|John the Baptist, Rosary Basilica, Lourdes|
Imagine this scene: You’re standing in the heavenly courts when God gets up to speak. God tells the heavenly council: “Comfort, O comfort my people.” Yes, “speak tenderly to Jerusalem” because the city has paid the penalty. Therefore, the time for healing has begun.
Then a voice from the council responds: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God” so that “the glory of the Lord shall be revealed.” That’s good news for exiles living in Babylon because that means it’s time for God to lead them home on a brand-new freeway!
Then a third voice offers a word of caution. While God is faithful, people are a lot like grass that withers when “the breath of the Lord blows upon it.” Nevertheless, despite our tendency to fall short of God’s expectations, God’s word stands forever. In this, there is hope.
So, let us go to the mountain and shout out with our strength to the cities of Judah and to the world at large: “do not fear” because “here is your God.” Yes, “go tell it on the mountain!”
These verses from Isaiah 40 mark the beginning of the oracles of Second Isaiah, which were spoken to exiles living in Babylon. Second Isaiah offers words of comfort and encouragement to these exiles. The prophet reminds them that God is faithful to the covenant promises. So, even if it seems like God is absent, God hadn’t forgotten them.
In this reading, the prophet invites us to envision God coming to deliver the people from bondage as both a mighty warrior and a gentle shepherd. Yes, the Lord comes with might, but, God also comes as the gentle shepherd. God rules and gathers the flock, feeding it and carrying the lambs in God’s bosom, while leading the mother sheep.
While we may find it difficult to bring together images of a warrior king and a gentle shepherd, they combine to describe two important dimensions of God’s nature—power and gentleness. So, in the words of George Stroup: “this is no ordinary shepherd” [Feasting on the Word, p. 30].
We hear this word during Advent because it provides the foundation for the ministry of John the Baptist. If we turn to the opening verses of the Gospel of Mark, we’re told that John’s ministry fulfills the promise of Isaiah 40. John does this by preparing the way for Jesus by preaching a message of repentance and baptism. The prophet may have had something else in mind, like the return of the exiles to Jerusalem, but Isaiah’s words provide a foundation for understanding the ministries of John and Jesus. While John prepares the way by baptizing with water, Jesus completes the process by baptizing with the Holy Spirit (Mk. 1:1-8).
This Advent season helps us slow down a bit as we prepare for Christmas, but it’s good to remember that Mark doesn’t have a Christmas story like Matthew or Luke. Instead, he focuses on the ministry of Jesus that begins with his baptism. It’s in Jesus’ baptism that “the glory of the Lord [is] revealed, and all peoples shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
As we hear this word from Second Isaiah, it feels as if we’re experiencing exile. When you live in exile, it can seem as if God is absent. We may feel like crying out “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Ps. 22:1). Thanks to technology, we can keep in contact, but I do miss being together in the flesh. This separation can make it feel as if God is absent. The prophet understands that feeling, which is why Isaiah proclaims from the mountain top: “Here is your God.” Yes, “See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him” (Is. 40:10). Not only does God come like a warrior to deliver us from exile, but God also comes as a shepherd to feed and gently lead us forward. May this be a word of comfort to us during this difficult season.
As we take this journey toward Christmas, it’s good to remember that we live between two Advents. There is the first Advent that begins with the birth of Jesus. Then, there is the Advent yet to come when the glory of God will be revealed anew. As we navigate life between these two Advents, may this word from John Holbert concerning the message of Isaiah, provide us with a sense of direction:
God comforts us in order that we may at long last become what God wanted us to be from the beginning, namely God’s children, God’s agents in the world, empowered by a love that will not let us go. Accept the comfort of this God, luxuriate in it, put it on like your finest coat, and then go out and be God’s child in a world eager to return home. [“Unbreakable Love of YHWH,” 12/2/14].
Yes, “Go, tell it on the mountain, over the hills and everywhere; Go, tell it on the mountain, that Jesus Christ is born.”
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
December 6, 2020
Image Attribution: John the Baptist, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56326 [retrieved December 5, 2020]. Original source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/paullew/7430552174/.