Sermon: Advent 2 Year B: Prepare the way of the Lord

Isaiah 40:1-11

2 Peter 3:8-15a

Mark 1:1-8

Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13

The Collect

Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen

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.”

There are a lot of layers in that phrase “prepare the way of the Lord.” It’s a verse from the prophet Isaiah. It’s a line in the Song of Zechariah that John the Baptist’s dad proclaims at his birth. It’s used in all four gospels at the introduction of John the Baptist’s role before he baptizes Jesus. I have been fascinated by that one repeated sentence of scripture since at least 2010 when I sent my Greek teacher an email about prepositional phrases.

If you look closely at the phases in the Mark quotation and the Isaiah original, you’ll notice a couple of differences. The words are the same. It’s the punctuation that’s different. The main difference is “where is the wilderness?” Is it where the way of the Lord is being prepared? Or is it where the voice is crying out? 

In Isaiah, the voice is crying out to the people in exile in Babylon to prepare the way of the Lord *through* the wilderness and return to Jerusalem. In the gospel according to Mark, and indeed, in all four gospels, the voice of John the Baptist cries out *in* the wilderness east of Jerusalem for people to prepare the way of the Lord through repentance and the forgiveness of sins. 

Why is there a difference? Because the words of the prophet meant something different in John the Baptist’s context than those same words meant in Isaiah’s context. In the context of the prophet Isaiah, a great wilderness separated the people from their homeland. There were mountains and valleys in the way. It seemed like they could never get back to the land of their ancestors. The prophet exhorts them to make the way anyway. The mountains will be flattened. The rough ground will be made smooth. Prepare the way of the Lord through the wilderness, because the Lord is gathering his flock like a shepherd. The long exile is over. The wilderness seems so great, but the word of our God is faithful.

Eventually the people did return to Jerusalem, they rebuilt the city and the temple. This is the Jerusalem of Jesus. I don’t know if it quite turned out like they thought it would though. They prepared the way of the Lord back to Jerusalem, and yet they were still subjects of the great empires of the world. The Persians, the Greeks, and finally the Romans. The Jewish holiday of Hanukkah commemorates one of the revolts against the Greek empire in Israel. Isaiah might have written the original prophecies in Hebrew, but by the time of the gospels, many people were reading the prophets in a Greek translation instead because that was the language of the empire. The people had made it back to Jerusalem, but where was the promised kingdom of God? Why were all these other kings and emperors in charge?

This is the context of John the Baptist. He uses the words of Isaiah to recall those great promises of the reign of God – and the people’s call to prepare the way. John went to the Jordan River east of Jerusalem. This was the western edge of the Isaiah’s wilderness. The people have already made their way back. John is in that wilderness, crying out for the people to prepare the way of the Lord. They may have returned to Jerusalem, but they still have to prepare the way of the Lord. 

The words of the prophet Isaiah are given a new inflection for a new time. It is now the voice of the prophet that is crying out in the wilderness. “Prepare the way of the Lord. Make his paths straight.” The people respond to John’s cry and are baptized with repentance and the forgiveness of sins. John says that one who is more powerful than himself is coming. Prepare the way of the Lord because he’s coming in power and glory. It did not quite turn out like they expected. John said that he was unworthy to untie Jesus’ sandal, and yet John baptized Jesus. Jesus did not come in power and glory as expected by the messianic interpretations of the prophets. There weren’t mountains being flattened or valleys being filled. Jesus was humble. And Jesus was killed by the empire. 

John never lived to see the triumph of the resurrection. He was beheaded by the king. But he prepared the way of the Lord with his entire life. I don’t think it turned out like John expected. Even if the way of the Lord is smooth and straight, I don’t think it ends up where we expect. 

The people in exile in Babylon did not expect that they would be subjects to a rotating cast of empires. John the Baptist and his followers did not expect a humble messiah. They did not expect the way of the Lord to lead to execution by the government. But they all prepared the way. They all were faithful to God’s word, just as God’s word is ever faithful. 

Sometimes it seems like we are voices crying out in the wilderness. Who is even listening? We just keep repeating the same things, trying to be heard. We are trying to prepare the way, but it seems like no one is listening. The people who have the power in our lives are not listening to the voices in the wilderness. But that does not mean we give up preparing the way of the Lord. God’s word is faithful. The voice in the wilderness crying out God’s word? God’s word will stand forever.

Preparing the way of the Lord won’t turn out like we expect. It didn’t happen as expected in Isaiah’s time. It didn’t happen as expected in John the Baptist and Jesus’ time. But that doesn’t mean we stop preparing. The people in this church have been so faithful. You have been preparing the way of the Lord for so long. I don’t know if any of what’s happening now is going as you expected. Maybe it feels like nothing is going right and we’ll never be free from worldly powers. But preparing the way of the Lord is never in vain. 

The context changes the interpretation of the prophecy. In one context we are preparing the way through the wilderness of empire. In another context we’re crying out from the wilderness that the Lord is coming. The core message remains: God’s word will stand forever. John was cut down by the king. Jesus was executed by the empire. God’s word will stand forever. Don’t worry about where the way of the Lord ends up – it’s going to be unexpected. God’s word will stand forever. That’s the legacy of our church. Nothing has turned out as expected. And yet we continue to prepare the way of the Lord. We prepare the way of the Lord because God’s word will stand forever. Amen

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