A voice cries out in the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord.
If you were paying attention, you might have noticed a slight difference between the passage from Isaiah and the way that passage is quoted in Mark.
In Isaiah, the voice cries out, telling us to prepare the way of the Lord in the wilderness. In Mark, the voice is crying out from the wilderness.
This shift in location, the question of whether it is the voice, or the path, that is in the wilderness, is one that has always interested me, especially given the centrality of these texts to Advent—this year we read Mark’s account, but Matthew and Luke also quote this passage from Isaiah and identify it with John the Baptist.
Our Gospel writers knew their scripture, so how did we get this change? Why, for Isaiah, is the location of the path important, but for Mark, Matthew, and Luke, it is the location of the voice? Did they make a mistake?
The Hebrew scriptures we now use are translated from what is called the Masoretic Text, which dates from around the 9th Century. You might remember hearing a lot about the Dead Sea Scrolls—part of why those scrolls were so important is that they were an even older copy of many of the Hebrew Bible texts. The New Testament authors may have spoken Hebrew, but they were usually writing for a Greek speaking audience, and so they used something called the Septuagint, a translation of the Hebrew scriptures into Greek that dates from somewhere around the 3rd or 2nd Century BCE. Translation always forces interpretation, and so this passage evolved differently in the two texts.
Our Gospel writers wanted to place the voice in the wilderness because John the Baptist was in the wilderness. Others put the path in the wilderness because that is where the path is needed—the exiles want to get from the metaphorical wilderness of exile back to the city of Jerusalem and the presence of God.
Ultimately, the question of location, is it the voice or the path that is in the wilderness, is really a question of where we are.
In the Greek texts, where the voice is in the wilderness, we are removed from the voice. This is a voice calling us to it. In the Hebrew text, the voice is in our midst, asking us to join it in going to the wilderness.
The end result is the same—we need to move.
We need to move because the next step: “prepare the way of the Lord” requires change.
Listen to the text from Isaiah: “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.” In our epistle, 2 Peter, our author says “the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire.”
The coming of the Lord is not going to be easy. We do not get to sit back and let God sort everything out. We have to participate. We have to prepare the way. Our Epistle writer gives us a hint at how, and tells us to “strive to be found…at peace.”
At first, this may seem like easy advice. Keep calm. Do not start fights. Avoid conflict. This is because we have softened our definition of peace, because we have defined peace in a negative sense, we have defined peace by what it is not. Peace is not conflict, peace is not discord, peace is not stride. We define peace as the absence of those things, and so we can talk about the Pax Romana, the Roman Peace.
But our Epistle writers tells us to be found at peace while the heavens are passing away and the elements are melting in fire. Isaiah tells us the valleys will be raised and the mountains made low. Everything will be disrupted. Everything will change. Nothing will be calm.
So how can we be at peace?
We need to get back to the real definition of peace, to get away from defining peace as the absence of war, or the absence of conflict, and resume defining peace not as the absence of discord, but as the presence of concord, the presence of justice. We need to remember that the peace described by Christ and imagined by our New Testament authors is a complaint against the Pax Romana, against the Peace of Rome.
That “peace” was enforced by the sword, that peace was only for the powerful. That peace was built on excluding all too many.
So as we seek to prepare the way of the Lord, to make straight paths, as we seek to make peace, may we remember that peace cannot come from a return to anything that was, that peace is something still in front of us. That peace of Christ is something we are ever seeking, a peace where all are welcome and none are oppressed.
God is calling us, always to this peace. God is calling us, always, to this change. As we continue in this Advent season, as we continue to prepare for Christmas, for the coming of both the newborn and the risen Jesus, let us clear away the obstacles to this peace in our hearts and in our relationships.
Do this and prepare the way of the Lord.