[Isaiah 35:5-8; 2 Timothy 4:5-18; Luke 10:1-9]
This week I spent even more hours hanging around the hospital than I usually do. We can post-pone facing it for a while, but we know the truth. These bodies of ours run down, grow tattered and worn, begin to fail. We are more fragile than we dare to imagine. And when our bodies begin to fail us, we are forced to face what we know is true but avoid considering most of the time: our pilgrimage here has a limit and this world is not our final home and this flesh in which we live is destined for the grave.
Isaiah saw a time, though, when there would be a great push back. Suddenly defective bodies, grave-bound and shackled, were being restored. Blind eyes opened again. Deaf ears unstopped. Those who have lost the ability to walk on their own, are suddenly leaping and dancing. And tongues that have been rendered silent - now singing for joy. Isaiah saw a time when Death’s feeding on us would be pushed back and halted. And it would be like waters pouring through a thirsty land - for we do thirst for a life that death cannot rob us of. And in it all the prophet sees a way, a highway. It leads home, away from the sorrows of this troubled age and to the true home we’ve been promised. Only the clean walk on that way - the people God has cleansed in that water breaking out in the desert - the waters of baptism. Even if they’re fools, if they walk on that way, they won’t go astray or get lost. They’ll head down the road to home. And at the end it will be not just a temporary healing of this or that, but a total healing of body and soul, as everlasting joy crowns our heads and sorrow and sighing are chased away forever. What a vision!
What Isaiah saw beginning to happen was, of course, our Lord’s ministry. For the first time, there stood One upon the earth who could and did push back death and all its attendant sorrows. And as He was getting ready to make his grand last tour before heading up to Jerusalem, He took 72 of his disciples - and tradition says St. Luke was among them - and sent them out to every place He was headed Himself. And the power that was in Him to manifest the glory of the coming age - a glory over which death and bodily decay stand no chance - that power He laid on the 72 as He sent them forth. He sent them forth, and to told them to pray that the Lord of the harvest would raise up yet more workers. He sent them forth defenseless - lambs in the midst of wolves - armed only with the truth that they carried. He sent them forth impoverished, having only a greeting of peace to give and totally dependent upon the good will of those who heard them for bodily needs. But what peace! He sent them forth not jockeying for better positions and easier living, but occupied with but a two-fold task: to heal the sick and announce: The Kingdom, the reign of God, has come near you. Jesus is on the way. Or as C.S. Lewis would say it, Aslan is on the move. Isaiah’s vision is coming true and waters are about to bust forth that will wash you clean and set you on a highway that leads to home.
But we mustn’t forget that our Lord gives us all of this as promise in this present age. He didn’t heal every blind man or every deaf man. There were plenty left still in their beds, unable to get up and move again. There were many who never had their tongues loosed to sing. The healings and even the raising of the dead that our Lord or His disciples performed, these were all the promise of what He would finally do for all in the end. They showed where He was headed and what His death on the tree and resurrection from the dead would finally bring about. But it wouldn’t be right away. They give us a bright future and joyous hope - and with that bright future and joyous hope we can battle our way through the trials still before us. How well St. Paul understood.
In our second reading, he knows death is not far away. His life will be poured out like a drink offering. His departure from this age is at hand. Does it make him despair? No. His Lord went into death and came out alive - having secured forgiveness for the sins of the world, including Paul’s own. So he knows that what awaits him is the crown of righteousness - a crown earned by our Lord Himself for all His baptized brothers and sisters - that crown the Lord, the righteous judge, will award him on that day. He thinks about it and he is comforted. And yet…
The sorrows abound. He’s lonely. He’s in prison. His friends have all deserted him - all save St. Luke. He tells St. Timothy to bring St. Mark to him. Pitifully he tells him to bring also some of the things he’s left behind - he must have been the absent minded sort too - the cloak, the books, and above all the parchments, the papers if you will, so that he can write more. Death is before him, and yet he has more testifying to the grace of God in Jesus Christ to do. All alone he had stood at his trial, no one standing with him, but the Lord. And yet that was enough.
And so for us too, how often we will go through experiences like St. Paul’s in our lives. When we feel alone, abandoned, and death is breathing down our necks. And it’s frightening. And yet the Lord stands by us. The Lord whose very life is the guarantee that this death which we are facing down will not be the end of us. This Lord who rescues us from the lion’s mouth by setting our feet upon a holy way that the devil who prowls as a roaring lion cannot come up on. This Lord who rescues us from every evil deed and finally brings us safely into His kingdom. Even in his loneliness, his fear, his pain - the apostle is comforted and comforts others. The life that appeared in Jesus is no cheat. It is the ultimate reality - for He is the forgiveness of all sin and He is the destruction of all death and He has made us His own and we will live with Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence and blessedness, just as He is risen from the dead and lives and reigns to all eternity. This is most certainly true.
And this is the truth that gets us through the hospital days and the funeral home days and the long emptiness when we feel so alone and abandoned or frightened and worried about what tomorrow will bring. The Lord, who has already shown us what our future will be, stands by us then to strengthen us and get us through to that Kingdom, and for that we give all glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.