirit, and as we read and study this passage this evening, write it upon our hearts for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

Isaiah 35, this is the word of God:

“The wilderness and the desert will be glad, and the Arabah” (Dr. Thomas’ insertion) –the New American Standard doesn't translate this Hebrew word. It's a word that really means ‘wilderness’– “will rejoice and blossom; like the crocus. It will blossom profusely and rejoice with rejoicing and shout of joy. The glory of Lebanon will be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They will see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God. Encourage the exhausted, and strengthen the feeble. Say to those with anxious heart, “Take courage, fear not. Behold, your God will come with vengeance; the recompense of God will come, but He will save you. Then the eyes of the blind will be opened, and the ears of the deaf will be unstopped. Then the lame will leap like a deer, and the tongue of the dumb will shout for joy. For waters will break forth in the wilderness and streams in the Arabah. And the scorched land will become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; in the haunt of jackals, its resting place, grass becomes reeds and rushes. And a highway will be there, a roadway, and it will be called the Highway of Holiness. The unclean will not travel on it, but it will be for him who walks that way, and fools will not wander on it. No lion will be there, nor will any vicious beast go up on it; these will not be found there. But the redeemed will walk there, And the ransomed of the Lord will return, and come with joyful shouting to Zion, with everlasting joy upon their heads. They will find gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing will flee away.”

Amen. May God bless to us the reading of His holy and inerrant word.

There's a hymn in our hymnbook, and I'm just going to quote a couple of lines of it. It's by the great hymnist William Cowper, and it's about what happens when we read the Scriptures. It's not a hymn, I think, we sing much here, though in my past I've sung it many times. “Sometimes a light surprises the Christians while he sings. It is the Lord who rises with healing in His wings. When comforts are declining, He grants the soul again a season of clear-shining to cheer it after rain, a season of clear-shining to cheer it after rain.” Cooper is describing something deeply personal. And many of us can relate to it. Something of what God sometimes does in our souls after periods of spiritual declension and lethargy and perhaps depression. God comes. He comes in a wonderful way; He comes in an indescribable way. And sometimes it's in the singing of a hymn, or sometimes it's in the reading of a verse of Scripture, and it's like that clear shining after rain, when the rain clouds have gone (and usually here they go east) and blue sky, and the sun in shining and they’re good days. Isaiah 35 is a little bit like that. It's like the sun shining after days and days of rain. Isaiah 35 comes like–let me change the metaphor–an oasis in the desert. Six woes, six oracles of judgment have occurred in the last 10 or so chapters. And now the light is shining. The sun is beaming down here in Isaiah 35. God has been speaking through Isaiah of the impending threat of an empire north and east, the empire of Assyria. He's going to describe in the next few chapters how the king of Assyria, Sennacherib, will march his army–hundreds of thousands of men, well-armed, fearful army–all the way down to Jerusalem. And if it hadn't been for a divine intervention, Jerusalem would have fallen. The Northern Kingdom has already fallen. Samaria or its capital city is already lost. Some are contemplating making an alliance with the empire of Egypt which is itself on a decline, but it will be to no avail. And in any case God warns against it. They must trust in the Lord. And in the middle of all that, in the middle of these oracles of judgment and woe, God has a word for His people.

I want to ask two simple questions: What did he see? What did Isaiah see? And secondly, what effect was it meant to produce? What did he see? What does he describe for us in this chapter? And he describes three things. He describes, first of all, a transformed people. Isaiah paints a picture of a massive people, redeemed people, transformed people, coming out of the wilderness and along the highway and they’re marching toward Zion, towards Jerusalem. It's a little bit like what we were thinking about this morning in Isaiah 40, except that there it is God Himself who is marching along with highway, but the vision is related. Because although in Isaiah 40 it is the glory of God, here it is the glory of God in what He has done in transforming the lives of His people. This highway is called “The Way of Holiness.” And that in itself is a remarkably interesting thing: that the name of this road…as many roads have names, this road has a name, “The Way of Holiness.” It's only the holy who can walk along this road. It's only those whom God has changed, whom God has renewed, whom God has transformed. Their eyes have been opened; their ears have been unstopped. Once they were lame but now they are skipping like a deer. Once their tongues were bound and now they are singing for joy.

I. What did Isaiah see?
I don't need to tell you what this is. This is a picture of what every Christian…every believer in this room this evening instinctively knows what this is a picture of. It's a picture of those who know God. It's a picture of those who have come into fellowship with Jesus Christ. Their hearts have been made new; their wills have been unfettered and unbound; their affections have been loosed to sing the praises of God. It's a picture of what the Holy Spirit does in the lives of God's people, in the lives of people like you and me. Do you remember the wonderful hymn of Charles Wesley? “O for a thousand tongues to sing my great Redeemer's praise, the glories of my God and King, the triumphs of His grace.” And do you remember that stanza: “Hear Him, ye deaf; your loosened tongues employ. Ye blind, behold the Savior come and leap, ye lame, for joy.” Wesley's taking words out of Isaiah 35; he's employing it. There's a metaphor for what happens when we become Christians, when we trust in the Lord Jesus Christ, when we come to know God and we know our sins to be forgiven.

I want to ask you, do you know anything about it tonight? I don't know why you’re here. Actually, I kind of didn't see you. You may have come because of this theme. “It's a wonderful theme,” you may have heard. Wanted to hear the rendition of this part of Messiah? I don't blame you. It's been a wonderful day to hear this gorgeous music. But you know there's a much more important question and Isaiah is putting it to you. Do you know anything about this? Do you know what it is to experience your eyes being opened, your ears being opened, your tongues being opened to sing the praises of God? Do you know what it means when Isaiah talks about the redeemed, the ransomed, the blood in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ, has paid the ransom price for our sins by His death, by His substitutionary sacrifice on our behalf?

There's more, though, isn't there? Do you ever wonder why Isaiah actually employs this language of the eyes being opened and the ears being unstopped and tongues being loosened to sing the praises of God? It's like asking the question, ‘Why did Jesus, when He came to this world, when He became incarnate–He healed people, restored the sight of the blind, enabled people who were deaf to hear, told people to pick up their bed and walk?’ Because it's a picture. Not simply because Jesus cares for our suffering, (of course He does!) but it's much more than that. It's a picture isn't it? It's a sign of what Jesus is going to do. He's going to do more than just save us. He's going to do more than just forgive us our sins. He's preparing us for a new heavens and a new earth, a new creation. Isn't that the language Paul uses in 2 Corinthians? “If any man be in Christ, he's a new creation. And all things are passed away and behold, all things have become new.” And the point is, God has done this. If you are a Christian this evening, it's not because of something that you have done; it's because God had done it in you. But we are a transformed people because this is what God has done.

Many of you know the story of Nigella Lawson. I've been reduced in recent months to watching the food channel. And I've discovered Nigella Lawson, the “how-to-be-a-domestic-goddess.” Some of you may be buying her cookery book for Christmas. Well, maybe what you don't know is that her husband, a man by the name of John Diamond, broadcaster and journalist in his own right, contracted cancer and died this past March. And he was very stoical in the way he responded to this cancer. It was a cancer of the esophagus and mouth, and he was unable to speak, and he would write notes, and you can read them. The very last thing he wrote to his wife was this: “How proud I am of you and what you have become. The great thing about us is that we have made us who we are.” You see, no Christian can write that. I've no idea of the state of this man's soul; that's not my point; but Christians don't talk like that. ‘Who makes you different from anyone else? What do you know have that you haven't received? And if you've received it, then why do you boast in it?’ James says. Isaiah is depicting here a picture of a transformed people because this is something God has done.

Secondly, he sees a transformed world–not just a transformed people, but a transformed world. There's a highway here, and only the redeemed are allowed to walk on this highway, and, oh, I'm reminded of a story. Billy Graham was in London and he was doing one of his campaigns, and he needed to use the facilities of a post office. And he asked a young boy for directions to the post office, and the boy told him how to get to the post office. And not wishing to miss an opportunity for witness and evangelism, Billy Graham said to the young boy, “I'd like you to come to a meeting this evening that I am speaking at, and I’ll show you the way to heaven.” And the boy says, “But you don't even know the way to the post office.” Christians are called in the book of Acts, in Acts chapter 9, they’re called, “the people of the way.” That's what we are. We’re on a journey. We’re traveling down a road, a highway. We’re marching towards Zion. We’re like Pilgrim in Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, going from the City of Destruction to the City of God and the New Jerusalem. Isaiah depicts this journey in the language of Exodus. It was a momentous event in the consciousness of the people of God. They would readily identify with that kind of language and then he uses different language. He talks about the desert blossoming like…well, in the King James I think it said “a rose,” but in more modern translations and the one that's in our pews it's “a crocus.” You don't see many crocuses here in Mississippi. They need to be like daffodils, teased into coming out. You have to put them in the refrigerator for a while and then plant them. But there are first blossoms, flowers to appear in springtime; and often at least in more northern climates, they’ll appear in the snow. They are a sign; they’re an indication that summer is coming. He talks about Carmel and Sharon, and it's all evocative of the language of a garden. Instead of burning sand, there's water. And in deserted places where the jackals roam, will grow vegetation and lush pastures.

Do you see the picture? God is doing something extraordinary, and He intends to do something even more extraordinary. He's just begun it. He's transformed people and He goes on transforming people, regenerating people, drawing them into the kingdom of God, into union and fellowship with Jesus Christ. But, it's only a beginning. And there's coming a day when that which was lost in the Garden of Eden is going to be restored. God is going to make a new heavens and new earth, and this is where this road is leading to. It's leading to that Eden restored. Paul talks about it, doesn't he, in Romans 8? He talks about the whole world, groaning and travailing in birth, waiting for the regeneration, waiting for the second coming of Jesus, waiting for the day in which “this world will be burned up,” in the language of Peter, “and a new heavens and a new earth will be made in righteousness.” He sees a transformed world. This is not the language of some king of evolutionary religion or philosophy: that ‘this road is getting better and better.’ No, this world is heading for destruction, but God is going to make a new heavens and a new earth. And it will be like a beautiful garden.

But he also sees, not only a transformed people and a transformed world, but a transformed vision. He says at the end of verse 2…and isn't it similar to what we were thinking about this morning in Isaiah 40? “They shall see the glory of the Lord and the majesty of our God.” Now isn't that, isn't that extraordinary? We were thinking about this this morning, and let's rehearse it a little because this is the prelude that Isaiah will depict again in the 40th chapter. “They shall see the glory of God.” Moses never saw this glory. Moses, who came down from the mountain and his face was shining, never quite saw this glory. He asked to see the glory of God, but he only saw God's back as it passed by. And Isaiah is saying, ‘There's a road, and on this road a transformed people, and it leads to a point where you will see the glory of God and the majesty of God and the greatness of God.’ What's Isaiah talking about? He's talking partly about the return of the exiles from Babylon to Jerusalem. You know when they came back to Jerusalem all they saw was rubble. All they saw were stones lying on the ground and burnt embers from the destruction of the Babylonians of the city of Jerusalem and the Temple. There was no glory there. Even when they rebuilt the temple, they said it didn't match the glory of Solomon's temple.

Now Isaiah is looking down the tunnel of history and he's seeing the coming of glory, the coming of Jesus, the birth of the Son of God in the stable in Bethlehem in Judea according to prophecy. And God was manifest in the flesh and John says, “We beheld His glory, the glories of the only begotten of the Father full, of grace and truth.” Isaiah is looking down the tunnel of history and he sees better days: he sees the outpouring of the Holy Spirit; he sees the dawning of the new covenant; he sees the beginning of the last days; and he sees glory coming.

You know, as I was saying this morning, from the perspective of the Old Testament the future all looks as though it's all on top of each other, so that the first and second comings of Jesus look as though they are almost synonymous. It's like looking at a range of mountains and from a distance they can appear as though they’re side by side, but actually when you go to them there's a great distance in between them. And Isaiah sees the first coming of Jesus and he sees the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, but he sees the second coming of Jesus. He sees that glorious day when Jesus will come upon the clouds of heavens with the angels and the archangels and the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will arise and they will be taken into the presence of God for the judgment, and the just will go one direction and the unjust in another direction, and the righteous, the redeemed, will see the glory of God and the majesty of God and the greatness of God shining in the face of Jesus Christ. That beatific vision of God in all of His splendor and majesty and greatness–it's as though Isaiah is looking down the pages of the Bible and he can see the book of Revelation, and he can see that vision of angels and archangels and cherubim and seraphim, and they’re singing the praises of God like a grand “Hallelujah Chorus.” That's what he sees.

II. What effect was all of this meant to produce?
But, secondly, what effect was all of this meant to produce? Did you notice, in verses 3 and 4, he describe initially a people who are frightened. Their hands are weak and their knees are feeble and their hearts and anxious and he says to them, ‘Be strong and don't be afraid and take courage.’ I've told you the story before of Sam Patterson, former president of Reformed Theological Seminary went to London and preached in London and everywhere on, they put in the early 70's when there was an economic sort of downturn and the government spent a lot of money advertising trying to whip up a sense of well-being trying to sort of do it pulling up their boot straps and there were these huge signs, so he thought, which said, ‘Take Courage’. Actually what Sam Patterson didn't know was that ‘Courage’ was a beer and this was the advertising industry of the beer market. He thought it was a wonderful to see in the streets of London these signs saying ‘Take Courage.’

They had every reason to be afraid, do you understand that? From an earthly point of view from a human point of view, Jerusalem was doomed. There was no future for them. Even at its height, the land of Palestine wasn't even the size of Mississippi. And now that Israel and the north is gone and only the two and a half tribes in the south remain, it was just the size of a county of Mississippi and no more. They had no might, they had no power, they had no infantry, they had no army, they had no weapons. And they were facing the onslaught of Assyrian invasion and in the future Babylonian invasion and after that Persian invasion. They had every reason to be afraid.

I suppose it's a bit like the days immediately after, you know the week after 9/11. We've been thinking about that today haven't we and the wonderful blessing and answer to prayer in the capture of Saddam Hussein. But there was a moment, wasn't there, immediately after 9/11 and I recall the morning, I was preparing a sermon to preach in the chapel at the seminary and actually never preached it. We had a time of prayer instead and as the news was sort of filtering in and as CNN was doing its best or worst there were moments of anxiety. You didn't know whether it was going to end. You didn't know what was coming. You didn't know what the future was going to be like. Some of you felt like that at Y2K. They had every reason to be afraid and God is saying to them and Isaiah is God's mouthpiece and prophet and He's saying to them, “Don't be afraid.”

I came across this, well it's a somewhat sweet letter. It was written on September 7th of last year by a Christian called Mary Offer and she was writing to her minister concerning the hymns that she wanted to be sung at her funeral, like one of mine has to be ‘How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds In a Believers Ear’. This is what she wrote:

As you were speaking my mind was carried back to a time in my very early life which I have caused never to forget. It was my first real contact with God. I was only about 4 years old. One afternoon I was playing alone on the stairs of our old home. My dear father so often talked to me about Jesus but it never meant a great deal to me until this time. Mother was working in the basement and Father had driven off to Clayton in the pony and trap on business. I played about and presently I noticed a big key in the door of my parent's bedroom. I had once seen my mother turn the key; it went over with a big ‘clack’. Why couldn't I do it too? I tried and in so doing I pushed the door shut, twisting hard with both hands, at last, I turned it over. After a few moments I realized, I didn't know how to open the door. I had no idea how. I had shut myself in; I was locked in the room alone. I knew my mother couldn't hear me and father was gone for the afternoon and I was alone. Anyone with a child knows the awful sense of panic a little girl feels. The desolation was awful. I screamed. I hammered on the door but all was of no use. Then a small voice said in my mind, ‘Daddy said, if ever you are in trouble, my dear, always pray to Jesus, He will help you.’ Quick a thought, my frightened little mind said, ‘How do I do it?’ I remember that my father always knelt down by the bed when he prayed to Jesus and in panic I ran around the room and knelt down and buried my hot face in bed clothes just as I'd seen him do. Then I heard a familiar ‘clip-clop’ coming down the road. I was sure it was my father's pony. Yes, sure enough it was. He’d forgotten something and had come back to fetch it, I jumped to my feet and ran to the window, the lower sash was up about three inches and by tip-toeing I could see it and put my little hands through it and attract attention. And as he fastened the pony to the tree outside I cried out and he heard me, “Daddy I'm shut in.” I looked up and he looked up and said, “All right, I'm coming.” And in a moment he was through the door and up the stairs and outside the door, “Don't be afraid dear, I'm here. I will hold the handle, take hold of the key with both hands and turn it towards the bed.” With renewed confidence I did. Slowly the big key turned over, the door opened, and I was in his arms. Over the years, I found such wonderful confidence in that simple episode. It seemed to establish in my mind, there is a God who hears and answers me.

Well, it's a sentimental story, I know, but that's what Isaiah is saying to these people. ‘Don't be afraid, trust in God. Lean upon Him, not upon your own understanding, but lean upon Him.’ What else does he teach us? To trust in the ability of God to save. Look at what he says at the end of verse 4, “He will come and save you.” He comes in judgment, judgment against His enemies, vengeance even, but He will save you. If you’re trusting in Jesus, He will save you. He will rescue you. All it takes is faith in Jesus. That's all it takes.

You know Harry Ironsides of the Moody Church in Chicago was once witnessing to a man and this man kept introducing works into his understanding of salvation and Moody said to him, Ironsides said to him, “Your religion has too few letters.” He said, “What do you mean?” He says. “Well,” Ironsides said yours has only had two letters, “D-O, do. And mine has four, D-O-N-E, done. Jesus paid it all.” And what Isaiah is saying here from the vantage point of the Old Testament and shrouded by clouds as it all is, he's saying, “Trust in the Lord because He will save you. He will save you.”

You may be passing through the time of great trial in your life. Disease has come into your family and struck you, brought you low. You’re at your wits end. Your hands are hanging down and your knees are feeble. You know exactly what Isaiah is talking about here. And do you hear the simple words of the prophet to you, tonight? Have we trials and temptations, is there trouble anywhere, we should never be discouraged, take it to the Lord in prayer. He will save you.

But there's a third thing, a final thing. On two occasions in this great chapter, he talks about the redeemed of the Lord and the coming down this highway and the glory of the Lord is coming to meet them. And do you notice what they’re doing? He mentions it in verse 2 but he mentions it again in verse 10. They’re singing. I want you to see that, I want you to look at that. They’re singing. “The ransomed of the Lord shall return and come to Zion with singing and they shall obtain gladness and joy and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”

This isn't some prophecy about Christians going off to Jerusalem at the end of the age. It's far more glorious than that. It's about the sense of overwhelming joy of knowing that God has kept His promises. The joy of being found in the New Heavens and New Earth in which righteousness dwells. For many of you the joy of being reunited with loved ones that you've said ‘good-bye’ to for a while. For some of you it's the joy of being free from arthritis and disease and aches and pains. What is it the Psalmist says, ‘He's put a new song in my mouth even praise unto the Lord.’ I have this notion, you know, that all of us will be able to sing like Mrs. Wilson, down here. In heaven that is. Maybe not quite at that range. Wouldn't that be wonderful, to mingle your voices with angels and archangels? Do you ever wonder what an angel actually sounds like when they sing the praises of God? It must be something multiplying Handel's Messiah by a thousand or ten thousand or a million. Joy. This is the only place where true joy can be found, in the gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. You may try all of the fleeting pleasures of this world but solid joys and lasting treasures, none but Zion's children know. And it all comes into focus by the coming of Jesus in that stable in Bethlehem just the foretaste of the glory of God and the majesty of God that will one day be revealed in all of its splendor. Let's pray together.

Our Father in Heaven, we thank You for these moments we've spent today in this prophecy of Isaiah. Thank You for these great texts. Thank You for the way in which Handel has made them so very meaningful to us in a musical way. We pray that we might hide these truths, within our hearts that we might not sin against You and bless us Lord we pray for Jesus’ sake, amen.

Please stand and receive the Lord's benediction. Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.

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