When reading the Gospel of Mark, I’m always struck by all the motion involved. In the first several verses, John is sent and appears (Mark 1:2), all Judea and Jerusalem comes to him (5), and then he speaks of another one, greater than him, who was to come (7). Both God and people are on the move!
During Advent we typically focus on how Jesus came to earth and became incarnate. This week’s Advent readings also point out that Isaiah’s road through the wilderness goes both ways, and that we are invited to seek God where/while God may be found (Isaiah 55:6-7), even as God seeks us!
Around 597 and 586, the notables of Judea and anyone worth deporting, according to the Babylonians, were taken away and resettled on the other side of the vast Syrian Desert. And there they stayed for generations. It’s only after the destruction of the temple, Jerusalem and the community of God in the Holy Land that God provides relief. A voice calls out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain” (Isaiah 40:3-4). Why would God require a carefully constructed highway?
Simply put, God’s path is not for God to travel along alone. This wilderness, this desert that is to have God’s highway, is the shortcut back to Jerusalem from the land where the Judahites had been resettled some 70 years earlier. The road is called God’s highway, and God figuratively travels to the place of exile and then brings the people home on an easy, straight and level way prepared for them in love. When they arrive home, they will find that God has come back with them and their land. Indeed, the prophet announces to Zion and Jerusalem the good news: “Here is your God!” (Isaiah 40:9; emphasis added). God gathers the people and carries them like a human shepherd carries lambs close to her heart.
Along the way, God speaks to the hearts of the people (Isaiah 40:2) (the phrase we translate as “tenderly” literally means “to [their] heart”). The root of the word we translate as “comfort” in Isaiah 40:1 has a wide semantic range and can certainly mean something like “comfort,” but also “regret,” “have compassion” and simply to groan inwardly. I like to think that not only did God come to meet people where they were geographically but also emotionally. There were (and are) some people who are ready for some comfort. But there were (and are) some people who are still stuck in regret; some who need compassion before they can receive comfort; and some for whom the groaning is all we can muster. God makes a highway to these places in our hearts and lives as well. And God wants to accompany us on our journeys from exile to the wholeness of home.
The road is called God’s highway, and God figuratively travels to the place of exile and then brings the people home on an easy, straight and level way prepared for them in love. When they arrive home, they will find that God has come back with them and their land.
The pattern of God and the people both traveling to a place of deep relationship shouldn’t be surprising. This was the pattern with Abram who went to a place where God would show him; with Moses who turned aside to see a strange sight and encountered God in the burning bush; and then with all the Israelites who God escorted out of the house of slavery in Egypt to become God’s people at Sinai. God would come to God’s people again and again, but God also calls the people to move. We see this phenomenon again in the Gospel of Mark.
John, Jesus’ relative, stood at the edge of that same Syrian desert that the people of God had been brought back across hundreds of years earlier. And when all of Judea heard that he had appeared in the wilderness baptizing for the repentance of sins, “the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him (emphasis added), and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins (Mark 1:5). The people come out to see, once again, what God is doing in the wilderness.
Advent is traditionally a season of fasting to prepare ourselves for the coming of the Lord. God graciously came to God’s people, even after they were exiled for their sins. Jesus came into this world as God’s ultimate expression of intimacy and solidarity with God’s beloved creation. There is nothing we can do, or could have done, to provoke God to this unmerited graciousness. Since we have seen God’s lovingkindness repeatedly in creation and in the stories of God’s people, let us also seek God, knowing that the highway in the desert goes both ways: God comes to rescue God’s people, and we are invited to journey home with God.