This is a good time of year to consider our lives, and where we need to be “raised up” or “leveled out.” Isaiah’s words, spoken 2600 years ago, are far more relevant than the recently expired Mayan calendar.
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DECEMBER 23, 2012
“Comfort, comfort My people,” says your God. “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and announce to her that her time of forced labor is over, her iniquity has been pardoned, and she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins.” A voice of one crying out: Prepare the way of the LORD in the wilderness; make a straight highway for our God in the desert. Every valley will be lifted up, and every mountain and hill will be leveled; the uneven ground will become smooth and the rough places, a plain. And the glory of the LORD will appear, and all humanity together will see it, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken. (Isa 40:1-5, HCSB)
Well, the Mayans were wrong and the world didn’t end on Friday, which is a pretty big disappointment for those us who go to work and pay taxes. It was also probably surprising and discouraging for the folks who got blind drunk Friday night and woke up alive on Saturday. Now the president and congress still have to save us from the fiscal cliff and everyone is still on the hook for Christmas credit-card bills. In a bible passage that is often read near Christmas time, the prophet Isaiah also made a prophecy about something momentous that was going to happen. He wasn’t a Mayan, by the way, and some of his prophecy has already come true.
I have talked before about how biblical prophecy is multi-layered. It’s like looking at a mountain range on a clear day, from a distance. All of the mountains and ridges look like they are next to each other. However, as you get closer, it becomes obvious that some of the heights are closer to you, while others are actually many miles behind the first line of ridges and peaks. So a prophet speaks what the Lord has shown him. In biblical prophecy, particularly in the Old Testament, you often find prophecies that were fulfilled before Jesus right next to prophecies that Jesus himself fulfilled, and also next to prophecies about the end of the world. From a distance, they were all “sometime in the future.” But some have already come to pass, while others are still some way off. In addition, most biblical prophecy also contains some sort of message that was relevant even before the fulfillment of the prophetically predicted event.
With all that in mind, let’s look at Isaiah 40:1-5. Isaiah prophesied to the nation primarily during the reign of Hezekiah, King of Judah, from about 750 to 690 or so, BC. One of the many things he prophesied, was that the nation of Judah would be conquered by the Babylonians, and that many of the people would be taken away to Babylon as exiles. This was fulfilled in 587 BC, about 200 years after Isaiah’s time. Looking even further ahead, after his prophecies about the future exile, Isaiah goes on to prophesy about the return of the Jews from Babylon. This also happened, starting in the 520s BC. Isaiah 40 is basically the beginning of the section about that future return from future exile. And yet, at the same time, parts of this passage (and others in this section) are about the future coming of Jesus Christ to earth, which he did, as we know, roughly 2000 years ago, or, about 700 years after Isaiah prophesied. And finally, elements of these prophecies also refer to the time when Jesus Christ will come back again, at the end of time.
Whew! If you wonder how one passage can contain all those elements, just don’t forget how those distant mountains look.
The essential message for those in the days of Isaiah, and later for those exiles who returned from Babylon, was this: God is bringing his glory back to his people. Even in the days of Isaiah, the nation of Israel had clearly become a second rate power. The magnificent days of David and Solomon were history. The one nation ruled by King David had long since been split into a Northern Kingdom (called “Israel”) and a southern Kingdom (called “Judah”). These two nations often fought each other. They were dominated by the powers around them – Syria, Assyria and Egypt (and later, Babylon). In fact, while Isaiah was still alive, the Northern Kingdom (Israel) was utterly destroyed by Assyria, and ceased to exist. The glory days were over. But Isaiah 40:5 says
“And the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all mankind together will see it. For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”
Something that was lost is going to be restored. Now, “Glory” in the Bible, isn’t just about victory and success and triumph. In fact, the key element to Biblical “glory” is the presence of God. Maybe another way to say Isaiah 40:5 would be this:
“God’s presence will once more be manifest among you. He will be with you in such a way that it is obvious to all people. God has promised it.”
Along with this idea of the return of God’s presence, is the theme of deliverance. When we look at the context of the passage, clearly God is returning, and when he returns, he will bring deliverance. Salvation would be another word for it.
It is significant that the voice calls in the desert, and the rest of the passage refers to making a way in the wilderness. When we consider the context of exile in Babylon, it may help to know that caravans and armies from Babylon to Israel always traveled North, around the desert, west toward the Mediterranean Sea, and then South into Palestine. When Babylon invaded, it did so from the North. And yet God is coming straight across the desert. The idea here is that there is no delay in his coming and that obstacles will be removed. God will come by the direct route. His isn’t bound by the caravans routes and traditional paths of men.
This passage from Isaiah is used in all four gospels. Each of the gospel writers identifies John the Baptist as the one who is calling in the desert, “prepare the way for the Lord…” It is probably no coincidence that John did most of his preaching out in the desert, directly east of most of Israel. John’s ministry took things one step beyond a return from exile. Once again, as a fulfillment of this passage, John was declaring that the presence of God would be manifest among his people. Certainly that promise was fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ. God was present now in a way that went far beyond what the exiles could imagine.
Each time, along with this promise of God’s manifest presence and his deliverance (in short, his glory), comes an admonition that we should “prepare the way.” I think this bears some looking at, and perhaps has some application for our own lives. One of the primary places where this passage can really be played out, is in the human heart. God will come, someday, in the flesh once more and end this world. But he wants to come to you right now in your heart. And the best way for you to prepare for that “someday” is to let him in your heart today.
First, we need to be clear – we don’t “prepare” in order to get God to come be with us. He has already promised to come. His coming is not dependent on our preparation. He’s said, essentially, “I’m coming, whether you get ready or not – so get ready!” We can prepare by learning his word, by telling others about him, by discovering our gifts and using them for his Kingdom. But even more profound than that, this passage gives us a clue as to how to prepare. Isaiah says: “Make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God.”
What he is getting at is this: we need to give God access. The image here is to let God come straight at your heart. Take out the twists and curves we put in to deceive others, ourselves, and even God. Let him get straight to the heart of the matter. I think the way to do this is to be honest with ourselves and with God about who we really are. Sometimes we might not be completely ready to be honest with other people as well. I’m convinced, however that once we make the way straight for God, once we give him unlimited access, we will experience His grace and love to such a degree that eventually we’ll be able to “be straight” with certain other people as well. Giving God clear access to your heart and life is simply a matter of saying “yes” to him. Doing that is the best way I know to receive him now into your life, and also to be prepared for when he comes back to put an end to this world.
Look at what else this passage has to say. God is coming. Give him access. And, “every valley shall be raised up.” Do you have any “valleys” in your life? Are there “low spots” – places where you are lacking or empty? I guess that’s a stupid question – of course there are. God says this. “I’m coming, give me access. And those low and empty spots, those places of weakness and hurt will be filled in. My presence is coming, and it will fill in all of your failings and inadequacies.”
Now for the final thought, which is perhaps not quite as comfortable: “every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain…” Are there any places in your life that “need to be leveled?” Any sins that stick out? Bad habits, pride, ambitions that have nothing to do with God? Get ready, because God’s got a big bulldozer. This isn’t entirely a negative thought. No doctor that I have ever heard of can remove a tumor from his or her own body. Sometimes we badly need and even want someone to bulldoze all the junk out of our lives that we can’t quite seem to handle ourselves.
This idea of the valleys being filled and the hills being leveled is really a sort of promise. The passage tells us to “prepare” by making the way straight. But then, when it talks about the valleys and hills, it says “they shall be…” in other words, it is something God will do for us.
God has promised to bring his manifest presence to his people – that includes us! Let’s give him access, and watch in wonder as he makes us more and more shaped to receive and reflect His glory.