I have a brother-in-law who is a major in the Utah National Guard. He was a captain a few years ago when we stayed with them for my mother’s 80th birthday. While we were there he was called out because a soldier in his command had attempted suicide.
“About 3,000 active-duty troops have killed themselves since 2001. The annual tally of these deaths climbs each year. And those numbers often don’t include service members who are part of the National Guard or Reserve. Moreover, the Department of Veterans Affairs has uncovered evidence that this self-destructive trend is following many young veterans after they leave the service, adding to an estimated tally of some 22 suicides per day among veterans of all ages.
“Tom Tarantino of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Association says, ‘The fact that so many of our members know someone that has tried to commit suicide or that had mental health issues really underscores the seriousness of this problem.’ The survey by the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America were based on about 4,000 veterans who responded to a survey a veterans association sent to its 120,000 members in February.
“About a third of respondents said they had considered taking their own life at some point. A slightly larger percentage said they knew someone who had committed suicide. Forty-five percent say they know an Iraq or Afghanistan veteran who has attempted suicide. Two-thirds say they have veteran friends who need mental health counseling. ‘I don’t think anybody thought this was going to be an easy problem to fix,’ Tarantino says. ‘But this is a very complicated problem with no one policy solution.’
“The Army, which continues to report record numbers of suicides each year, recently acknowledged that, despite years of education, soldiers remain resistant to seeking mental health care out of fear they will be perceived as weak. One good sign from the survey: 93% of veterans said were aware of the VA’s Veteran Crisis Line — 800-273-8255. But 80% said they did not think the Pentagon or the VA was doing a good job of providing adequate mental health support for veterans.” (Gregg Zoroya, USA Today)
There is a great human toll in going to war. Modern warfare seems to put pressures on soldiers that were unknown to earlier generations, which is not to say that earlier generations did not also have great issues from being in combat. It is just that Iraq and Afghanistan veterans seem to have more issues when they come home.
It behooves our government and we taxpayers to take responsibility to help our veterans when they come home. The suicide rate is dramatic but that is not the only problem our veterans face. We sent them to war. We better darn well take responsibility for them when they come home.
It is not just mental health issues. I think we have all seen reports or video of vets in wheelchairs and with prosthetic limbs. Today we have weapons of mass destruction and we have weapons of local havoc. In Old Testament times, it was mostly hand-to-hand fighting, with some archery and some spears and horses. It was brutal.
I can mention in passing that the Israelite and Judean exiles, “went into exile.” Well, that also included those who survived in battle: the scarred, the blind, and the lame. They didn’t have prosthetics in those days. They were husbands and fathers who could no longer plow a field. There was no VA in those days. It fell upon prophets, like Isaiah, to give them hope.
Isaiah, like many prophets, talks about doom and gloom. Even so, we might call Isaiah the prophet of hope. We have heard two and now three visions of hope for a people needing hope this Advent season. For Isaiah, the source of hope is God. For Isaiah, hope and faith are intertwined. God is the source of both hope and faith and faith depends on hope and hope depends on faith.
Isaiah’s vision in chapter 35 is one of beauty and redemption. The Holy Land has three significant geographical features: a verdant coastland, a fertile highlands, and desert. When we encounter the word wilderness in the Bible, it usually refers to the desert. But there is a lot more meaning in the word than just a desert. It really needs to be read quite literally. It is a wild-er-ness. It is a wild place where there are natural and supernatural dangers. It is sparsely populated for its lack of water and because it is a place of menace.
God occupies a place of peace, love, and harmony. The wilderness is the opposite of God. It is the kind of place where temptations are hard to ignore. It is a place where we can hear words that are antithetical to God’s word.
In spite of the power of the wilderness, Isaiah says that God can transform the wilderness to be a place of beauty to people and a home for God. The desert will “rejoice and blossom.”
One of things that bloom in the Judean wilderness is the crocus. For Isaiah, not only does the crocus bloom, but does so abundantly, so much so that whole fields are of crocuses transform the desert into a blue wonderland. This transformation in sight will also transform the wilderness from a grumpy place to a place that is filled with joy and sings.
Isaiah is giving a message to the exiles. It is not clear if the message is for the future Judean exiles or for the current Israelite exiles or both. Isaiah’s call is for all of them no matter what their state of health is. The weak are to become strong for the journey home. For God is coming to save them.
These reversals of fortune sound a lot like Mary’s Magnificat, Luke 1:46-55. Some say that the Magnificat is based on Hannah’s prayer in 1 Samuel. For Mary, the Magnificat is a song of praise that God is with her and that the child she is bearing will fulfill the hopes of Israel. It is a statement of hope and expectation. It is a statement of Advent.
When the exiles, the veterans, who bear the marks of war, see or hear of these signs, they will know that God is there. When God is there: “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepersc are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” Just like Jesus told John the Baptist’s followers.
The wilderness will no longer be barren. It will be a place of water: streams, pools, and springs. The places where jackals used to hide will become a swamp and drive them out.
To make the journey home easier, a highway will be there. It will be called the Holy Way. Things that are holy are consecrated by God. It is an exclusive highway. It is only for the Israelites. No one else may use it. The Holy Way is a highway of hope that God is coming that we renew every Advent. Even fools can’t get lost. It might be also called the “No-brainer Highway.”
While on the journey home during this second exodus, the travelers need not fear any wild animal. The joy of the exiles going home will cause them to sing. It will be an everlasting joy, a joy that will never fade. Their sorrow will be no more. Joy to the world!
The threat of exile, like the Israelites previously experienced, is a very real threat for Judah. For in the very next chapter of Isaiah, the king of Assyria is capturing the cities of Judah and Jerusalem is on his list. The survivors of those fallen towns and cities are already in exile.
The people of Judah have a hope of the glory of David with every new king. The setting of chapter 36 has Judah under military threat when Hezekiah was king. Hezekiah was one of the few good kings. The Assyrians are preparing their siege of Jerusalem. All is doom and gloom.
After the Babylonian exile, the hope of another king to rise and be like David was dashed. There would be no king anymore. Later, the hope of another David was transformed into a hope of one who would re-establish David’s throne and restore David’s greatness. This anointed one, or messiah, would save the people.
In spite of the messages of the prophets, they did not understand that their king was God. Samuel warned them about replacing God as king with a human king. Yet they still wanted a king like the other nations. Even in a later time when they had a king, a puppet king put in place by Roman power, they longed for a messiah. When might the messiah be born?
When the messiah was born, it was a humble birth. And this messiah did not fulfill what they were expecting. Even John the Baptist had doubts about Jesus. When confronted, Jesus did not admit being the messiah. Instead, Jesus told John’s followers to report what they saw with their own eyes. And if John is as smart as Jesus thinks he is, John will remember the words of Isaiah. God will be there when the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame leap like a deer, and the mute sing for joy. (Isaiah 35:5-6) John will then be able to answer his own question.
Our messiah is God incarnate, not a military general. Our messiah is about restoring not destroying. Our messiah is about hope not fear. Our messiah is about peace not war. Our messiah is about joy not tears. Our messiah is about love and not hate.
O come, O come, Immanuel!
Text: Isaiah 35:1–10