No commentator can ever do justice to the message Deutero-Isaiah delivers in today’s first reading. They’re the first words of someone who eventually changed our faith. His proclamation has resonated in the minds and hearts of people of faith for over 2,500 years. Even mark, the first Christian evangelist, falls back on it when he sets the theme for his own work.
“Comfort, give comfort to my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her service is at an end, her guilt is expiated . . . A voice cries out: In the desert prepare the way of Yahweh! Make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God!”
For over fifty years, Jews who had endured the Babylonian Exile longed to hear these words. Their wildest dreams were finally about to come true. They were going home!
Because he delivered a message like this, we’d logically presume the prophet’s people would have honored and respected him like no other prophet in Jewish history. That’s why my students are always shocked to discover that some in Deutero-Isaiah’s community eventually killed him!
It was inevitable that Jesus’ earliest followers surfaced parallels between this unnamed prophet and the carpenter from Galilee. Their itinerant preaching leader had also proclaimed comfort and consolation and ended up being killed by some of his people. The basic reason both were martyred appears to be the same. No one could fault their message. The listeners simply couldn’t stomach how that message was to be fulfilled.
Jesus and Deutero-Isaiah gave almost the same proof for their optimism: “. . . The mouth of Yahweh has spoken.” In some ways these words remind me of the proof George Burns offers John Denver in the 1980 movie Oh, God! When Denver asks, “Why would anyone believe you’re the one sending me to them?” Burns replies, “No problem.” Then he hands him his card and says, “Show them this.” The card has just one word on it: “God!”
The power of God’s word only surfaces when people do what’s necessary to make that word real.
In the case of Deutero-Isaiah, the prophet expected his listeners to experience Yahweh working in ways and through people many found abhorrent. They had to broaden their faith to the point of seeing that the Messiah they were expecting to lead them out of exile wasn’t even a Jew. Yahweh had handed over that task to an uncircumcised, pagan, Gentile, Persian king named Cyrus. Everyone wanted God’s comforting word fulfilled, but not everyone wanted it fulfilled exactly like that.
In the same way, many Jews during Jesus’ earthly ministry weren’t willing to go through the dying and rising which he demanded of those “baptized in the Holy Spirit.” They wanted the comfort and consolation of having their sins forgiven, but they refused to carryout either John or Jesus’ regimen of repentance which brought about that forgiveness. Both demanded that their listeners become “new people,” accepting a value system which others thought ridiculous.
Writing nearly 100 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, our II Peter author expects the same of his community. Addressing the fact that salvation hasn’t developed along the lines Jesus’ first followers had anticipated, the writer doesn’t despair just because Jesus’ Parousia hasn’t happened. Whatever the circumstances, Christians must continually “make every effort to be found without stain or defilement, and at peace in (God’s) sight.”
Our sacred authors’ message is both clear and biting: God’s working in our lives, bringing about the world all of us long for. But only those courageous enough to step outside the confines of the world in which they’re presently comfortable will ever receive the comfort God offers.