Why didn’t Jesus just say to John’s disciples: “Today you see the glory of the LORD! Today you see the splendor of your God!” Why must Jesus always be so subtle, so oblique, so indirect?
“Indirect?” you ask. “Didn’t Jesus point plainly and clearly to the words of Isaiah 35 when He said, ‘Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor’?” And you’d be correct. Jesus interprets Isaiah for us. We don’t have to wonder if Isaiah 35 talks about Jesus. Without saying, “It is written,” Jesus identifies Himself with Isaiah’s described coming of God to save.
But still you wonder, “Why didn’t He just say ‘Yes’ to John’s disciples? They asked a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ question, ‘Are you the one who was to come?’ He could have said ‘yes’ and ended speculation.”
Of course He could have. He did it at least twice before. At His home church in Nazareth they asked Him to preach. After reading the text for the day Jesus rolled up the scroll, sat down and said, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” Recall also Jesus’ conversation with the woman at the well in Samaria. At the end of their talk, she says, “I know that Messiah is coming. When he comes he will explain everything to us.” To which Jesus replied, “I who speak to you am he.”
In other words, Jesus had it in Him to answer plainly and directly. He could, and He did, on occasion simply say, “Yes, I am the One who was to come.”
So why didn’t He always? Perhaps the end result of His sermon in Nazareth can instruct us. After identifying Himself as the Christ you expect His friends and family to jump and shout and rejoice, rejoice, rejoice greatly! You probably don’t expect them to do what they did: get mad at Jesus and then drag Him outside to throw Him off a cliff. They showed themselves to be the unclean fools who do not get to walk on Isaiah’s Way of Holiness.
Don’t think, though, that Jesus stopped identifying Himself plainly because He’d learned some lesson, “This doesn’t go well.” No, Jesus knows us this well. He knows we are exactly what Isaiah described in our text today: a desert and parched land, dying of thirst, a place where little to nothing grows. More, Jesus looks and sees feeble hands, knees giving way, fearful hearts. What can a “yes” or “no” do to that?
When it’s Jesus speaking the “yes” or the “no” we know it does marvelous things. What happened with that woman is instructive. Jesus said, “I am the Messiah.” And she believed. She ran and told others. They begged Jesus to stay and said afterwards, “Now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world.” Faith came from hearing the message. That’s how powerful Jesus’ word is.
And yet with John’s disciples Jesus points to the power that flows from Him: the blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear, the dead live! He says this not because He has lost confidence in the power of the Word, but because He knows our weakness.
God’s Word is His bond. His “Yes” means “Yes” and His “No” means “No.” Plus, His Word is powerful. It makes something literally out of nothing, like, say, light, planets, animals, the universe. But our flesh fails. Our hands can’t grasp. Our knees tremble. Our hearts quail, as Israel’s did when they saw the giants in the Promised Land and said, “We can’t conquer this!” We look about us at the wasteland that is this sinful world and say, “This can’t be made new! No one can build a highway through this!”
The evidence mounts. John sits in prison. John’s disciples doubt. The Church teeters and totters. As it did in Isaiah’s time. Ten of the twelve tribes of Israel have disappeared into the bloody maw of Assyria’s war machine. Gone, routed, exiled, destroyed, never to be seen again. The last two tribes stand on the verge, the tipping point, the razor’s edge of disaster. 200,000 Assyrians prepare to topple Jerusalem’s walls. They’ve already ravaged the rest of the nation. That sound they hear: inevitability. Jerusalem stands alone; now they’re trying to kill her.
God told King Ahaz about this years ago, “Don’t worry. Sooner than you know these enemies will be nothing.” He said much the same to subsequent kings, “I’m in charge.” But Israel wavered and wobbled. So God told Ahaz, “Ask me for a sign.” Ahaz refused. Now God’s done asking us to ask Him. He says, “I’ll give you a sign.” You will see. You will know. It will be beyond doubt.
For what has God declared? He declares that the wasteland will become a paradise. He says dry sand will become a pool. Dangerous roads will become highways of holiness. Sinners will become saints. Remnants will become vast hosts arrayed in white. The poor and the desolate will be the rich and overflowing. He will restore a broken, crumbling, crippled Church that can barely stand, in fact, that on its own only falls.
So God speaks and says, “Look.” “They will see the glory of the LORD, the splendor of our God…. Your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you.” You will see the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk, the dead rise. You will see life come from death, fullness from emptiness, water from desert. You will rejoice at a funeral!
Because you will see. That phrase “glory of the LORD” explodes like an atomic bomb on us here in Isaiah, for the glory of the LORD is God’s visible manifestation of Himself: the cloud that came upon the Tabernacle and Tent of Meeting, that settled upon Mt. Sinai. God doesn’t just speak, He shows Himself. Bushes burn but are not consumed. A bronze serpent heals. A Son is lifted up on the cross like that serpent, and thus glorified!
This is God’s splendor, His best quality, the thing that instills awe, that adorns Him. What we see, what He shows us. Here is why Luther and our Lutheran Confessions time and again warn us away from trying to dig into the deep mysteries of God, from trying to discover God behind the curtain. Because we can’t get there, and we won’t like what we think we’ve found. It’s enough to see what God shows us, what God gives us, what God does for us. God shows us Himself, His loving, beating heart, His Father’s heart, when He shows us His Son, Christ, pouring out His blood, the blood that gives us new life, that turns deserts into paradise!
Notice the outside agency that fills these words of Isaiah. “The glory of Lebanon will be given to it.” God comes from outside to revenge His Church and save her. The ones walking on the highway are the redeemed, the ransomed, which redeeming and ransoming requires the working of it, someone must redeem them and ransom them, for they will not and cannot redeem themselves. All this desert reclamation takes work as well. Christ’s work! He became the barren desert, He became you, forsaken by God. He blossomed in the new life of the resurrection of His body. Truly God’s best quality, what adorns Him, what causes us to stare in awe. He lives, He lives who once was dead! The Glory of the LORD!
So Jesus simply says to John’s disciples, “Look. See. There’s your answer.” In those miracles they see the “Yes,” of God. In those miracles they see that God has come, to avenge His Church, to destroy His enemies, and to save – to redeem and ransom.
Thus Jesus says without saying it, “Now you see the glory of the LORD, now you see God’s best quality, His splendor, His adornment, what leaves you in awe. You see Me, the One who comes to save you!”
What a wise and wonderful God we have. He speaks words, and they are enough, should be enough, but God knows us and loves us, and He comes and stands among us. He enfleshes Himself among us, He gives us something to see, to taste, to touch, to grasp, to hold onto, something we can feel and engage with our fleshly senses, because we are ever and always fleshly, and will be even into eternity.
He gives us His Son, held by His mother and aged Simeon. He gives us His Son who touches blind eyes and deaf ears. He gives us His Son who restores withered hands. He gives us His Son who makes food where there was none in a barren land. He gives us His Son who brings forth a spring of life in our desolate hearts, pouring on us cool water, saving water, forgiving water, eye opening water, ear cleansing water, leg strengthening water. He gives us His Son who hands us His own body and blood and says, “See, taste, touch.”
Not because the Word is not enough. In fact, all these things are the Word. The Word made flesh. The Word made visible. The same as the audible Word you hear. God’s “Yes” is “Yes” in whatever form He brings it: Word, Water, Meal, the Word made flesh. He who redeems and ransoms a people. He who builds a highway and invites you to walk upon it. He who teaches you to sing, to rejoice, rejoice, rejoice greatly, who says to you, “You were not my people, but now I call you my people, now I call you, ‘the daughter of Zion’! I have come and saved you!” Amen.