Maybe you’ve seen an image with these or similar words online:
Let’s eat, Grandma!
Let’s eat Grandma!
The difference a comma makes!
Meanwhile, in Isaiah 40, open one translation of the bible and read:
A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord…”
Open a different translation and read:
A voice cries out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord…”
The difference a colon makes. Changes the meaning, doesn’t it? Where is the voice coming from? From the wilderness? Or from some far-removed place?
So which is it?
This chapter of Isaiah marks a shift from one major section of the book to another – from what biblical scholars call First Isaiah to Second Isaiah. Where First Isaiah proclaims destruction, Second Isaiah steps in with a word of hope.
This section of Isaiah, itself filled with hopeful language of comfort and restoration, presupposes the invasion and destruction of Jerusalem and the long exile of God’s people in Babylon.
Before the words of comfort: Life had been turned upside down for the people of Judah. Their usual routines and practices and way of life were no more.
And then, suddenly, a voice crying out: announcing comfort. Hope. Something to look forward to.
Jump ahead to the time of Mark – the earliest gospel to be written down. By the time of Mark’s writing, the rebuilt temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed…again. Several years before, during the time of the events Mark writes about, the situation was hardly much better. Rome’s cruel reign and foreign occupation ruled the day.
And then, stunningly, a pronouncement of good news: Jesus the Messiah, the Christ, the Anointed. The Son of God. A loaded sentence if ever there was one. A challenge to the very seat of authority the Roman emperor sat on. A challenge to oppression and all that brought destruction.
It’s no accident Mark calls on Isaiah. The time into which Jesus comes is as much a time of wilderness as the time into which the voice cries out to the exiles in Babylon.
Wilderness is scary. Wilderness means getting lost, a lack of resources and security, uncertainty, an untamed wild-ness.
Wilderness is exile and the destruction of a beloved city and place of worship. Wilderness is separation from home, separation from familiarity and from loved ones.
Wilderness is pandemic. Life turned upside down and inside out. Coming to terms with a “new normal” no one asked for or wanted. Wilderness is spending Thanksgiving alone or Christmas Eve over Zoom, when all we yearn for is to be together.
Punctuation matters. A voice cries out in the wilderness. When you’re in the wilderness yourself, it makes a difference to know you’re not there alone. It makes a difference where the voice of comfort and hope comes from. In the wilderness. Not far removed from it.
Those who struggle with addiction often first turn to the support of their fellow addicts in recovery in the safety of an AA or NA meeting.
Or the woman who’s miscarried who hears words of comfort from her support group of others who’ve miscarried and struggled to conceive.
Or the newly diagnosed cancer patient who finds a source of care in their support group of fellow cancer patients and survivors.
The shared experience of being in the wilderness makes for better caregivers. There’s an element of trust there when you know someone is or has been where you are. A sense of solidarity and companionship.
There’s no punctuation in the original Hebrew of Isaiah. The scribes who translated it into Greek, who Mark quotes from, made a decision. And English translators too. I don’t think it’s a coincidence either but a deliberate choice. To place the voice where we need to hear it.
A voice cries out in the wilderness. John the Baptist preaches in the wilderness. Jesus is tempted by the devil in the wilderness.
This would-be messiah and savior that Mark announces knows wilderness and despair and challenges. What good news that is!
This promised messiah is not a far-removed savior, but one like us in our humanity and one with us in all the struggles of being human. One who carries us through to the other side. One who offers comfort here and now.
A voice cries out: Hey, you’re in the wilderness! As if we need the reminder…
Or: A voice cries out in the midst of your wilderness…a voice nearer to you than you realize…with you and beside you.
As we wait and watch and yearn for the coming of messiah in these Advent days, we know that that messiah is already with us and has never left us. Not even for a second.
In the bread and cup. In the gathering together virtually. In the loneliness of our isolation. In the reaching out to our neighbors. In our very bodies, made in the image of God.
A voice cries out in the wilderness:
Comfort! Hope! Promise!
A voice cries out:
In the wilderness.
In the journey.
In the hoping.
In the longing.
In the waiting.
And in the certain promise
and the inevitable restoration.