You know the theme song from the Sound of Music:
The hills are alive with the sound of music;
With songs they have sung for a thousand years.
The hills fill my heart with the sound of music.
My heart wants to sing ev’ry song it hears.
These words may create a certain picture in our minds of Julie Andrews running across a mountain meadow in the Austrian Alps, singing to her heart’s content. But she has nothing on the prophet we know as Second Isaiah.
Isaiah joyfully declares to a group of exiles:
“For you shall go out in joy and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands” (Is. 55: 12).
When you hear these words from the prophet do you catch a vision of joy and peace? Do you hear a song of joy and peace spreading across the mountains and through the trees?
Since we’re in the middle of a pandemic that makes bursting out in song dangerous, perhaps we can use our imaginations to celebrate with joy the word that goes forth from the mouth of God that won’t return empty. We can take hold of the promise that God’s word will fulfill its purpose.
We don’t know for sure when this chapter of Isaiah was written, though it probably dates to the time of the Babylonian exile. The prophet wants the exiles to know that God hasn’t forgotten the covenant. Therefore, they can put their trust in God and join the mountains and the hills and the trees in making a joyful noise before the LORD.
Our reading begins with the word “for,” which suggests that this word builds off of a previous word. That word is found in verse six, which declares: “Seek the LORD while He can be found, call to Him while He is near” (Is. 55:6 Tanakh). If we seek the LORD, then we will encounter the word that fulfills its purpose.
According to Second Isaiah, God’s word comes like seed that God waters with rain and snow from the heavens. After it sprouts it brings forth seed that can be sown and bread that can be eaten. That word leads us to the Gospel reading for today from Matthew. In the parable of the sower, Jesus suggests that the sower casts seed indiscriminately so that sometimes the word bears fruit and at other times it doesn’t. It depends on the soil (Matthew 13). Isaiah, on the other hand, uses a similar image to offer a different outcome. For Isaiah, when God sows the Word, it fulfills its purpose.
They may sound contradictory, but I believe both can be true. The Word can fall on deaf ears and closed hearts, which, for a time, can hinder God’s purpose. But, God remains faithful to the covenant promise, which is everlasting, so in the end, it will fulfill its purpose, which according to Paul is the reconciliation of all things to God (2 Cor. 5). So as Isaiah declares in verse three of the chapter, “Incline your ear and come to me; hearken, and you shall be revived. And I will make with you an everlasting covenant, the enduring loyalty promised to David” (Is. 55:3 Tanakh).
Although our situation is very different from that of the Babylonian exiles, we are experiencing a form of exile during this pandemic. Some people have lost their jobs. Theaters and concert venues are closed. While I did get a haircut, going to barbershops and salons is considered risky. Even coming to church has become risky. That’s why we’ve shortened the service and offered it online. Living in exile as we are, it’s easy to feel alone, isolated, and even abandoned by God. Nevertheless, God’s covenant promise remains present. Isaiah calls on us to trust that God will be true to the everlasting covenant that God made with God’s people. That doesn’t mean God will protect us from the disease, but God goes with us as we mask up, keep a proper distance, and wash our hands until a vaccine arrives. When that day arrives, we must get vaccinated unless our doctor says otherwise!
Isaiah looks back to God’s covenant with David (Is. 55:3), which makes sense in context, since there was hope that God would restore the house of David to the throne of Judah. But, perhaps we might go back to an earlier covenant, the one God made with Abraham and Sarah. In Genesis 17, God told Abraham that the covenant God was making with Abraham and his descendants would be an everlasting one (Gen. 17:1-7). This covenant is rooted in Abraham’s calling to head out on a journey of faith that would lead the family to Canaan. If Abraham and Sarah embraced this call, then God would make them a great nation and that through their descendants the nations of the earth would be blessed (Gen. 12:1-3). I believe that through faith in Jesus, God adopts us into that family, so we can participate in this calling.
We share in this everlasting promise made first to the Jewish people through an act of adoption. Therefore, as Paul states, through the Spirit of God we can call out “Abba! Father!” And, because we are children of God, we are heirs of the promise (Rom. 8:14-17). So let us go out with joy and be led back in peace. May we join the mountains and the hills in their song of praise. Let us join the trees of the field in clapping our hands. May we embrace the cypress and the myrtle trees, which serve as a memorial to God, reminding God and us that the covenant will not be cut off and that it will lead to the blessing of the nations.