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;
indeed, she has received from the hand of the LORD
double for all her sins.
A voice cries out:
In the desert prepare the way of the LORD!
Make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God!
Every valley shall be filled in,
every mountain and hill shall be made low;
the rugged land shall be made a plain,
the rough country, a broad valley.
Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together;
for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.
Go up on to a high mountain,
Zion, herald of glad tidings;
cry out at the top of your voice,
Jerusalem, herald of good news!
Fear not to cry out
and say to the cities of Judah:
Here is your God!
Here comes with power
the Lord GOD,
who rules by his strong arm;
here is his reward with him,
his recompense before him.
Like a shepherd he feeds his flock;
in his arms he gathers the lambs,
carrying them in his bosom,
and leading the ewes with care.
Do not ignore this one fact, beloved,
that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years
and a thousand years like one day.
The Lord does not delay his promise, as some regard "delay,"
but he is patient with you,
not wishing that any should perish
but that all should come to repentance.
But the day of the Lord will come like a thief,
and then the heavens will pass away with a mighty roar
and the elements will be dissolved by fire,
and the earth and everything done on it will be found out.
Since everything is to be dissolved in this way,
what sort of persons ought you to be,
conducting yourselves in holiness and devotion,
waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God,
because of which the heavens will be dissolved in flames
and the elements melted by fire.
But according to his promise
we await new heavens and a new earth
in which righteousness dwells.
Therefore, beloved, since you await these things,
be eager to be found without spot or blemish before him, at peace.
As it is written in Isaiah the prophet:
Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you;
he will prepare your way.
A voice of one crying out in the desert:
"Prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight his paths."
John the Baptist appeared in the desert
proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
People of the whole Judean countryside
and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem
were going out to him
and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River
as they acknowledged their sins.
John was clothed in camel's hair,
with a leather belt around his waist.
He fed on locusts and wild honey.
And this is what he proclaimed:
"One mightier than I is coming after me.
I am not worthy to stoop and loosen the thongs of his sandals.
I have baptized you with water;
he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."
The first words of today’s first reading are some of Yahweh’s most exciting biblical words. “Comfort, give comfort to my people says your God.” It’s the initial verse of Deutero-Isaiah’s famous 16 chapters. Our faith has never been the same since the ministry of this unnamed prophet. Isaiah 40-55 introduces a whole new way of looking at God working in our lives, a perspective on Yahweh that can only have arisen during the darkest days of the Babylonian Exile. A new situation demands new insights. Fortunately, the prophet was up to the challenge.
Not only does Deutero-Isaiah announce an end to the 50-year exile, but the reason he gives for knowing it’s finally over is the key to all his oracles. “The mouth of Yahweh has spoken.” When any Israelite demands to know how he’s certain they’re going home, he simply responds, “Yahweh has given his word.”
Though the Chosen People had known about God’s word long before the Babylonian Exile, this particular prophet puts that word at the center of their faith. Once Yahweh speaks, it happens.
This emphasis on the power of God’s word deeply affected later biblical authors. Scholars, for instance, are convinced the Priestly author of Genesis’ first chapter had a copy of Deutero-Isaiah in front of him when writing his unique creation myth. Unlike Genesis 2, God doesn’t get down on God’s hands and knees and form man from the mud. God creates only by saying, “Let there be!” Quickly followed by, “And so there was!” God doesn’t even break a sweat.
Without God’s word, there’s no creation.
Even the last writer of the Christian Scriptures, the unknown author of II Peter, falls back on that word. One of the few still holding out hope for Jesus’ Second Coming in the first years of the second century CE, he assures his readers, “According to his (Jesus’) promise we await new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.” If he’s said it, it’s got to happen, no matter when it’s going to take place.
But almost 100 years earlier, John the Baptizer, as a member of the Dead Sea Scrolls community, fell back on a “repunctuated” version of Deutero-Isaiah as assurance that Yahweh was soon to break into the Chosen People’s history. “Prepare the way of Yahweh, make straight his paths,” he proclaims.
Though we Christians believe John’s speaking about Jesus of Nazareth, scholars tell us he has no inkling this simple Capernaum carpenter is actually the divine person he’s looking for. After all, Jesus is one of his own disciples! How could someone so common actually be so special?
These same scholars are convinced the “put-downs” John says about himself in reference to Jesus were put into his mouth by Christians dealing with the fact that, in the beginning, John was actually better known and more highly regarded than Jesus. Followers of Jesus are the ones who believe, “One mightier than I is coming after me,” not the Baptizer.
In some sense, the historical John’s misplaced belief in Yahweh’s word is simply an example of limiting that word to just the circumstances with which we’re familiar and comfortable. The late Marshal McLuhan often encouraged us to go through life looking out the car’s front window instead of constantly glancing in its rearview mirror. It’s easier to encounter what’s already been instead of what’s going to be.
Even if we follow God’s word, we must always appreciate it’s a constantly evolving, constantly new word. Change is an essential part of God’s nature. No matter how we’ve understood that word in the past, we’re now expected to deal with it in the present and the future.
Perhaps John the Baptist can demonstrate how best to accomplish that.