All of us know that we are to expect Christ – to be ready to hear and respond to the voice that calls to us and draws us home. But we sometimes tune out. So, what can help us? The writer of Mark tells us that the voice of God is most easily heard in the wilderness. For it is in the wilderness that the prophets tell us to prepare for the Messiah. “In the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”
Second Isaiah was bringing good news to a people in exile. He imagines a smooth level road in the desert on which the exiles can return home. He takes them back to their history – a history in which a time of rebellion against God was punished by wandering forty years in the desert, followed by entry into the promised land.
In Isaiah’s schema the exiles have done their time, their ‘penalty is paid’ and therefore they can expect once again to be led by God out of the wilderness and back to the promised land. And so, he urges them, while they are still undergoing the experience of exile, of wilderness, to prepare a way for God.
The Jews in Jesus’s time also felt themselves to be in a spiritual wilderness. They were living as an oppressed people under the Romans. They had not received the voice of God since the last of the prophets several centuries earlier and they were waiting for the heavens to open once more. There were teachers among them who urged them to expect that the messiah would return in the wilderness – though quite which bit of the wilderness was open to dispute! So it is no surprise that the writer of mark locates John the Baptist in the wilderness. Indeed, it was expected that the herald of the Messiah would be Elijah, so again it is no surprise that John the Baptist is described as wearing clothing reminiscent of Elijah, who in 2Kings1 is declared to be ‘a hairy man, with a leather belt around his waist.’
But a comma can make a big difference – except that ancient texts have no punctuation. Mark interprets Isaiah as saying, “a voice crying out in the wilderness’ – and attributes that voice to john. In fact, in the Hebrew Isaiah says, ‘a voice crying out; “In the wilderness prepare a way”. So, does it matter? Well only in so far as it is important that we remember that we are to prepare in the wilderness. And that is very encouraging. Indeed, to use Isaiah’s word, it is very comforting.For it tells us that we do not have to wait until everything is perfect in our world or lives to prepare for God’s coming. Rather we are to begin right here and now, in the midst of whatever mess and vulnerability confronts us.
For each of us is in our own kind of exile, separated from our truest selves – that is just what it is to be human. Our lives sometimes seem like high tension wires, strung between disturbance and obligation. The voice of God with its promise of comfort and return, calls out in this wilderness of our own noise and haste, where we are held captive by our tasks and obligations, our fears and desires. The voice of the prophets calls us home from this exile, home to our own lives, to our true selves, to our own Belovedness.
The road home, the way to re-enter our own lives, leads often through silence and darkness; through that cloud of unknowing I spoke of last week; through our not knowing what to say or do. It leads us through mystery, in which we dwell with that voice, without words for it or ways to manage it.
The way home is not an arduous journey. In fact the promise of Advent is that One is coming who will lead us, carry us, feed us, bring us back. Yet we can also expect that One to be little, weak, vulnerable as a tiny child – such a One is not to be found in places of comfort and wealth but among the poorest of the poor.
So, in these Advent days, listen for the voice of the One who calls you home from exile. Prepare a way in your wildernesses – a way of silence and stillness amid all the busyness; a way of not knowing but of waiting. Wait for the voice of the One who speaks tenderly to your soul, who leads you in loving gentleness and who whispers in the darkness, “Comfort, O comfort my people”. Amen
by Penny Jones, for the 2nd Sunday of Advent 2020, 6 December 2020