On the 2nd Sunday of Advent, we hear certain hopeful notes in our readings that begin to dispel the apocalyptic doom and gloom of Advent 1, and the few end-of-year Sundays prior. Today is also the Sunday when John the Baptist enters the scene, so appropriately, in place of a usual psalm, we sang Benedictus, or the Canticle of Zechariah, who was John’s father. Notice its similarities to Magnificat, the Song of Mary, which we will hear later in Advent. In these “songs”, both Mary and Zekariah anticipate the roles that their children would play in changing the world, and they certainly do so with hope and joy, albeit tempered by a measure of awe. I think that this is something that most parents do at the birth of their children; though of course, of all the pairs of eccentric cousins in this world, Jesus and John were rather special.
Their life stories intertwined from the months their mothers were pregnant, to the time that Jesus’ public ministry gained strength and John’s life tragically ended. Shortly prior, John affirmed Jesus’ vocation by baptising him, together with all those people whom he repeatedly warned about the imminent change that God would bring to this broken world. So if we equate being hopeful with being comforted, John and Jesus do not always sounds like the most hope-inspiring pair, particularly when they hurl insults at the Jewish religious leaders referring to them as venomous snakes, and telling the rest of the people that they didn’t quite measure up the ethical standards of the new Kingdom of God. John’s call to repentance decisively places the burden of preparing for the Kingdom’s arrival squarely on our own shoulders, which is appropriate for us to hear during the traditionally penitential Advent season. However, whether I feel ready and willing to embrace this call, or conversely, defiant and maybe even fearful, depends on the spiritual state in which each Advent finds me. Yes, our hope for a better future should be partly rooted in admitting that not everything was right with the past, including ourselves. But, it might also be helpful for us to know that some of the words that have a warning or chastising effect when they emerge from the lips of John, had already been written elsewhere with the intention of creating quite the opposite, comforting, effect.
So let’s have a look at the OT texts from which the gospel writers have John quoting. Lk 3:4-5 explicitly points to Is, which turns out to be 40:3-4, “A voice of one calling: “In the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain.” First, it strikes me that there’s a subtle difference in the way this phrase is parsed. At least according to English punctuation, in Lk, the wilderness is the place where the voice is doing the speaking; in Is, it is the place where the way of the Lord is prepared. Second, and more importantly, recall that the book of Is consists of 2 parts, of which the first was written in the 8th BC Judah, and the second - in the 500s BC Babylon during Judah’s captivity. So, there’s a contrast between the First Isaiah’s theme of judgement (ch 1-39) and the Second Isaiah’s messianic tone, full of comfort, blessing, and the glory of God. And, the switch happens in this very chapter 40, from which John quotes here, that begins with the words, “Comfort, comfort my people… Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for”. Unlike the view that John has of the people gathered on the banks of Jordan, here, the repentance of Israel is seen as already complete, her penance already served. What’s shared is the understanding that this desert highway, made into an easy one to travel, is the one upon which God would travel towards each human heart that awaits his return.
The imagery of road repair -- very familiar to us modern-day Torontonians! -- was quite suitable to express this idea in antiquity, when a traveling king would expect the roads to be put in good shape to facilitate his journey; and Is is not the only text to employ it. Baruch 5:1-9, perhaps written by the scribe of Jeremiah, uses very similar words. Bar is not included in the OT canon because only its Greek manuscripts are available, but the message is the same as that of other post-exilic prophets: “it is finished”. The penance is done; it is now time to replace the mourning clothing with the festive ones, and to rename the old ruins of Jerusalem as the “righteous place of godly glory”. Even nature itself will "bow down" and "give shadow" to the returning exiles. The city is presented initially as a poor mother, mourning for her exiled children and clothed with a garment of “sorrow and affliction”; then, she is raised to royal status by God, and puts on “the cloak of God’s justice”, as well as the crown/mitre on which “God’s name” is written, referring possibly to the special piece of headgear worn by the high priests who ritually took on the persona of YHWH. The change of clothing does signify the change in status, both in our culture and in the Bible. Think of Joseph’s colourful robe and Egyptian fine linen robe, or the nakedness of the person once possessed by a demon and healed/dressed by Jesus, or the prodigal son, dressed in his father’s robe, etc, where better clothing signifies divine blessings. In Bar, it points to the restoration of Jerusalem through her children, and becoming a place where societal justice gives credence to its worship.
But, who affects this change? This is the most important difference in the three desert highways references. Unlike Is and John, Bar does not say to the people, “make straight in the desert a highway”, so God comes to them. Bar writes, “God hath appointed to bring down every high mountain... and to fill up the valleys… that Israel may walk.” God prepares the road, and his people come home to him. Of course, in our relationship with God, it’s never one or the other, is it? God dismantles the high mountains of arrogance and idolatry (perhaps, because they were literally used as sites of pagan worship); and he pulls us up from the lowest valleys into which we sink in sin and despair. And so, along the desert highways of our hearts we wander to a fro, and God chooses to follow along, meet us halfway, or nudge us forward. Always, God’s grace does “more than we can ask or imagine”; yet, the place in which it has a chance to work is only found “in us.” Thanks be to God.