Prepare the way of the Lord.
These are rather familiar words in the Christian tradition. In the gospels, they refer to the ministry of John the Baptist, a prophet proclaiming the coming Messiah, but the original context is a promise of deliverance found in Isaiah 40.
"A voice is wailing, 'In the wilderness, get it ready! Prepare the way; make it a straight shot. The Eternal would have it so. Straighten the way in the wandering desert to make the crooked road wide and straight for our God.
Where there are steep valleys, treacherous descents, raise the highway; lift it up; bring down the dizzying heights. Fill in the potholes and gullies, the rough places.
Iron out the shoulders flat and wide. The Lord will be, really be, among us.
The radiant glory of the Lord will be revealed. All flesh together will take it in. Believe it. None other than God, the Eternal, has spoken.'" (Isaiah 40, The Voice)
This section of Isaiah (chapters 40-48) was written during Israel's exile in Babylonia, around 500 years before Christ. The people had been away from their homeland, living in captivity for almost 70 years, and these words were meant to bring them comfort and hope. The prophet's message was one of reconciliation and justice. Hebrew scholar Benjamin D. Sommer notes that there are four main points presented in this section of Isaiah. Despite appearances to the contrary, 1) God is powerful and has not been defeated, 2) God continues to love Israel and has not abandoned them, 3) God is reliable and does what God promises, and 4) the exiles will soon return home.  In fact, shortly after this declaration, Babylonia was defeated and a decree was made allowing the exiles to return to Judea.
An important theme in this section of Isaiah is the interplay between former things and new things. Both continuity and change are invoked. The people are reminded of things past. They are to remember God's faithfulness and recall their story as the people of God. But they are also urged to see what new things God is doing, to be ready to follow YHWH into unfamiliar territory.
"Straighten the way in the wandering desert" turned out to be quite literal for the returning exiles. Normally, travelers going from Babylonia to Israel would follow a path along the Euphrates River, first moving northwest and then turning southwest through Syria, skirting the impassable desert. However, the words in Isaiah 40 indicated that the exiles would be going directly through the wilderness because YHWH would make a way. The road to freedom, to restoration, to wholeness, to once again living as covenant people with a covenant God, was to be straight through an intimidating wilderness, a rough terrain with few resources.
We hear a similar call from John the Baptist some 500 years later:
"Watch, I will send My messenger in front of You to prepare Your way and make it clear and straight. You'll hear him, a voice crying in the wilderness, 'Prepare the way of the Eternal One, a straight way in the wandering desert, a highway for our God.'" (Mark 1, The Voice)
The context has changed somewhat. The Jews are no longer exiles, but have been living under Roman occupation since about 63 BCE. The Romans were known for their extensive network of roads (via Romana) built to connect the growing empire. Some estimate that, in total, 371 roads were built covering more than 400,000 kilometers. These roads were constructed primarily as supply chains for the movement of armies, goods, and officials, though civilians used them as well. John the Baptist's reference to the way (road) of YHWH was in direct contrast to the military roads being constructed in the region. The road of YHWH was not to be a road of conquest; the Jesus way would be revealed as a way of love and humility.
In both the Isaiah prophecy and in the gospel accounts, the prophet is speaking about a particular way: the way of YHWH. The way is the means by which YHWH comes to people and people come to YHWH. In case there was any doubt about what this way looked like, Jesus declared, "I am the way" (John 14:6).
So, what does it mean to prepare a way? In general, it includes removing obstacles, making space, and creating an overall favourable environment. According to John the Baptist, preparation included metanoia (changing one's way of thinking), learning to see God in unfamiliar forms, becoming aware of the nearness of God (the kingdom of God is at hand), being baptized (cleansing, letting go of former things and embracing new things), remembering the faithfulness of God (continuity), and stepping toward something new (Jesus revealed the upside-down kingdom).
As in the Isaiah prophecy, the way declared by John was characterized by justice. John's message of the low being raised up and the high being brought down, of former things intermingling with new things, echoed the words heard 30 years earlier in the song of a young, pregnant girl named Mary.
"My soul glorifies the Lord...
He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors." (Luke 1, NIV)
We have looked at what the words, "Prepare the way of YHWH," meant to the exiles in Babylonia. We have considered what they meant to Israel in the first century. But what do they mean to us? How do we prepare our lives, our community, our city, our world, for Jesus to come near? What does it mean for us to straighten things that are crooked? What does it look like to lift things that are low? How can we lower things that are high? How do we make rough and uneven things level? In other words, how can we cooperate with the work of justice that God is already doing in the world?
It is interesting to note that in the Isaiah prophecy, the call to prepare the way of YHWH is directed to angel hosts, to the messengers of God. They are called to do the work that cannot be accomplished by human effort. In John's message of metanoia, he urges people to do the work that only they can do: to repent, to re-think, to change their hearts and minds. Preparing the way of YHWH is a collaborative work. God does what only God can do and we do what has been given to us to do.
How can we tell if we are preparing the way of YHWH? If the road leads to freedom, to restoration of community, to wholeness, to renewed covenant with YHWH and with others, and to new life, it is the way of YHWH. If the road is just, equitable, accessible to all, and not only for the elite or powerful, it is the way of YHWH. If the road is not a means of conquest or subjugation, but a way of love and peace, it is the way of YHWH.
What work of preparation, justice, continuity, and newness is God inviting us to?
1. Benjamin D. Sommer, "Isaiah 40-48," The Jewish Study Bible, 2nd ed. (Oxford University Press, 2014), 842-3.
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