ADVENT 2B: Isaiah 40: 1-11
A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” (Isaiah 40: 3-5)
First of all, with all due respect to Mr. Handel’s presentation, this passage was probably not originally written with us or our tradition in mind! This really is talking about the people of Israel. It really is talking about bringing comfort to a people who have wandered in the Judean wilderness. Probably written toward the end of the Babylonian exile, this writing offers a vision where a highway (a REAL man-made highway) through the wilderness will be made level and straight. If, as most assume, this part of the book that we know as Isaiah was written after the exile, it would have been soon after 539 BCE when Cyrus of Persia conquered the Babylonians and, not really caring whether or not the Israelites stayed, allowed them to return to Jerusalem. So imagine a highway that, typical of the ancient world, would have originally been built to accommodate royal processions. And so God is depicting a highway made for a grand procession led by the Almighty.
The just-released exiles are returning. But to what? Their city and their way of life lay in ruins. They can’t just go back and pick up where they left off. They have to feel that God has deserted them. They are looking for comfort. They are looking for solace. They are looking for God to put things back the way they were before. But God has something different in mind. Rather than repair, God promises recreation; rather than vindication, God promises redemption; and rather than solace, God promises transformation. God is making something new–lifting valleys, lowering mountains, and ultimately, when all is said and done, revealing a glory that we’ve never seen before.
So 2020 has handed most of us a new understanding of this passage. (Wow! Thanks 2020!) As a community, as a country, as a people, we sort of have our own little wilderness thing going right now. Now we haven’t been conquered by Babylonians yet (and for that we ARE thankful!), but our life has changed—probably, if we’re honest, forever. And in this season that so quickly elicits traditions and memories of past years, it is easy to start to feel like we are truly walking through an unknown wilderness, full of masked strangers, distanced friends, and communication via these little boxes of faces on Zoom. The wilderness sometimes seems to be closing in on us. And the pathway out seems to be murky at best.
But think about this passage. We are given a vision. We are not promised solace. We are not promised that Emmanuel, God With Us, is coming to put our lives back together. In fact, can you feel it? The world has begun to shake. The valleys are rising; the mountains are leveling. Something incredible is about to happen. The light is just beginning to dawn. Life as we know it will never be the same again. Soon the fog will lift and we will see that the road does not lead back to where we were. It instead leads us home. But we’re going to have to be willing to leave what we know–forever.
When we prepare ourselves in this Season, we’re not looking for the Messiah to come and put all the pegs back where they were. We’re not preparing ourselves to go back to the lives to which we’ve become accustomed. God is not going to “fix” it. I mean, think about it. God’s not usually in the “fixing” business. God is more into making all things new. So we have to open ourselves to the new creation that God promises and here in the wilderness, God will re-create us too. So, open your eyes, learn to wait, prepare your hearts for something new, for the glory of the Lord to be revealed. And, in the meantime, wear your mask!
The Wilderness holds answers to more questions than we have yet learned to ask. (Nancy Wynne Newhall)
Grace and Peace,