By Jim Vitale
“A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD.’”
Isaiah 40:1-11 drops us into the middle of a wilderness. But into what wilderness have we been thrown, exactly? Isaiah 40 is addressed to the people who have been conquered and exiled by the Babylonian empire. It is the first word Isaiah speaks after Jerusalem is destroyed. Earlier in the book of Isaiah, we hear God warn that Babylon will turn Jerusalem into a wasteland. If Israel continues on its current course, God warns, then Babylon will invade and this lush and fertile land that Israel so loves will become a barren desert.
So into what wilderness have we been thrown? To be sure, we are thrown into the wilderness of a ruined Jerusalem. But the wilderness also represents so much more. The ruin of Jerusalem brought with it the loss of life and home and family. When Babylon turned Jerusalem into a wilderness, it turned the lives of the Israelites into a wilderness as well.
The wilderness in which the Israelites sit, out of which this mysterious voice cries, is a wilderness with which I think we can all identify. It represents loss in all its various forms. It is the wilderness of refugees; it is the wilderness of drug addiction; it is the wilderness of illness; of debt; of lost loved ones; of broken marriages; of fear; of death.
And it is into that wilderness that a voice cries: “prepare the way of the LORD!”
This week, I was captivated by the following lines: “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.” I have often been puzzled by these words. Perhaps it is obvious to you, but it was never obvious to me why mountains would need to be leveled out and valleys filled in. What does landscaping have to do with the coming of God? Then it hit me: the fastest way between two points is a straight line. A plain is far more quickly and easily traversed than a mountain or a valley.
When Isaiah states that the mountains, valleys, and rough places will all be leveled out, he is artistically proclaiming the good news that God is coming directly. Nothing will slow down God’s coming. God is coming as quickly as God can. The road has been smoothed out and God’s path is a direct line back to the people.
Isaiah 40 is one big hopeful proclamation that God is coming on a straight path through the wilderness of our loss to be with us, to save us, and to bring us home. So often we try to find God in the positive moments of our lives, but Isaiah tells us here that God is most often present with us in the midst of our losses, in our exiles, our struggles, our wilderness. It is in the moments when we are most attuned to our own powerlessness, our own weakness, our own suffering that we actually experience God.
The woman who has a good job, a nice family, a swanky house, and a cute timeshare may give thanks to God for the gifts that she thinks God has given her; but in such contented circumstances she will never cry out to God as desperately, as completely, as hungrily, as faithfully as the woman who has alienated her last friend through her addiction to pain killers. I’m not saying that we should purposefully reach for rock bottom so that we can experience God; I’m saying that we will all have moments of loss, and it is in those moments when we will cry out to God to come to us.
And so in such a moment a voice cries out: prepare the way of the LORD!
I think many sermons on Isaiah 40 have focused on what it means for us to prepare the way for the Lord. But I think that misses the point. It is not we who make the way for God to come. Any attempts for us to make a straight path for God would be ultimately fruitless. Our inability to make a path to God is exactly the reason why we need God to come to us. Isaiah speaks to this later in the reading when we hear:
“A voice says, ‘Cry out!’
And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’
All people are grass,
their constancy is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades.”
The prophet is asked to speak, and he finds that all his words are empty. As a mortal human he realizes there is nothing he could say that would ever make a difference, there are no humans words that could ever have any eternal significance. He speaks to the futility and frailty of human action. There is no human being who can make a way for God because we are powerless.
“The grass withers and the flower fades,” Isaiah writes, “but the word of our God will stand forever.” With this line, there is a sudden change in tone. The despair of human frailty is set aside and replaced with the good news of God’s action: “Get you up to a high mountain,” the voice cries, “and say, ‘Behold your God!’”
Isaiah despairs that there is nothing Isaiah can do; and so God redirects Isaiah’s attention to what God is doing. With this newfound vision, Isaiah then preaches the enduring message that “God is coming.” And when God comes, Isaiah continues, “[God] will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.” Isaiah does not depend upon his own power or strength or intelligence or wealth—none of those things would accomplish anything; rather, he turns to the enduring word of God and preaches the hopeful message that God is coming to comfort God’s people.
Like Isaiah, we are all called to preach the good news of God’s coming in the wilderness. But in order to do that, we first have to go ourselves into the wilderness. And maybe you are already there. To share the good news, we first have to find people who need to hear it; we have to be willing to dwell with people in their suffering, to tend to people in their loss. The good news of God’s future coming will only ever be comforting to someone if we model that coming with our own bodies.
In her book Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved, Kate Bowler talks about her travels through the wilderness of stage IV colon cancer. She says in her book that very few of the things people said to her to comfort her actually provided her any comfort. Instead, it was what people did for her, bringing her food, sitting with her on the front porch, listening to her talk. She writes, “I did not tell them how few of their words are needed but how much their hands are wanted, a hand on my back as I tear up, a hand on my head for a soft prayer for healing.” Kate Bowler was comforted not by people’s words, but by their presence. When we go to people in their wilderness experiences and we provide them with our presence, then maybe, just maybe, people might start sensing God’s presence, too; and then, and only then, does the news “God is coming” become good to hear.
Our reading today throws us into the middle of a wilderness, and in this season of Advent, that’s exactly where we should be. But we aren’t meant to dwell in this wilderness in despair. Instead, we are to listen for that voice here in the wilderness, the one that proclaims to us again God’s promised coming. And we don’t just keep that good news to ourselves—no. In this season of Advent, and in the coming season of Christmas, we seek out those who dwell in the wilderness, we offer them our presence, and we speak to them the good news that God is coming to be with us, and God will never leave.