Living in Expectation (December 8, 2019)
Isaiah 40: 1-5, 9-11
Living In Expectation
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.”. These words from the prophet Isaiah might well be the most known prophecy of the Old Testament because we read it every year, or at least almost every year, during this season of Advent. The season where we are to “prepare the way of the Lord.” And we don’t always read it from Isaiah. Sometimes we read it from the Gospel according to Mark, because at the beginning of Mark he quotes the prophets: As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”
And we read one of those two almost every single year. Except those aren’t the same. This was pointed out to me as a began to prepare this sermon. We hear this passage during the season of Advent; we read this as Christians inherently already thinking toward who we believe fulfilled this in John the Baptist, as Mark presents. Mark says essentially, “this is the passage that is fulfilled in this character I am introducing called John; a voice that is out in the wilderness and crying out to prepare the way of the Lord.” And we read that back into Isaiah. But I found something new this week as I focused on this passage purely from Isaiah: something has been changed in Mark. Listen again to that words and focus on the punctuation. In the Gospel of Mark: “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, colon, ‘prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” But in Isaiah: “a voice cries out, colon, ‘in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’”
Mark has a voice standing in the wilderness crying out to the people of Jerusalem. Which is understandable because he’s talking about John. But Isaiah has a voice crying out from heaven, or from Jerusalem maybe, to a people in the wilderness saying, “hey, you, over there: prepare a path for the Lord.” And as I began to look at this, and begin to ask what Isaiah was actually saying in his time, I began to realize that perhaps we read something else into this as well. Because John does not talk about a literal highway. You know this. When John has you prepare a path for the Lord and make straight a path for the Lord, John is talking about the hearts of the “brood of vipers” standing in front of him. Was Isaiah talking about hearts and minds? We certainly read that into him. But this passage stood for 500 years, was considered sacred for 500 years, before Jesus and John ever show up on the map to provide their interpretation; and for the last 2000 years the Jewish people have maintained that this is Holy and important Scripture without believing it points to John. So what is Isaiah saying here? What message can we derive from this passage that can help us re-learn and reimagine what preparing for the Lord’s coming might mean? For we are not preparing for the first coming at this day and time, we are preparing ourselves for the second coming. And that might look a little different.
Isaiah continues on after where Mark stops. He says to make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be filled and lifted up, every mountain shall be made low. The uneven ground will become level and the rough places plain. I took me a little bit to wrap my head around, but I think we have a very good illustration of what’s going on right in our own backyard. It’s a little better if you can go toward Manhattan on I 70: as you head toward the Flint Hills you can see this even better. But you can still see it if you head south on I-35 or a little ways. And that is that there were hills to go through. President Eisenhower made a highway through this country; and as part of that they began to make laws saying, “OK, if we’re going to drive 50 miles an hour,” (can you imagine driving only 50 miles an hour on the interstate?). But, “if we’re gonna drive 50 miles an hour down a road, then we need to make sure it’s safe to do that. So it can’t go up more than a certain grade, it can’t go down more than a certain steepness, it can’t turn to the right or left more than a certain degree. And so they made this path for the highway. And the problem is that the ground they were going through went up a slope greater than that, it went down at a steeper grade than that, in certain places. And so they made it level: they blasted through the hill. That space between two giant cliff faces that you see in the hills or at least one side; that path didn’t just exist conveniently for them to put a highway through, they prepared the land to build the highway. They made it level. That’s what Isaiah is talking about doing here. He is saying to literally build a highway out in the wilderness. Build the highway in the desert, presumably all the way back to Jerusalem. And do whatever you have to do to make it happen: lower the hills, raise the valleys, build a highway.
So the next question of course is why? Why would we go through so much hassle to build a highway? If you’re going to do that much work, then there’s got to be a purpose. And we get some glimpse into the purpose through what Isaiah, and God through Isaiah, has to tell the people. The building of this highway leads to “the glory of the Lord [being] revealed. and all the people shall see it together. For the mouth of Lord has spoken.” Isaiah goes on to say, “O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!” See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom.” Make a highway because God has delivered the people. God has won the victory. Build a highway because God is going to gather his people back in. This is good news to the people of God where they are.
You see the people of God here are in the wilderness. They’re in Babylon. They have been taken into exile. Their city has been destroyed. They are Judiates, they are Israelites, their Jerusalemites, but there is no Judah, there is no Israel, there is no Jerusalem. Who are they, as I said, in exile? And here Isaiah begins to preach about them returning home, about a coming blessing, about a redemption. Isaiah chapter 40 begins, “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid.” Jerusalem is forgiven. This is a people who have just lost everything. They’ve lost the battle. They lost their home. They lost the kingdom. They lost their king. They lost their temple. Which in the Jewish faith of the time, there was a belief that the sacrifices they did at the Temple were what kept the world rotating if you will. They kept the world going. There was a worry by some at least that because they were no longer sacrificing the Temple, that the world will end. This is a people who have lost everything. They don’t know what to do. They’ve lost. They’ve let their their king down. They let their God down. And Isaiah says to these people, “build a highway to declare the glory of God, for God will gather you back in.”
There was, for the most part, only one reason you would build a highway like this in the ancient, pre-Roman, times. And that was to celebrate. You build a highway like this, prepared the way and made it straight, so the king could ride in on his horse in victory. The way Jesus does on his donkey heading into Jerusalem. What Isaiah is saying here is, “yes, you lost the battle. You lost to the Babylonians and you’re in exile you’re now in Babylon. But what I say to you, in the wilderness, is to make a highway for a victorious king.” In other words, you lost the battle, but good news: God won the battle. And now God says to prepare to celebrate. Prepare to go home. Make this highway through the desert going back to Jerusalem. Comfort, O comfort my people, your term has been served, your penalty is paid. You’re going home.
Yes, God will still expect you to repent. And that certainly is what John gets into. That certainly is what Jesus gets into. Yes, God will still expect you to repent. Yes God still expects you to behave in the same way they God expected them to behave before the exile; the way you didn’t behave which caused you to go into exile in the first place. However, your slate is clean. All of the previous years that got them in trouble have been wiped clean. You have a fresh new start. And that’s good news! That’s the same good news that Jesus gives us on the cross: your debt is paid, your term is served. The battle is won, prepare a celebratory parade. But that’s difficult to hear when we don’t think our slate was that full to begin with. We don’t realize the magnitude of the problem we have. When we don’t understand that we deserve exile, we deserve defeat, it’s hard to hear this good news. That’s why pastors harp upon sin as much as we do. There are there a lot of mountains in the US, just as there were a lot of mountains that John saw looking at him, that needed brought low in order to make that path straight for God.
But as we look at this, I want you to understand who is it that’s been called to make the highway. Who is it that’s being called to prepare the way? Does this passage say that God will prepare a way in the wilderness? No, no it doesn’t. Yes, God has won the victory and God will walk the highway in the wilderness, but God isn’t being told to build it. Does it say that the messenger will build the highway in the wilderness? Does it say that Isaiah will build a highway, or that but John will? No, no it doesn’t. It says “you who are in the wilderness, you that are standing in front of John; you prepare the way, you build this highway.” I cannot do it, you have to do it.
And preparing the highway did not mean building a street along the lay of the land that was already there, the way you might build 223rd street out here: just up and down with whatever way or direction the land was already going. No, preparing the way meant changing what was there. It meant making the land actively different from what it is now. Making this highway means moving mountains. Fortunately, moving mountains is what Christians are supposed to specialize in.
But it takes sacrifice. It’s not easy. Following Jesus means changing our own personal culture, our souls, to heaven‘s culture. It means sacrificing perhaps more than we’re comfortable with. When Jesus was here, he began to prepare the disciples on how to prepare a path; to begin to teach them what it looked like to prepare a path. He began to say things like “the greatest is the servant.” He began to say things like “if you have two coats, and your neighbor has none, you need to give one of your coats to your neighbor.” He began to say things like “when you arrive at a banquet table, sit at the lowest position.” He began to say things like “take up your cross daily and follow me.” Preparing the way is not easy, but it is what we are called to do. Jesus is coming back in victory, and that is good news! The battle is won. Our slates are wiped clean. In the season of Advent, this season of preparation, let me ask you: are we making a highway for the Lord in Spring Hill? Let’s do it. Amen.