1Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. 2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.
3 A voice of one calling: “In the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4 Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain. 5 And the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all people will see it together. For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
6 A voice says, “Cry out.” And I said, “What shall I cry?” “All people are like grass, and all their faithfulness is like the flowers of the field. 7 The grass withers and the flowers fall, because the breath of the Lord blows on them. Surely the people are grass. 8 The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God endures forever.”
9 You who bring good news to Zion, go up on a high mountain. You who bring good news to Jerusalem, lift up your voice with a shout, lift it up, do not be afraid; say to the towns of Judah, “Here is your God!” 10 See, the Sovereign Lord comes with power, and he rules with a mighty arm. See, his reward is with him, and his recompense accompanies him. 11 He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.
I grew up in the rolling hills of northeastern Ohio. Not too flat, not too hilly. But just right. The hills are such an important part of our landscape that many businesses and organizations use the word “hill” in their names. Just down the road from my parents’ home is Pleasant Hill Baptist Church. I was baptized at Crown Hill Mennonite Church. And we affectionately referred to my friend William, who lived on a sizable hill as a Hillbilly.
But one doesn’t have to go far in Ohio to notice a change in topography. If you go to the northwest part of the state, things are extremely flat. If you go just to the next county south of where I grew up, those hills double in size and continue to grow right up to the Appalachian Mountains in West Virginia.
My mother explained to me many years ago why there was such a sudden change in the land as we drove south to celebrate Thanksgiving. She said that long ago there had been a glacier that moved south and east down through Ohio, making it about as far as our neck of the woods. And this is why the farmland in our area was so productive. The glacier had brought with it minerals and nutrients from the northern territories and when it stopped and melted, it left these things in our fields. And because of its sheer size, weight, and force, a glacier is able to level off hills and valleys.
All of this came back to me this week as I read our scripture from Isaiah 40. Verses 3b-4 say, “In the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain.”
So I looked it up, and my mother was correct. I even found some interesting maps from a journal, published sixty years ago, showing the line where the glacier stopped.
If you know much about glaciers, you probably know that they are slow. In 2012 a glacier in Greenland set a new world record when it was observed moving 10.5 miles…in a year. The average glacier moves about one adult human step per day. That’s slow. Three-toed sloths make fun of glaciers for being slow.
So I was under the impression that parts of Ohio were pretty flat until I married a young woman from Nebraska. Oh, I’d heard stories about the farmland in the Midwest before. I’ve heard about how farmers would start plowing their field in the morning, reach the end of the field at noon, stop for lunch, turn around, and drive back. I never believed that story, but all at once it seemed plausible.
So I looked this week at why the region known as The Great Plains is so very flat. Apparently, there was a time when this region was all under what is called the Western Interior Seaway. A shallow river flowed from Canada down through the Gulf of Mexico. It is really strange to think about because in the middle of Nebraska, they find shark skeletons. And to this day, there is one of the largest underground sources of water in the world lying below the Great Plains in the Ogallala Aquafer.
When comparing a river to a glacier, it is clear that a river doesn’t have the brute force of a glacier. But it moves a lot faster. And we have probably all seen how a river can erode a creek bank or carve out a canyon.
If speed is what you are after…I’d probably not choose either of these two methods.
No, if I was trying to level something, I’d probably start with dynamite and bulldozers. A good bulldozer would speed the process up significantly. I think of the paths that have been carved through the mountains with bulldozers and dynamite, tunnels through the middle of mountains, roads that make the high places lower and the low places higher.
In order from slowest to fastest, that would be glaciers, rivers, and bulldozers. Unfortunately, we don’t always get to choose.
Let’s look at the verses that I mentioned a few minutes ago. From Isaiah 40:3-4: “A voice of one calling: “In the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain.”
Recall that the Israelites have completed their time in exile and that they have been granted permission by Cyrus, the Persian king, to return to Jerusalem. God is speaking words of comfort to them; their iniquities have been pardoned. Then there is a voice. And you may notice that different translation begin the quote from that voice at different places. Is the voice calling from the wilderness, or is the voice saying to prepare the way for the Lord in the wilderness? The original Hebrew didn’t have capital letters, let alone punctuation, so it is hard to tell. But I lean toward the first option. The voice is coming from the wilderness.
This voice says to make the high places lower and the low places higher. Level off the rough places and make them into a plain. That’s right, my friends. The goal here is to make the world into Nebraska. No, we are just making a path here. The goal seems to carve out a road like I-64 crossing Afton Mountain. Rather than going all the way up and all the way down, we are to prepare a path that makes the journey as easy as possible.
But notice that we are not the ones making the journey. We are to prepare the way of the Lord. The imagery of Isaiah 40 isn’t one of making the paths straight for the people to return from exile and back to Jerusalem. The imagery is for the people to make the paths straight because God is coming to them.
How consistent is this with the teachings of Jesus? God is like a shepherd who leaves the 99 behind and searches for the one lost sheep. God is like a woman with 10 coins who loses one and turns the house upside down to find it. God is the one who is going to make the journey to the lost Israelites in exile, so they better do whatever they can to make the journey easier.
Though the text doesn’t state it explicitly, it would seem that God didn’t leave the people. No, the people left God.
I love the imagery over verses 10-11, “See, the Sovereign Lord comes with power, and he rules with a mighty arm…He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.”
Here is the big, powerful, sovereign Lord. He rules with his mighty arm, which could snap you in half (in my best professional wrestler voice), holding his people in his arms, close to his heart.
This is the reunion we want. This is why we prepare the way for the Lord.
Jumping ahead to the New Testament, it is pretty clear that the gospel writers connect the events described in Isaiah with the birth of Jesus. But we also know that there was one who came before Jesus, one who paved the way. We know him as John.
Look at what Mark does in chapter 1, verses 1-4:
The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah the Son of God, as it is written in Isaiah the prophet: I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way—a voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’ And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
Mark is actually quoting from several sources here, with a focus on Isaiah 40. This is the good news, the Gospel, about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God. Very political language here about the identity of Jesus. But the focus here is on the messenger of the Lord. The messenger is angelos in Greek; this is an angel from God. In the Bible we find both immortal and mortal angels. Gabriel and Michael, those are non-human angels. John is the son of a priest and his elderly wife. But he has a message from God, and therefore is an angelos, he is an angel.
The word order is a little different in Mark: it is clear that the voice is calling from the wilderness, instructing someone to prepare the way for the Lord. The voice is coming from the wilderness, not from the temple. You would expect some kind of religious pronouncement to come from the center of the religion. It should come from the Vatican, from Jerusalem, from Mecca, or from Harrisonburg. No, the voice doesn’t come from the established center of power, it comes from outside. It comes from the margins. From some homeless guy living in a tent out in the woods.
John is said to have worn cloak made of camel hair and a belt of leather. Why is this significant? First of all, that wasn’t the style of the time. Camel hair was itchy and wool was not only more comfortable, but readily available. But in 2 Kings we find a story about a prophet who was called by God to bring the people of Israel back to the Lord. This prophet makes a pronouncement against the king, and the king starts to ask about this prophet’s identity and asks his servants to describe the man. Chapter 1, verse 8: “They replied, ‘He had a garment of hair and had a leather belt around his waist.’ The king said, ‘That was Elijah the Tishbite.’”
Just for your information, “a garment of hair” can also be translated as “He is hairy and had a leather belt…” I could be a prophet, just saying.
John’s choice of clothing is intended to connect him with the great prophets of the Old Testament. In Luke’s gospel, the angel Gabriel says that John will go before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah. And later Jesus will say that off all men born of a woman, none were greater than John.
John’s job was a bit different from Elijah’s, though. John worked for VDOT. He was in the road construction business. It was John’s job to prepare a road for the Lord.
Recall that Isaiah said to make the path easier for God to come to the people. In Jesus, we believe that God did come to the people. And what Jesus said wasn’t always easy for the people to hear. Nobody wants to be told to sell their things and give the money to the poor. Nobody wants to hear that they need to forgive and love their enemies. Nobody wants to give up comfort and prestige to serve the least of these.
That’s why we need people out there, paving the way. We need people making the high places lower, the low places higher.
So if I am reading these scriptures correctly, and I know that there are other passages that indicate a different story, God is searching for us, pursuing us. God is coming to find us, and there is only one thing that can keep him from actually getting ahold of us.
We are the only thing keeping God away from us. The almighty creator of heaven and earth can set the world in motion and create the sun, moon, and stars. But God can’t force us to love him back.
All of these hills and valleys, rough and rugged terrains are self-imposed. And we are called to make the way smooth so God can come into our lives. And that is easier said than done. Many people have been hurt by the church and by Christians who were believed to be on the side of God. Some people have no need for God because they have all that they need, and they got it all on their own. If you have money, health, and good relationships, why would you need God? To the person who has it all, I would simply repeat the words of Solomon and say that it is all meaningless without God.
Like John before us, we are called to be way-pavers. Sometimes we can remove obstacles quickly, like a bulldozer, plowing through the mountains. It can be as easy as making an apology or offering to help. Other times we need to flood someone or something with love, like a river, slowing eroding and carving out a plain. And still other times things move as slow as a glacier, inch by inch, making the high places lower and the low places higher.
Fast or slow, that’s not always up to us. Regardless, we are called to make the high places lower and the low places higher.
God wants to meet us in exile. God came to this world in Jesus. Now the question comes down to are we going to be an obstacle to grace, or will be make the way smooth?