Two Roads Diverged in Barren Land

Scripture Focus: Isaiah 35:8a
8 And a highway will be there;
    it will be called the Way of Holiness;
    it will be for those who walk on that Way.

Reflection: Two Roads Diverged in Barren Land
By Erin Newton

At the end of Isaiah’s long prophecy of judgment, the message shifts. A vision of the future—a vision of all things made right.

Isaiah describes God’s people like a caravan along a road in the wasteland. Distraught and downtrodden, a new path is cut through the desert.

      One path is silent, cold, and stark.
            The Way is filled with praise and joy.

      One path is a road winding down into a desolate land.
            The Way cuts through the wasteland leaving signs of life along the way.

      One path is burdensome and hard, a place where strength and hearts fail.
            The Way whispers, “Peace, be still. He is coming to save.”

      One path is often difficult; strength and ability are stolen away.
            The Way makes one whole; it heals the body and soul.

      One path is deadly; there is nothing to sustain life.
            The Way turns death into life; it has everything needed to thrive.

      One path is traveled by wicked and dangerous people.
            The Way is filled with redeemed travelers singing songs of praise.

      One path is marked by hopeless sorrow and afflicted groans.
            The Way bestows burgeoning gladness and eternal joy.

Like the poem by Robert Frost, two roads diverge. To continue on our usual path would mean continuing in a fruitless journey, exiled from God. But how exactly do we step onto the path that leads to life?

When Jesus warns his disciples that he must leave soon to return to the Father, Thomas asks for a roadmap to heaven (John 14). “How will we know the way?” Jesus simply replied, “I am the Way.” The path to life is through Jesus himself.

Even though Isaiah described a marvelous future promised to God’s people, we struggle to see this kind of utopian future now. The flowers are not bursting forth in song. The blind and lame and deaf are without healing. Ravenous beasts meet us on the road to harm us.

The Way of Holiness is a via dolorosa, a difficult path. Our Lord walked this path to redeem us from death. Let us take up our crosses to follow the Way.  It is not without hope.

We take the first steps of this new road paved by the blood of Jesus. The world around us still shows signs of desolation and despair but the word in the air says, “Peace, he is coming.” The Way is good.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Small Verse
The Lord is my shepherd and nothing is wanting to me. In green pastures he has settled me. — The Short Breviary

Today’s Readings
Isaiah 35 (Listen -1:43)
Luke 17 (Listen -4:22)

Read more about The Path of the Cross
A Christ who brings earthly victory enjoys near universal welcome…Everyone rejected this suffering Christ. Even the closest of his disciples.

Read more about No Such Thing as God Forsaken
It may be a long road and a long exile between condemnation and redemption.

Healthy Patriotism

Scripture Focus: Isaiah 34.1-2
1 Come near, you nations, and listen;
pay attention, you peoples!
Let the earth hear, and all that is in it,
the world, and all that comes out of it!
2 The Lord is angry with all nations;
his wrath is on all their armies.
He will totally destroy them,
he will give them over to slaughter. 

Mark 14.27, 29
27 “You will all fall away,” Jesus told them…
29 Peter declared, “Even if all fall away, I will not.”
Reflection: Healthy Patriotism
By John Tillman

It is all nations, not some, that the Lord is angry with in Isaiah’s prophecy.

Why is God even mad at these nations? They didn’t have the commandments, the covenant, the Temple… What does God expect of them? And what does God expect of us?

Israel did enjoy a special relationship with God, with special privileges and responsibilities. However, God desires, even demands, all nations to worship him, not just Israel. (Acts 17.26-31) Israel was to be like a priest before the congregants—a guide and model. God is angry with all nations because all nations, even Israel and Judah, became rebels and traitors.

Especially around times of patriotic celebration, it can be difficult for us to read about God being angry with “all nations.” We feel or say, “Surely not us, Lord!” We must sound to God a bit like the disciples when Jesus said they would fall away. “Not me, Lord!” 

The gospel writers, Mark and Matthew, show two moments in which Jesus confronted them with predictions of betrayal. (Mark 14.18-21, 27-31; Matthew 26.20-25, 31-35) One is direct betrayal to the authorities. All of them say, “Surely not me, Lord,” and only one of them, Judas, is guilty. The other is a more collective, or group betrayal, “You will all fall away.” Peter is the loudest objector but all the disciples deny the prediction. And all of the disciples, including Mark and Matthew were guilty. Mark, most commenters agree, is the young man who not only fled, but fled naked when he was grasped by his clothing. (Mark 14.52)

It is a grave theological error to mistake our own nation, wherever we live, for “God’s nation.” No modern nation is the spiritual inheritor of Israel and even if it were, that nation could and would fall. The Bible tells us that Israel became as evil as Egypt, Assyria, or Babylon. History tells us that believing one’s nation is “God’s nation” consistently leads, time and time again, to political atrocities in the name of God.

There is nothing sinful about patriotically celebrating what is good. There is, however, spiritual danger in denying national sins and glorifying national leaders. Eventually we’ll be asked to bow to their statues or demands. Directly or indirectly, we can betray Christ for patriotism.

Rarely are nations totally evil or good. Most are a mixture. Healthy patriotism, like healthy Christianity, celebrates good while lamenting and resisting evil.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Refrain for the Morning Lessons
“Because the needy are oppressed, and the poor cry out in misery, I will rise up,” says the Lord, “And give them the help they long for.” — Psalm 12.5

Today’s Readings

Isaiah 34 (Listen -2:59)
Luke 16 (Listen -4:27)

Read more about Celebrating Earthly Kingdoms|
Celebrating the country in which one lives is not un-biblical but it can be a dangerous, idolatrous trap.

Read more about Jeremiah, the Unpatriotic Prophet
Jeremiah’s refusal to embrace a politically expedient alliance with Egypt, gained him the hatred of ‘patriotic’ Israelites.

Prophets in Our Path

Scripture Focus: Isaiah 30.10-11
10 They say to the seers,
“See no more visions!”
and to the prophets,
“Give us no more visions of what is right!
Tell us pleasant things,
prophesy illusions.
11 Leave this way,
get off this path,
and stop confronting us
with the Holy One of Israel!”

Reflection: Prophets in Our Path
By John Tillman

Isaiah describes a caravan in the Negev desert. They carry valuables and gifts of honor through dangerous territory, filled with lions and snakes. They are envoys from Judah sent down to Egypt to seek protection. 

It is an interesting reversal. Israel left Egypt, carrying away Egyptian gold and treasures as they were liberated from slavery. Now, here they are, crawling back through the desert to seek audience with their former abusers.

Why are they returning treasure and pledging fealty to their former captors? Why are they begging for “the shade” of Egypt when God promised they would sit under their own vine and fig tree? Why are they becoming like the grumbling Israelites in the desert who said, “Wouldn’t it be better to go back to Egypt?” (Numbers 14.3-4)

Then, like Balaam on the way to curse Israel, these envoys are confronted and warned. A prophet stands in their path with a message from God. But they brush off the warning and tell the prophet to get out of their way and stop confronting them.

These envoys wanted sweet verses from prophets. But prophecy is often ugly. They longed to hear comforting promises. But prophecy is often disturbing. They sought convenient confirmations of what they already believed. But prophecy often holds inconvenient truths.

How like these envoys are we? How easily do we seek bargains from worldly powers and shelter from our enslavers? How often do we seek prophets to confirm our decisions rather than confront us with truth? 

Let us repent:
When an inconvenient prophecy stops us in our tracks…
When an ugly truth comes to light…
When we are caught holding a check written to evil forces of this world, asking their protection… 

Don’t push past prophets in your path lest this verse be about you: “the Holy One of Israel, says: ‘In repentance and rest is your salvation…but you would have none of it.” (Isaiah 30.15)

Let us have the salvation that God longs to give us. Let us listen to prophets in our path.

“…the Lord longs to be gracious to you; 
therefore he will rise up to show you compassion. 
For the Lord is a God of justice. 
Blessed are all who wait for him! 
People of Zion, who live in Jerusalem, you will weep no more. How gracious he will be when you cry for help! As soon as he hears, he will answer you.
— (Isaiah 30.18-19)

Divine Hours Prayer: The Refrain for the Morning Lessons
The Lord is full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger and of great kindness. — Psalm 103.8

Today’s Readings

Isaiah 30 (Listen -5:52)
Luke 12 (Listen -7:42)

This Weekend’s Readings
Isaiah 31 (Listen -1:49)Luke 13 (Listen -5:02)
Isaiah 32 (Listen -2:46)Luke 14 (Listen -4:36)

Read more about Balaams and Balaks
These modern Balaams do their best to put words in God’s mouth that are pleasing to the powerful.

Read more about Today’s Roots, Tomorrow’s Fruit
Prophecies can tell of coming salvation or warn of coming disaster. There’s no question which we prefer to listen to.

When the Wise Become Fools

Scripture Focus: Isaiah 29.13-14
13 The Lord says:
“These people come near to me with their mouth
    and honor me with their lips,
    but their hearts are far from me.
Their worship of me
    is based on merely human rules they have been taught.
14 Therefore once more I will astound these people
    with wonder upon wonder;
the wisdom of the wise will perish,
    the intelligence of the intelligent will vanish.”

Reflection: When the Wise Become Fools
By Erin Newton

“For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1.18). No one wants to be a fool. Yet the message of the gospel seemed so absurd, so counter-intuitive, that Paul described it as foolishness.

Paul was recalling the prophecy that Isaiah had said hundreds of years before him. The way God would redeem his people would be like a hidden message, out of reach for even the most astute. A minority of Israelites were literate. Though tasked with relaying God’s message, they would be unable to read it. The wise would be made fools.

Why were they prohibited from knowing God’s plan? In short, God held them accountable for their lack of faith. Israel was rebuked for false worship performed under the guise of piety. Human rules had been created to facilitate the appearance of worship, but it was merely lip service. Their worship centered upon the performances of religious tasks.

The rules are unspecified in Isaiah’s prophecy. It is not a verse that can be used against different modes of worship in various Christian traditions. At the core of this rebuke is legalism and the pride that accompanies it. When worship becomes performance, people place themselves on the pedestal.

When Jesus spoke parables, he often began with the phrase, “Whoever has ears, let them hear.” With all their privileged learning, the Pharisees and Sadducees could not understand the message of Christ. Jesus rebuked them saying, “And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them” (Luke 11.46). The simple parables were foolish to these “experts” who spent more time adding rules than helping the people.

Christians have sometimes created narrow rules that distinguish adherents as “true believers” and labeled nonconformists as non-Christian. The ever-growing attempt to create a sense of us vs. them mentality has been pervasive in Christian history and more so on social media. 

Let us throw off the hindrances of manmade rules that seek to define our devotion and divide the body of Christ. Let our words be more than lip service. Let our hearts trust in the incomprehensible ways of God. Trusting God may look foolish, but it is the power of salvation.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Greeting
Save us, O Lord our God, and gather us from among the nations, that we may give thanks to your holy Name and glory in your praise. — Psalm 106.47

Today’s Readings
Isaiah 29 (Listen -3:55)
Luke 11 (Listen -7:33)

Read more about The Unknown Sage
Positional distrust…can cause us to read wisdom and call it foolishness. It can cause us to hear a blustering fool and call him wise.

Read more about Lady Wisdom
“Does not wisdom call out?” She does, indeed…Let us train our ears to hear the voice of wisdom.

Retched Leaders

Scripture Focus: Isaiah 28.9-10
9 “Who is it he is trying to teach?
    To whom is he explaining his message?
To children weaned from their milk,
    to those just taken from the breast?
10 For it is:
    Do this, do that,
    a rule for this, a rule for that;
    a little here, a little there.”

Reflection: Retched Leaders
By Erin Newton

There is vomit covering the tables. The room is trashed. Perhaps in the corner, there is a person hungover from the previous night’s revelry. The scene sounds like the aftermath of a fraternity party. But this is Israel’s religious elite. This is supposedly where wisdom and justice lived.

The priests and prophets were irresponsible. In their drunkenness, they couldn’t make clear judgments. In their stupor, the prophetic visions were blurred and incoherent. They were unfit for their jobs and the result is a nauseating mess.

But it was not an isolated problem. If a priest could not make a sound judgment about a citizen’s purification status (as was necessary in Old Testament law), then their self-indulgence resulted in the continued corruption of the people.

J. Alec Motyer simplifies the scenario. “This is an acute diagnosis of the human condition: self-satisfaction becomes self-indulgence and issues in self-sufficiency.” Yet the stakes are higher for the priests and prophets, because of their ineptitude those they lead are carried further into sin.

In their stupor and pride, they mocked Isaiah, calling his message infantile or elementary. They claimed his message was nothing but the simple instructions given to children. The message was too basic for them. They didn’t need such simple teaching. They were too important for simplicity.

We have leaders like this today. Some pastors, seminary professors, and social media warriors prefer to pontificate on higher things rather than learn the Golden Rule. If they are rebuked, it is met with arrogant replies of self-justification. Some leaders would rather spend their energy studying the etymological origin of the Greek word for “authority” rather than have mercy on a beaten man on the road to Jericho or sit and listen at the feet of Jesus (Luke 10).

There is a need for theological research which some of us are pursuing. But if we ignore when someone says that we have forgotten how to love God with our whole being and how to love others as ourselves, then we are no better than the puke-covered priests. As leaders, we also risk dragging those who listen down into the cesspool with us. 

The irony is that sophisticated, noted, and prestigious religious leaders still need to hear the elementary teachings of the Bible. The idea that we can ever get over the gospel, mastering the content completely, is a sign that pride has taken hold already.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Greeting
How deep I find your thoughts, O God! How great is the sum of them!
If I were to count them, they would be more in number than the sand; to count them all, my lifespan would need to be like yours. — Psalm 139.16-17

Today’s Readings
Isaiah 28 (Listen -4:49)
Luke 10 (Listen -5:40)

Read more about Puking Prophets of Success
We must be restrained, refusing to become drunk on the power and greed our culture gulps down.

Read more about Unexpected Contents of God’s Cup of Wrath
The picture painted by Jeremiah is a messy nightmare of people dying in pools of their own vomit.