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The Highway to the Future Is Hope
Isaiah 35:1-10
by Dr. David Rogne

Health-care professionals have long suggested that many older people die because they think that it is time for them to die. A few years ago Dr. Lawrence Casler, a psychologist, designed an experiment to test this theory. He selected fifteen healthy persons in their eighties and began to hold before them the vision that life is intended to be long and healthy. To another group of senior adults, he indicated that he was simply studying their attitudes. He offered no positive vision. The study revealed that the group who received positive encouragement had fewer illnesses and lived an average of 8.1 years longer, compared with 1.9 years for those who received no encouragement. What this demonstrates is that a positive vision contributes to survival.

In its long history, Judaism has frequently provided such a vision for its people. When they were struggling to survive in the desert, Moses held out the vision of a promised land. During the centuries when they were dispersed in an unfriendly world, with no land to call their own, their annual toast at Passover was "Next year in Jerusalem." In a similar way, when Jews were being held in captive exile in Babylon, a prophet came to them and spoke words of hope, which helped them to survive.

I believe that these words of hope are part of God's good news to every generation. Let's consider their meaning for us.

The first thing I discover in this passage is that something to look forward to is often the only thing that makes the present endurable. These words were addressed to people who were going through tough times. They had been living in captivity for decades. They had no army, no resources, no strong leadership. They were discouraged; they doubted that their God had any further interest in them; they felt abandoned.

At that moment the prophet came to proclaim a vision. They were surrounded by a wilderness that was suggestive of their own sense of barrenness and spiritual dryness. "But do not settle for that," says the prophet, if I may paraphrase. "A time is coming when the desert will blossom, there will be streams in the desert, the dry land will rejoice. Everything will come to life, and so will you. Do not give up hope. God is going to save you." With that message of hope, the exiles held on and were able to endure their difficult circumstances.

We, too, often need something to look forward to just to keep on going. One of the Proverbs puts it succinctly: "Where there is no vision, the people perish." When James Forrestal, former Secretary of the Navy, and later the first Secretary of Defense, jumped from a high hospital window to his death, there was found at his bedside a book of Greek poetry opened at these words:

When Reason's day

Sets rayless--joyless--quenched in cold decay,

Better to die, and sleep

The never waking sleep, than linger on

And dare to live, when the soul's life is gone.

What troubled the tragic life of James Forrestal we do not know. But this we do know: life can be a living death or a slow dying when the excitement of anticipation is gone. Every one of us needs the hope of something better just to keep going.

Dr. Curt Richter of Johns Hopkins has developed an experiment showing the strength of hope and despair. He holds one rat in his hand so firmly that no matter how valiantly the rat struggles, it cannot escape. The rat finally gives up. He then puts the rat into a tank of warm water. Invariably, the rat will sink, not swim. It has "learned" to give up, that there is no point in struggling. Dr. Richter then puts another rat into the water--one which doesn't "know" that its situation is hopeless and that it is supposedly "helpless." This rat swims to safety.

That applies to the human scene as well. In a newspaper article, Nell Mahoney writes of two women who had lost their husbands. One widow said, "I'm still hurting badly, but I will walk through this valley and come out on the other side. With God's help, I will feel joy again." The other widow still walked in the valley. She blamed God, the doctors, and herself for her husband's death. She had no vision of a better future, and she could not move forward.

When we have something to look forward to, it restores zest to life. In a barber shop, a junior high teacher was describing the excitement at school as classes were dismissed for the Christmas holidays. "There was foot stomping, wall banging, and all sorts of rejoicing," said the teacher. "Real wild, eh?" asked the barber. "Yeah," replied the educator, "and that was only in the teachers' lounge."

I have certainly discovered in my own life the importance of having something to look forward to. At the beginning of the year, my wife and I put several anticipated holidays on our calendar when we can get away for a couple of days. Not only do those days provide a needed break when they arrive, but the prospect of their arrival increases our ability to cope with the present. If we don't have a vision of the possible to spur us on, we will inevitably lose our zest for life and succumb to our circumstances.

The second thing I want to say is that when we have a vision, it is possible to rejoice even though we are only on the way to its fulfillment. To the people of his time, the prophet announces that God is preparing a highway for them in the desert. It is not the end; it is only the means to an end. The highway will lead to Zion, which is another name for their beloved city, Jerusalem.

Twenty-one times in these ten verses he uses the auxiliary verb "shall." This is an anticipatory word. It precedes good things that will happen--things to look forward to. The Jews could not see these things themselves, but the announcement by the prophet that God would prepare such a highway was a clear call not to settle where they were. They needed to get up and get on that highway which would lead them to their bright future.

While the imagery to which we would respond might be somewhat different, the message for us is that, as God's people, we are called to be on the move. We are urged not to settle down, because our ultimate home is elsewhere. A tourist paused for a rest in a small town in the mountains. He went over to an old man sitting on a bench in front of the only store in town and inquired: "Friend, can you tell me something this town is noted for?" "Well," replied the old man, "I don't rightly know, except that it's the starting point to the world. You can start here and go anywhere you want." Every one of us needs to be reminded not to become too enamored of things where we are, because there is more out ahead of us.

There is a church in Van Nuys, California, that has picked up this idea in their name. They call themselves "The Church on the Way." It is partly related to where they are located, but it is intended to remind them that they are up and moving.

As the people of God, we have to be careful not to settle where we are, simply because it is comfortable where we are, or because we are afraid to move into an uncertain future. God gives the vision, but we have to move toward it. When Luciano Pavorotti was a boy, his grandmother put him on her lap and said, "One day you are going to be great. You'll see." As a young adult, he started teaching elementary school, which left him little time to sing. His father told him he had greater voice potential than he was cultivating, so he gave up teaching to sell insurance so that he would have more time to develop his vocal talent. "It was the turning point of my life," he said. "It's a mistake to take the safe path in life." His father and his grandmother gave the vision, but he had to move on it.

Our pioneer forebears had a sense of what it meant to be on the move. They sang with fervor:

"Come, we that love the Lord,

And let our joys be known:

Join in a song with sweet accord,

And thus surround the throne.

We're marching to Zion,

Beautiful, beautiful Zion,

We're marching upward to Zion,

The beautiful City of God."

I'm not sure they knew what Zion was, or where it was, for that matter, but they were marching, not walking, to the holy place where God dwells. They knew that they had not arrived, but they were sure that God was with them, and it made their sometimes-bleak existence tolerable.

What this says to me is that our ultimate hope is not in the present, but in the future. We call Jesus the Way, meaning that his life is a demonstration of what God has in mind for us. The early Christians called themselves "followers of the Way" as they attempted to lead lives of love and service. We are far from being all the things we know God is calling us to become, but Jesus becomes for us a highway to our God, a vision of the direction in which we are to travel, and we had best be up and on the move.

The third thing this passage says to me is that when we have something to look forward to, it sweetens the present. The prophet tells his people that they will experience joy just by virtue of being involved in the journey. He says in effect: "All who are being ransomed shall come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be on their heads; sorrow and sighing shall flee away." They would not have to wait for the vision to be fulfilled before they could start enjoying it; anticipation would bring joy into the present.

Anticipation sweetens the present for us, too. A conversation was overheard in a tree nursery where a woman was inquiring about some young fruit trees she was considering for her yard. "Can you guarantee these trees?" she asked the nursery worker. "Certainly, ma'am," the clerk replied. "Will the trees be tall and thick in the trunk?" "They should be, ma'am." "And quite stong at the roots, I suppose?" "Oh yes, ma'am." "OK, then I'll take two trees and that hammock over there at the same time." That's anticipation!

What the prophet and Jesus both hold before us is a vision of God's intentions for the human race. Anticipation of that future is intended not only to affect our attitude, but to affect all with whom we come into contact. An American columnist writes of a Christmas Eve he spent in Paris with his wife. Everything had gone wrong throughout the day. By dinner time it was rainy and cold. They found a drab little restaurant where only five tables were occupied. There were two German couples, two French families, and an American sailor by himself. In the corner a piano player tried to add a little Christmas music. Everyone seemed to be eating in stony silence. The only person who seemed happy was the American sailor. While eating, he was writing a letter with the picture of a young woman in front of him. Obviously, he was anticipating what it would be like to be with her. One of the French children was crying unhappily; one of the German women was berating her husband.

An old flower woman, wearing a dripping, battered overcoat, shuffled in on wet, rundown shoes. She went from one table to another, offering flowers for sale, but no one wanted to buy. Wearily, she sat down at a table and ordered a bowl of soup. "I haven't sold a flower all afternoon," she said hoarsely. "Can you imagine, soup on Christmas Eve?"

The young sailor finished his meal, picked up his picture and letter, and went over to the flower woman's table. "Merry Christmas," he said, smiling and picking up two corsages. "How much are they?" he asked. "Two francs, monsieur." Pressing one of the small corsages flat, he put it into the letter he had written, and then handed the woman a twenty-franc note. "I'll have to get change," she said. "No, ma'am," said the sailor, leaning over and kissing the old lady. "This is my Christmas present to you." He then came to the columnist's table and said, "Sir, may I have permission to present these flowers to your beautiful daughter?" Then in one quick motion, he gave the corsage to the newsman's wife, wished them a Merry Christmas, and departed. By then, everyone had stopped eating and was watching the sailor. As the door closed behind him, the spirit of Christmas exploded throughout the restaurant like a bomb. His vision of the future kept his spirit high, and he passed it on.

Anticipation of what God has in store for us is intended to lift our spirits. We, in turn, can lift others. The highway to Zion is to be filled with joy and gladness. As people of hope, we can give others reasons to rejoice.