A voice of one crying out: Prepare the way of the Lord in the wilderness; make a straight highway for our God in the desert.Isaiah 40:3 (CSB)
In whatever translation I read or heard this verse read as a child, I always thought it was the voice itself that was in the wilderness, calling out from a place of desolation. And I suppose when you consider John the Baptist as a fulfillment of this prophecy, he did carry out his ministry in wild places. But this verse seems to imply that it’s the preparation also that takes place in the wilderness. The highway is built in the desert. That is where God visits us, isn’t it? Not in the busy, noisy, flashy main streets of our lives, but in the barren backwoods. Loneliness, despair, emptiness, brokenness, solitude — these are things that prepare us to hear and see and receive from God.
They can also, however, wall us off in a chamber of bitterness. Perhaps that’s why there’s such active words used here — prepare, make. Like Christmas dinner, these verbs require real effort. The turkey won’t cook itself. The vegetables need washing and peeling and chopping and boiling before they can be part of the feast. The wilderness itself won’t prepare us for God’s visit. We have to engage with those desolate places and take steps of faith as we wait for His appearing. And yet this analogy breaks down when I realize that it’s only God Himself who can really make the way and prepare me to receive Him. He alone has the wisdom and strength to break ground in my heart for that straight highway. My preparing and making and doing is really nothing more than a letting go, an active surrender to how God wants to reshape the landscape of my life.
Sometimes we want the wilderness transformed, we want happiness and wholeness, but we want it in the way we imagine it, not on God’s terms. We want deliverance but aren’t willing to give up dabbling in our own pet sins. We want wholeness, but we shrink from the hole it will leave in our hearts if we completely uproot every wrong desire and affection. We want happiness but don’t really believe we could ever be happy apart from our selfish indulgences. We want freedom, but deep down we really just wish we could be “free” to do as we please. Until we surrender our own foolish and fancy designs for the wilderness, it can’t ever be transformed into the thriving, spacious place God intends it to be. He works on His terms, and those terms require our complete trust, a total giving up and giving over. And we can only let go when we know the heart of the One taking control. Maybe that’s why God gave us the rest of Isaiah chapter 40. Take a few minutes today to read this beautiful passage of scripture and catch a fresh glimpse of your Maker, your Master. Let His majesty and tenderness woo you towards surrender in your wild and dry places this Advent.
“Comfort, comfort my people,” says your God. “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and announce to her that her time of hard service is over, her iniquity has been pardoned, and she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.” A voice of one crying out: Prepare the way of the Lord in the wilderness; make a straight highway for our God in the desert. Every valley will be lifted up, and every mountain and hill will be leveled; the uneven ground will become smooth and the rough places, a plain. And the glory of the Lord will appear, and all humanity together will see it, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken. A voice was saying, “Cry out!” Another said, “What should I cry out?” “All humanity is grass, and all its goodness is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flowers fade when the breath of the Lord blows on them; indeed, the people are grass. The grass withers, the flowers fade, but the word of our God remains forever.” Zion, herald of good news, go up on a high mountain. Jerusalem, herald of good news, raise your voice loudly. Raise it, do not be afraid! Say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!” See, the Lord God comes with strength, and his power establishes his rule. His wages are with him, and his reward accompanies him. He protects his flock like a shepherd; he gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them in the fold of his garment. He gently leads those that are nursing. Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand or marked off the heavens with the span of his hand? Who has gathered the dust of the earth in a measure or weighed the mountains on a balance and the hills on the scales? Who has directed the Spirit of the Lord, or who gave him counsel? Who did he consult? Who gave him understanding and taught him the paths of justice? Who taught him knowledge and showed him the way of understanding? Look, the nations are like a drop in a bucket; they are considered as a speck of dust on the scales; he lifts up the islands like fine dust. Lebanon’s cedars are not enough for fuel, or its animals enough for a burnt offering. All the nations are as nothing before him; they are considered by him as empty nothingness. With whom will you compare God? What likeness will you set up for comparison with him? An idol?—something that a smelter casts and a metalworker plates with gold and makes silver chains for? A poor person contributes wood for a pedestal that will not rot. He looks for a skilled craftsman to set up an idol that will not fall over. Do you not know? Have you not heard? Has it not been declared to you from the beginning? Have you not considered the foundations of the earth? God is enthroned above the circle of the earth; its inhabitants are like grasshoppers. He stretches out the heavens like thin cloth and spreads them out like a tent to live in. He reduces princes to nothing and makes judges of the earth like a wasteland. They are barely planted, barely sown, their stem hardly takes root in the ground when he blows on them and they wither, and a whirlwind carries them away like stubble. “To whom will you compare me, or who is my equal?” asks the Holy One. Look up and see! Who created these? He brings out the stars by number; he calls all of them by name. Because of his great power and strength, not one of them is missing. Jacob, why do you say, and Israel, why do you assert, “My way is hidden from the Lord, and my claim is ignored by my God”? Do you not know? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the whole earth. He never becomes faint or weary; there is no limit to his understanding. He gives strength to the faint and strengthens the powerless. Youths may become faint and weary, and young men stumble and fall, but those who trust in the Lord will renew their strength; they will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not become weary, they will walk and not faint. (Isaiah 40 CSB)