When describing the ministry of John the Baptist, Matthew, Mark, and Luke each reference the same prophecy from Isaiah.
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness; Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
The prophecy comes from Isaiah 40, a turning point in the book of Isaiah. Whether one interprets Isaiah as one continuous book or as two or three books placed together doesn’t matter, chapter 40 is a turning point in the book. Chapter 39 ends with the introduction of Babylon and Isaiah’s pronouncement that the days will come when Babylon will come in and entirely wipe out Jerusalem, will strip away the gold from the Temple and the treasury, and will send Judah into exile beyond the river. Chapter 40 then begins looking ahead to a time during and after the exile. Many years will pass (possibly 150 or more) and many heartaches will be experienced before the words of this prophecy will make any sense. Yet Isaiah looks forward to a day when all will be made right. It is a day when God will call the people of Judah back to their proper place, when he will save them from exile and restore them to the land of promise. That day is so secure that God will literally create a highway through the desert for God’s people to return. The mountains will be brought low, the ground will become level, the path will be as smooth and straight as possible. Nothing will get in the way of this return home. God will again be with his people and they will be in community and they will be one.
Each of the gospel writers sees John’s role in this same light. It has been a time of great struggle. There has not been a prophet in Israel for many centuries. Except for the period of the Maccabees, Israel has been under foreign rule. Many are beginning to think that God has abandoned them and that he will not answer or speak. And all of a sudden John appears. He is a strange man, dressed in camel’s hair with a leather belt tied around his waist while eating a diet of locusts and wild honey. Yet he proclaims a message that must come from God. He stations himself in the wilderness of Judea and starts proclaiming, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.” And people flock to him, they are baptized by him, they confess their sins and return to God. It is a revival time in Israel, a time when many are trying to take God seriously, some for the very first time. And John calls them to a new ethic; “He who has two cloaks should give to him who has none, don’t collect more taxes than you should, don’t oppress your neighbors.” And people listen, and they change, and they make themselves ready for the coming of the Lord. In essence John’s message is providing a straight path to God, a highway to walk on. John is proclaiming a path to God that doesn’t have to be treacherous or painful, it doesn’t have to go on curvy paths winding over mountains and into valleys. Instead it can be made straight by following a very simple ethic that is later immortalized by Jesus “love God and love others.” It is a time of renewal, and even though all seems lost God has not abandoned his people so prepare for the coming of the Lord.
In reality times have not changed. We live in the midst of a world that seems distant from God. Everyday the nightly news seems to report that evil is on the rise and there are fewer and fewer that follow God. It is a time when many are hungry and thirsting for a word from the Lord and are longing for a straight way to him. And we, as followers of Jesus can provide it. Not because we have any great power in ourselves, but because we can point them to a very important truth, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.” We, like John, can proclaim to the world a straight path to God, a highway to freedom, a path through the wilderness of guilt and abuse and shame. And it can be done by living out a very simple ethic, love God and love others. We don’t have to proclaim it with fancy words or smooth talk, just simple right living; a kind word, a good deed, a cup of cold water, and a reminder that we are doing this in the name of Jesus.
Jesus will come again. God promised a judgement day is coming. And our task as followers of Jesus is to help prepare the way of the Lord. To show a world that is desperate for good news that Good News has arrived. Salvation can be found. And it’s not difficult. It’s a straight path that will take them out of this wilderness and desert of sin and lead them to the community and life with God. Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.