Comfort, comfort my people,
says your God.
2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and proclaim to her
that her hard service has been completed,
that her sin has been paid for,
that she has received from the LORD’s hand
double for all her sins.
“In the wilderness prepare
the way for the LORD[a];
make straight in the desert
a highway for our God.[b]
4 Every valley shall be raised up,
every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level,
the rugged places a plain.
5 And the glory of the LORD will be revealed,
and all people will see it together.
For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” –Isaiah 40:1-5
These words, first written by the prophet Isaiah, are the beginning of the last 27 chapters of his 66 chapter work. These words are directed at the captives in Babylon who came on the scene some 150 years after Isaiah lived and wrote his prophetic poetry.
Sometimes when people read the Bible they see these words and they say rightly that these are the words that John the Baptist preached to speak of his own ministry and to introduce the Messiah. This is all true, but a lot can be gained by understanding the original context of these verses and then understanding why they are a part of our Christmas story and traditions.
Isaiah is writing these words to comfort the people of Jerusalem who were taken into captivity by the king of Babylon (587-538 B.C.). That is when Jerusalem was completely destroyed, along with her temple and every person who was strong and seemed useful was taken to Babylon. It is one of the absolutely most difficult times that the Jewish people ever experienced. It was judgment for, among other things, idolatry; in spite of all that the Lord had done for the Jewish people, they wrestled with the worship of idols.
This passage is reassuring and comforting the exiles that their time of judgment, slavery, hardship, and exile is over. The reason why Isaiah speaks of a voice in the wilderness calling out about a highway for God in the desert that flattens mountains and fills in valleys and makes rough desert terrain like Indiana flatlands–the reason for this is because God is going to make a definite point of liberation and home-going for the exiles. They will finally leave Babylon, and God is speaking tenderly again to his people!
When John the Baptist speaks these words to his contemporaries, just as Jesus comes on the scene, he is announcing God’s deliverance, God’s triumph over oppressors, a new day for the people of God.
As we read these words today, we recognize that God’s great deliverance comes in the person of Jesus. He comes to set exiles free and bring home those who are far off. It’s so certain, and is such a sweeping liberation that frees so many, that God is building a highway in the wilderness that will make the way easy for the multitudes that will find their way out of Babylon.
Today, that’s God’s word to you and me. Let’s embrace the freedom of Christ together; let’s walk out of whatever would bind us, alienate us, destroy us–into the place God has for us.
This is the second day of Advent–the season that leads us to the birth of Christ on Christmas Day.