Prepare The Way of the Lord (Isaiah 40: 1-11, Mark: 1:1-8)
by T.V. Philip
T. V. Philip, born in India and a lay member of the Mar Thoma Church, has worked and taught in India, Europe, USA and Australia. He is a church historian, and a former Professor at the United Theological College, Bangalore, India. The following appeared in The Kingdom of God is Like This, by T.V. Philip, jointly published by the Indian Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge and Christava Sahitya Samithy (CSS), Cross Junction, M.C. Road, Tiruvalla-689 101, Kerela, India. The material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Isaiah 40: 1-11, Mark: 1:1-8:
Prepare the way for the Lord; clear a straight path for him.
This is the season of Advent. Advent means coming or arrival, especially the arrival of someone who is expected. The readings for today remind us of two things:
• First, the Advent season is the time when we await with great expectation the coming of the Lord -- the great Christian festival of Christmas.
• Second, it is the time when we prepare ourselves and our society to receive the Lord when he comes.
We need to prepare a way for the Lord and make his path straight so that there will not be any obstacles in his way. Awaiting with expectation and preparing to receive the Lord are two important aspects of the Advent season.
Israel was a nation in waiting, waiting for the coming of the Messiah. God had chosen Israel to be his people. He had promised that he would be their God and they his people. But their experience as a nation was contrary to all the promises of God. The history of the Jewish nation was a history of suffering. They were conquered, plundered and their Temple destroyed by other nations. Finally, they ended up in exile. None of God’s promises were fulfilled. Psalm eighty-five is a cry of a defeated and suffering nation. The Psalmist cries:
Turn back to us, 0 God our Saviour,
Yet the Psalmist ends with a cry of hope: Surely salvation is near.
Isaiah 40 is addressed to a nation in exile. In the midst of its national tragedy, the prophet speaks of hope. God tells the prophet,
Comfort, comfort my people
God asks the prophet to go up to the high mountain and proclaim the good tidings. He says, Cry to the cities of Judah,
Your God is here.
Behold your God, He is coming. These are the good tidings for Israel.
At the time of Jesus, the expectation of the Messiah was at its highest. Everyone in Israel was waiting eagerly for the Messiah. The different sects in Israel - the Pharisees, the Zealots, the Essenes - were all waiting for the Messiah. When baby Jesus was taken to the Temple, there was Simon, who was waiting for the consolation of Israel. There was Anna, the prophetess, who was of a great age. She did not depart from the Temple, worshipping with fasting and prayer night and day. She gave thanks to God for Jesus and spoke of him to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.
When John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Jordan, the whole of Judea and Jerusalem went after him, thinking he would be the Messiah. The people of Israel was a community in waiting, waiting with great expectation for the coming of the Messiah.
The prophet Isaiah had reminded the people to be prepared to receive the Messiah:
Prepare a road for the Lord through the wilderness,
clear a highway across the desert for our God
Every valley shall be lifted up,
every mountain and hill brought down;
the rugged place shall be made smooth
and mountain ranges become a plain. (Isaiah 40:3-4)
This was also the message of John the Baptist. He was the voice in the wilderness exhorting the people to be ready, to prepare themselves morally and spiritually to receive the Messiah. When the people asked him, ‘What shall we do?’, he told them: ‘He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none; and who has food, let him do likewise’. To the tax collectors he said, ‘Collect no more than is appointed you’. He told the soldiers, ‘Rob no one by violence or by false accusations, and be content with your wages’. Unfortunately, Israel failed to recognize the Messiah when, in the end, he came.
The Christian Church has always believed that Jesus who came at the time of Augustus Caesar will come again. The Church always looks forward to the second coming of Christ. The Church always prays, ‘Lord come’. We do not simply think of a Lord who came two thousand years ago or a Lord who will come at the end of history. We await a Lord who comes continuously into his world, among his people. Advent is the season when we especially await the coming of the Lord. Every Christmas is a real coming of Christ.
Both Israel and the early Church not only waited for the Lord to come, they also believed that when the Messiah came, something new would happen to them, to their Church and to their nation.
We celebrate Christmas year after year, but nothing happens to us and to our community. This is so because, in the first place, we do not expect anything to happen to us or to our community. We do not believe that God is able to change us and we do not want to be changed. Secondly, we must be prepared to receive the Messiah when he comes. At the time of Jesus, there were several movements in Judaism preparing themselves for the arrival of the Messiah. By detailed observance of the Law, the Pharisees believed that they would be ready to receive the Messiah. By observance of Jewish rituals and the study of the Scriptures, the Essenes in the desert prepared themselves for the advent of the Messiah. The Zealots believed that by trying to drive out the Romans by force, they were preparing themselves and the nation for the arrival of the Messiah. All renewal movements in Judaism in the first century were movements of preparation.
The Advent season reminds us that we must be always ready to receive the Lord when he comes. The day of the Lord comes like a thief in the night. He comes unexpectedly and suddenly. We cannot fix the time. We cannot decide when and how he should come. The parable of the virgins who did not take enough oil reminds us that we should be ready all the time.
We must prepare a straight path for the Lord, removing all obstacles which stand in the Lord’s way preventing him from coming. All the crooked ways in our life, in the life of our society need to be straightened out. Every mountain and hill should be brought low and every valley be lifted up.
Let the season of Advent be a time when we look forward with great expectation to the coming of the Lord, trusting that he will do a new thing in our life and in the life of the world. It is a time when we prepare ourselves morally and spiritually to receive him when he comes. Behold your God, he is coming.