1Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. 2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.
3 A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4 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. 5 Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
6 A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. 7 The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. 8 The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever. 9 Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!” 10 See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. 11 He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.
A Panda Bear walks into a bar. He sits down, orders lunch, and then when he’s done eating, he pulls out a handgun and proceeds to shoot up the bar. Fortunately, no one is killed, but a lot of damage is done. Immediately, the Panda Bear leaves the bar. The authorities are called in to investigate, and later that day they finally catch up with the bear, arrest him, and take him in for questioning. The detective asks him, “why did you do it?” To which the Panda calmly replies, “I’m a Panda. It’s just what we do. Look it up.” Intrigued by this, the detective pulls out his phone and looks up the wikipedia article on Panda Bears. He begins to read: Panda Bear. Large Asian mammal. Eats shoots and leaves.
This is a favorite joke of High School English teachers, who often use it (as I did) to teach their students the importance of punctuation. There’s a world of difference between “Eats shoots and leaves” (no punctuation), which is what a Panda actually does… and “Eats, shoots, and leaves,” which is what the Panda in the joke does.
Or, to use another famous example, punctuation can mean the difference between “Let’s eat, Grandma!” and “Let’s eat Grandma!” There are lots of great examples. Google “punctuation matters” to see more (but not right now!).
What does any of this have to do with the Bible, and our new sermon series on the Prophecies in Isaiah? Actually, a lot. You see, in ancient Hebrew, there are no commas, which often poses problems for translators of the Bible, who have to guess at the meaning of a sentence that would benefit from better punctuation. Verse 3 of today’s scripture passage is a perfect example. For what it’s worth, I think the NRSV translation actually gets it right:
“A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord.'”
I think this is right, because it follows the pattern in the second half of the verse: “make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” In this place (wilderness, desert) do this thing (prepare the way of the Lord, make straight a highway for our God). This is typical of Hebrew poetry, which will often say something, and then paraphrase the same thing in a slightly different way.
But that’s not always how this verse has been translated. Another option (which I think is incorrect) goes like this:
“A voice cries out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord.” And as soon as I put it that way, little bells and whistles and sirens should be going off in the minds of all those who grew up in church, hearing this verse read at Christmas time. We know who that voice is crying out in the wilderness! We know who says “Prepare the way of the Lord!” In fact, if you grew up in the sixties, you might even be singing the song right now (Prepare ye the way of the Lord). It’s John the Baptist!
And if you turn in your Bibles to the Gospel of John 1:19, we read about John the Baptist that when asked the question “who are you?” he responded,
“I am not the Messiah.” 21 And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” 22 Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 23 He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.”
Wow! 800 years before Jesus was born, the Old Testament prophet Isaiah predicted John the Baptist, and his exact words. No wonder they called Isaiah a Prophet!
Well…not so fast. If I asked you what a prophet is, what a prophet does, what would you say? A prophet is someone who predicts the future, right? That’s definitely what it means today, and probably pretty close to what it meant to the gospel writers, too. The word prophet comes directly from the Greek word προφήτης (prophetes) which is made up of the roots pro (before) and phetes (speaking), so literally, before-speaking.
“Before-speaking” in the time of the gospels was an entirely Greek phenomenon. There were “prophets” in Greek and Roman culture, also sometimes called “Oracles,” who made a living out of predicting the future. They show up everywhere in Greek literature and history (although their prophecies are much more accurate in literature than in the history).
The problem is that Isaiah, and all of the Old Testament prophets lived long before the Greeks and the Romans, and they were never fortune tellers. In the Hebrew language, Isaiah and those like him are called the Neviim, which comes from the root נָבִיא (Nava), which simply means a spokesperson. And the Neviim were widely acknowledged to be the spokespeople…for God.
There was no comparable word in Greek, so when the Old Testament was first translated into Greek, translators (as they often do) chose the closest word they could think of, which was προφήτης, a “before-speaker” which already had a clearly defined role in Greek culture, telling the future. And so the Old Testament men and women who spoke for God have been called “prophets” ever since. And so the authors of the four gospels (who spoke Greek, and read the Old Testament in its Greek translation) like most in their time, misunderstood Isaiah as someone whose primary function was to predict the future.
They read his words in that light, scanning and searching for any reference that looked like it might possibly apply to their hero, their savior, their messiah, Jesus of Nazareth. Whenever they found something that seemed to fit, they included it in the story to back up what they already believed. Some, like Matthew and Luke, who were not with Jesus during his lifetime, took creative license and when they saw something they liked in Isaiah, and added the appropriate episode to their version of Jesus’ story.
My sincere apologies if, in the last few paragraphs, I just burst anyone’s Bible bubble or ruined your favorite Christmas scripture verses. Part of my intention in this sermon series on Isaiah, and on the verses from Isaiah that are commonly read at Christmas time, is to debunk a very long tradition of interpreting Old Testament “prophecies” that is dubious at best, very easy to disprove, and at worst is downright harmful and offensive to our Jewish brothers and sisters who share and study these same scriptures, and whom Christians throughout history have often presumed to be “oblivious” or “ignorant” simply because they do not see what we see when reading them.
But it is also my intention in this sermon series, having debunked, to then rebuild. To establish a way of reading Isaiah that is faithful to its original context, that is appropriate to the season of Advent and Christmas, one that rather than dividing us, draws us closer to our Jewish friends, and to many religious traditions in our world who earnestly hope and yearn for a better world, and someone–a messiah–to lead them into that future.
So let’s jump back in time. If prophets in ancient Israel were not fortune tellers, what were they? What did “speaking on behalf of God” look like? I’ve heard it said that the role of an Old Testament prophet was to comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable. In other words, when times were good and people were inclined to forget about God, the prophet’s job was to be a social critic, a voice of warning about the consequences of their neglect.
But when times were bad, the prophet’s role changed, and–channelling God’s voice–spoke words of comfort and consolation. In that sense, I’ve always thought that prophets were more like pastors than fortune-tellers.
And in the time of Isaiah, things were bad. The holy city of Jerusalem has been completely destroyed, and most of its people have either been killed or else carted off to slavery in Babylon. What does God say to his people in a time like this? He says (in verses 1-2 of today’s passage):
“Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.”
Why? Because they are lost, they are in the wilderness. That’s why verse 3 is so important to translate right:
A voice cries out–and that voice is the voice of God’s people, not John the Baptist. How do we know? Because we read further down in verse 9:
“Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!” The good news comes from God’s people.
Back to verse 3: A voice cries out: “In the wilderness (because that’s where all of you are right now) prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”
In other words, you’re in the wilderness now…but get ready. Why? Because (verses 4-5):
“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 people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
In other words, it’s going to be okay. This time of suffering won’t last forever. Be patient. It gets better. The grass may wither, the flower may fade, your city may be destroyed, your life may be in ruins, but God’s word will outlast all these things, and God’s word (remember, that’s what prophets are supposed to deliver) is this (verse 11):
“He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.”
In other words, God will take care of you, even in your darkest hour. That’s good news. Glad tidings.
Fast forward to the 1st century, to the time when the gospels were written. The earliest Christians (who were all Jewish) had lost their friend, their teacher, the one they thought would save them from Roman oppression. And in the year 70–just before the earliest gospels were written, the city of Jerusalem was destroyed once more, and its people were killed or scattered.
In this time of darkness, the gospel writers turned again to the ancient scriptures, to the words of Isaiah. Once more, these words brought comfort. They reminded those first century Christians of their Lord, Jesus, who also frequently used words from Isaiah to comfort people in despair. Through Isaiah’s words, joined with their own words in this new story, they resurrected Jesus and his teachings to bring hope and comfort to others.
Yes, they read Isaiah in a way that affirmed their belief that Jesus was the Messiah they had been waiting for. But now–in the absence and loss of their good shepherd–they also began to read Isaiah in a way that affirmed their hope that Jesus would someday come again.
Fast forward again to the present day.
The longest, darkest night of the year always comes in late December. Anxiety and depression skyrocket around this time of year. For those who have lost loved ones, the holiday season is usually the most painful reminder of that loss. And when we look at the darkness of our world, so much of it still mired in violence, oppression, greed, and bitter divisions…this time of year, it’s easy to understand the desire for a savior, for someone or something to come along and make everything better. So we put our hope in political leaders, religious leaders, our family members, our careers, our investment accounts, or maybe just in the presents under the Christmas tree.
But Isaiah reminds us that the grass withers, the flower fades … political and religious leaders come and go, careers and investments wax and wane, and the presents under the tree are quickly forgotten in the new year.
One thing, and only one thing lasts forever: The Word of God, the good news, the promise that the darkest night will pass and a new day will dawn. As we begin this Advent season, let this be our hope and our confidence: That through our darkness and through our dawn, our good shepherd still gathers us in his arms, holds us close, and leads us to greener pastures. Thanks be to God.