"Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God….Ev’ry valley ev’ry valley shall be exalted…And the glory, the glory of the Lord shall be revealed…" How many folks who are at least somewhat familiar with worship music hear these words and think of Handel’s "Messiah?" Isaiah’s words in the beginning of chapter 40 have been interpreted in music throughout the ages, but perhaps none as majestically as Handel’s magnificent work. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all used these words in their introductions of John the Baptist, with some slight variations. Biblical scholars think that Isaiah was written in 3 eras. Put very simply, Isaiah 1-39 came at the time when the prophet was warning the people of their errant ways. Isaiah 40-55 was proclaimed to comfort the people who were in exile, to let them know that God would restore them. And Isaiah 55-66 speaks to the restored nation. So the passage we heard today was at the beginning of this second era, at a time when the Israelite people were in strange lands and in the midst of foreign peoples worshiping foreign gods. If biblical scholarship is right, there were 150 years between the writing of First Isaiah and Second Isaiah. The Babylonians had conquered the Israelites and destroyed the Temple and most of Jerusalem, and carried the Israelite people away from their homes and worship. Ancient theology saw this period of 150 years as punishment for Israel’s errant ways. As we begin Isaiah 40, God has heard the cries of the people and relented. "She has served her term,…her penalty is paid" (v.2). The passage then tells of the coming restoration at the hands of God. "In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God" (v. 4). The people are in the wilderness, and God says to build a highway so that they can proceed back to Jerusalem. In those times, highways were built for triumphant or regal entrances of kings or conquering heroes. The procession would be public, surrounded by crowds watching and waving, as when Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey in what we observe as Palm Sunday(It would be sort of like a homecoming parade for a team who has won the national championship!) All of this would be for the glory of God, not of the people. For grass withers in time, flowers blossom and fade, people live and die, but God’s Word stands forever, says the passage. It is a triumphant passage, and God is depicted in two almost opposing ways – as the mighty, victorious warrior (v.10) and as a shepherd who cares lovingly for his flock.
Our passage from Mark seems like an odd one for Advent, when we are looking ahead for the birth of Jesus. Jesus is mentioned only once, in the first verse which is an incomplete sentence, perhaps more of a title than a statement. And Mark does not include any kind of birth narrative. But this is a traditional Advent passage because it tells us something about who the Christ child will be. The verse cited from Isaiah is really a combination of verses from Isaiah 40:3 and Malachi 3:1. Isaiah 40:3 says, again, "A voice cries out: In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord…" Malachi 3:1 says "See, I am sending a messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight – indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts." So the messenger, John the baptizer, makes the way clear for the one to follow, the one so much greater than him that John is not fit to untie his shoes. John, the one who baptized, appeared in the wilderness, the desert, dressed like prophets of old, and eating food from the land. He far proceeds many naturalists of today, as one who truly lived organically. He preached "a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins" (v.4). The Greek word for repent means "to change one’s mind." The Hebrew word behind it means "to turn around, to change one’s heart, will, and conduct." (Brueggeman, p. 31). In the wilderness, where usually people are scarce, many had come seeking to hear this message and to be baptized by this strange man. They publically confessed their sins, and John baptized them in the Jordan River as a sign of their forgiveness from God. John gladly served them, all the while demurring to the one to come who would baptize not just with water, but with the Holy Spirit (v.8).
Both of these passages proclaim the good news to a people in a wilderness. In modern terms, a wilderness is a place uninhabited or civilized by people. There can be vast stretches of wilderness, especially in natural parks or conservation areas. There can even be bits of wilderness in urban areas, along rivers or other areas. But there are less and less true wildernesses in our world. Wilderness in biblical times could refer to desolate areas, but it could also be "a place beyond," or even "a place of herding." Prophets, and Jesus, went into the wilderness to be tested or tempted, so it became also a place of spiritual renewal. Surviving a wilderness demonstrates an ability to overcome dangers, physical and/or psychological.
Many might say that we are in a wilderness now, both personally and corporately. We have had a lot of suffering and death in recent months in this congregation, and beyond, many people with cancer or other illnesses or ailments. The economic status of our country, even of our world, wavers up and down and causes us much angst, costing many their jobs and livelihoods. The political climate is so divided that there seems as if nothing can bridge the gap to return us to unity, to wholeness. Too many of our brave young people are hurting or dying as they serve the military in foreign lands, in wildernesses. Maybe we are in the wilderness waiting for God to come back to comfort us.
For there was that span of 150 years between the sections of Isaiah. The people suffered much during that time. There was still a wilderness in Jesus’ time. Still today there are wildernesses, places beyond, where we can be tempted or tested – but where we can also be spiritually enriched. Both of our passages for today declare to us that there was a messenger present in the wilderness proclaiming the presence of God. God, who sends and prepares all messengers, or prophets, was also present in the wilderness. The people simply failed to recognize God’s presence as they wallowed in the place beyond, thinking that God had somehow left them behind. Perhaps we do the same thing. We miss God’s presence because we feel as if we are in a desolate wilderness. Maybe the key to surviving is in our faithful outlook and attitude. A modern parable that the women at the Fall’s Women Retreat shared talks of moving from a dump of a place called Resentment to a beautiful place where everyone was happy, called Gratitude. When we recognize that God is present even in the wilderness, surely we can make it through to the other side, to the place called Joy and Peace. For God offers comfort wherever we go, comfort as strong as a warrior, but at the same time, as gentle as a shepherd.
The book Unbroken tells the true story of Louie Zamperini, an Olympic runner who became a Prisoner of War in Japan in World War II. The title may be a bit deceptive, for Louie did indeed become broken for a while, after cruel and neglectful treatment in the POW camps. Alcohol became his solace for a while upon his return. But his wife dragged him to a tent meeting led by a young and inspiring evangelist named Billy Graham. Louie picked up his Bible and his life again. He realized that God had been with him even during the wilderness of his imprisonment, but he did so as many of us do, in looking back on the experience. The truth that saved Louie saves us all, and is the simple message of today’s passage. God loves us and is present with us at all times, through valleys and peaks, in wilderness and celebration.
Each time we come to this communion table, we are reminded that Christ is with us in the wilderness, that, in fact, Jesus has overcome the wilderness once and for all. In this Advent season, we celebrate once more God coming into the world to save us from ourselves and from our world. We celebrate God come to earth, God with us. And God IS with us always, even to the end of the age. Glory be to God! Amen.