Isaiah 40 sits at an important junction in the book. From this point the prophet transitions from warning Judah of impending judgement and begins reassuring God’s people that He’ll deliver them from captivity. The very first words of the chapter change the tone as they declare, “Comfort, comfort for my people, says your God.”
Then in verses 3-5 we find a passage better known for being applied years later to John the Baptiser. (Mt. 3:3, Mk. 1:3, Jn 1:23)
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.
And the glory of the LORD will be revealed,
and all people will see it together.
For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”
At first glance it appears that God commands His people to get busy building a road for Him to travel upon. The instruction actually serves as a figure of speech. At the heart of this passage God lets His people know that nothing can stand between Him and them. The highway figuratively illustrates that God will take a direct route to His people, wherever they are. That provides comfort for a suffering nation.
Hundreds of years later when people asked John the Baptiser, “Who are you?” John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, “I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘make straight the way for the Lord.'” (John 1:22-23)
Consistent with the Jewish interpretative tradition of the day, John has searched the Scripture and found a text that describes his mission. John takes what was initially a figurative illustration and adopts it as a literal agenda for his life mission.
- Demanding repentance and a new way of life
- Urging justice for the poor, oppressed and suffering
- Calling for baptism
- He promises forgiveness of sins.
- He anticipates the restoration of Israel.
- He precedes the Messiah.
But John isn’t the end of the story. Jesus fulfills the remainder of Isaiah’s thought. If John prepared the way for Jesus, Jesus prepares the way for us.
Jesus goes before us. Jesus ultimately goes to the cross for us. He makes a way for us in the wilderness. A way through guilt to forgiveness. A way through condemnation to grace. A way through sin to holiness. A way through this world to eternity.
Jesus makes a way for us to God.
As you would expect with a prophet named “John the Baptiser”, his call to repentance included a call to baptism. Jesus didn’t need repentance, but he chose to be baptised by John. As we follow Jesus into the waters of baptism like him we also:
- mark a point of surrender to God. In baptism we also accept the mission God has for us.
- encounter God the Father and received the Holy Spirit. We too are anointed. When we are baptized, God says over us, “This is my child whom I love. I am delighted with you!”
- identify with sinners. Jesus chose to identify himself WITH sinners. He didn’t become human to stand on the banks of our fallenness and hurt. He jumped right in and lived with us. In our baptism we identify ourselves AS sinners in need of forgiveness. And so, John’s message of salvation and forgiveness is pertinent for us also. We accept God’s forgiveness while living sinful lives among other sinners.
Through Jesus, God makes a way for us.
You and I are not the end of the story. God has a made a way for us to receive His salvation. Now He will use us to prepare the way for someone else. In this mission we can again learn from John the Baptiser. In Luke 7 John hasn’t seen the results of Jesus’ ministry that he expected, so, from jail, he sends his disciples to double check with Jesus that he really is the Messiah. As people preparing the way, we will often find ourselves second guessing our efforts. Where’s the fruit? Am I really being effective? Is God working through my efforts? Because our preferred timing is seldom the same as God’s timing.
Keep going. Don’t give up. Jesus told John, “Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.” Don’t become preoccupied with results, just fulfill the mission God gives you.
As Jesus prepares the way to the Father for you, you participate in His mission preparing the way for others.
**BONUS: And because Isaiah brings to mind several songs… here are some videos I found:
The last few verses of the chapter contains the wonderful imagery of God giving strength to the weary so that they soar like eagles. This picture has inspired many songs.