Here’s a piece of geographical trivia for you. A rift valley is a low region of the earth’s crust in which the tectonic plates on either side of the valley are moving away in a roughly parallel fashion, carving out a low trench. The most famous rift valley is the Great Rift Valley, which starts in the Middle East in the north and continues southward to Mozambique in Africa. This whole valley is treated as one valley, but it is actually made up of specific units that are connected together through politics, culture and tradition. The reason I’m telling you this is because the Arabah, the area to the south of the Dead Sea, part of the Jordan Rift Valley, was named by the prophet Isaiah in his prophecy.
Even back in the day of Isaiah, 2500 years ago or so, the people understood the reality of what they could see around them. Parts of Israel and Palestine are relatively lush, where there is water. But the parts around the Dead Sea and other desert places were barren and hot and bad places to get caught with no shade. People understood the dangers.
This makes God’s vision of green shoots, new life, water gushing in the desert, and desert blooms important metaphors for all three Isaiahs. Historically, after the Babylonian army, who fought with a ferocity that defeated even the Assyrians, Judah—the Israelite territory that included Jerusalem—was destroyed; for the next while, the Jewish people were held in captivity in Babylon until the Persians came on the scene and liberated them. They returned home on pathways named by Isaiah as made by God’s compassion—mountains brought low, deserts made lush, a highway for God and God’s righteous people spoken of in Isaiah 35 and Isaiah 40.
Even the devastation left by the brutal Babylonian army was subject to God’s vision of restoration and new life. Even the desert places will have new life, said Isaiah. Even our weakened knees and our weary hands will have respite, not a small promise to those of us of a certain vintage! God will bring this joy, at least that was (and still is!) the hope.
Second Isaiah brought wonderful words of hope and joy, even knowing that life is difficult. This deep joy sits in our hearts and is where the heart of God resides and provides strength to meet our daily challenges. I for one need the expression of joy that we find in music to lift me out of my challenges and to inspire me to continue the quest for climate justice, for example, in the face of the failure of our world leaders; or, I’m inspired to continue to speak about inclusion and welcome for all in spite of the election of another hard-right conservative party in the UK. I need to hear Isaiah’s words to be inspired by hope that God will bring blooms to the desert!
The father of Bobby McFerrin, the jazz vocalist extraordinaire, sings on one of Bobby McFerrin’s tracks on the album Medicine Music; Bobby McFerrin references Isaiah 35 in the song. Robert McFerrin, the dad, was the 1st African-American to sing at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. He was a baritone of fame. Bobby McFerrin wrote Medicine Music and invited his dad to sing on a track called Discipline. I have always found this album and this track uplifting. Bobby McFerrin has a wonderful talent for capturing our mood and changing that mood through music and sometimes humour. Here’s part of that song. (Play the track.)
Isaiah 35, and Robert McFerrin’s solo, go very well with Isaiah 40 and the tenor solo from Handel’s Messiah, “Comfort Ye.” (Play track.) Both of these pieces capture well what I think was Isaiah’s intention: to instill a deep hope, a renewed sense of new life, a renewed sense of new beginnings, and that justice with peace will prevail… and ultimately that at God’s heart is compassion.
I don’t think Isaiah was naïve enough to think that God was going to fix all their problems, but Isaiah was brilliant in that he offered images of deep hope that God’s vision isn’t despair, destruction and dis-ease, which were all too real to people! God’s vision is very much like flowers blooming in the desert and barren, rough places, like the deserts around the Dead Sea, becoming full of life. God’s vision presented through Isaiah, as we’ve been hearing these 3 weeks, is about peace, a radical and deep peace in which otherwise bitter enemies find ways to live together in harmony. Isaiah presents a blueprint for how we can live with hope and even joy! …even in times of climate crisis, but it sure feels tough at the moment.
Bobby McFerrin, the song he did with his dad, wrote about the need for discipline, which is hard and something we don’t necessarily enjoy. But through discipline comes the kind of release of straightened knees and new hearts, metaphorically speaking.
Advent requires discipline. We need to see through the trappings of Christmas into the deeper reality of transformation, hope and joy. We listen to music to be inspired. With discipline, we engage in practices and events that lift us up out of our destructive ways into the gift of new life; but just as importantly, discipline provides the means for the transformation of our world. As Mary’s song implies, great change can come through inspired songs of what a new life together can be if we have the discipline to achieve it together! From our lips and ears to God’s heart! May our world step forward together in harmony. There is a new Kin-Dom coming and there are tastes of it already all around us. “Comfort ye! Comfort ye, my people!” A new vision of hope is dawning and our discipline to make it happen is NOW.