This year has been a year of wilderness. In fact, when I look back it feels like we've been in the wilderness for much longer. I don't know when it really began - all I know is that this season has been marked by a deep and abiding wilderness experience. As I look back over this past year, I'm not really where I thought I'd be, nor really where I want to be. At times I feel resigned that I am where God has me, other times I feel so very far away.
As a part of my advent reading for this season, few passages have spoken to me as deeply as Isaiah 40.3-5:
"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.
Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed.
and all the people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the LORD has spoken."
While most translations begin this text with "A voice cries out in the wilderness," what I love about the NRSV is that they render the voice as not coming from the wilderness, but as a proclamation about the nature of what is about to occur in the wilderness. I think this is more faithful to the entirety of the Hebrew scriptures, as the wilderness was a place of separation from Jerusalem, a desolate place of exile. What the NRSV captures is the liberating nature of the text.
Isaiah 40.3-5 is as announcement of return for those in the wilderness. It is not a voice in the wilderness coming with a new message as much as it is a voice calling to those in the wilderness, in this case the nation of Israel, calling them home. Even more, it is a proclamation that God will himself pave the way for their return. It is a message of hope for those who are without hope. It is a message for those who think that things will never change, that the wilderness is the way things will be now, reminding them that God has not forgotten you. He has seen where you are in the wilderness and now is the time of your return. Now is the time of restoration. God has seen. God is making a way home.
As I've been reflecting on this passage and our own time in the wilderness, here are a few ideas that keep coming back to me over and over:
The wilderness brings about awareness. It seems like only in the wilderness, when things are stripped away, does one truly begin to see what is real. The wilderness forces you to be still and to listen. It forces you to take an honest, and sometimes painful look at yourself. The wilderness exposes. Nothing can truly hide when you are in the wilderness.
The wilderness brings about a yearning for restoration. When you live in the wilderness, one of the inevitable questions that comes is this - How long? How long, God, will I be here. How long will this be the place that I live in? Living in the wilderness births a hunger to be restored - to be refreshed again, to return to places of healing and wholeness. This is what I think is at the heart of Isaiah 40.3-5. To truly hear the impact of the proclamation that God is making a way, I think one needs to live in the wilderness, haunted by the question, "Is this just the way it is going to be from now on?" To hear the proclamation with joy, I think one needs to be in a place of yearning for restoration, much like the nation of Israel was.
The wilderness brings about patience. Wilderness yearning can lead to discouragement, but it can also lead to faith. The nation of Israel, while in the midst of discouragement, cried out to God. I think this is the ethos of the Psalms and the Prophets. "God, where are you? Why have you abandoned us? Why are we in this wilderness?" Yet in the midst of their crying out to God, there was this sense that they trusted God would someday act. That the God of old, who stepped into their situation in Egypt and acted on their behalf, would do it once again. When you believe that God is the God who acts, and that someday he will act once again, patient faith begins to be rekindled.
And so we sit... waiting in the wilderness for the voice of the LORD. We do not know how or when things will change, but this we do know. God sees those who live in the wilderness. He knows where they are, and someday a voice will cry out: "Make way, for the God who acts has acted and he is bringing his people back."