“Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.”
Today’s message from Isaiah is a word of consolation to the Jews in Babylonian exile. He assures them that their captivity will end soon and that they are going home as free people. He assures them that they will be brought back to Israel by the power of God. Isaiah is not shy about saying that the Exile was a punishment for sin. But their sins are forgiven now and the exile is over. Hence he wants them to consider their return journey as their second Exodus, with Yahweh once more their loving Father and faithful Shepherd. The prophet describes God’s marvelous love for the undeserving. If Yahweh is now their redeemer rather than their punisher, then their relationship with Yahweh also has to change. Isaiah instructs the exiles that they are to return home in a grand religious procession, with God leading them. To pave the way for this procession, valleys and mountains are to be leveled, and a highway created in the wilderness. God will lead them to Judah and within Judah to the city Jerusalem and within Jerusalem to the hill Zion, where their Temple had stood. Seeing the procession in his mind, the prophet exclaims with joy, “Here comes your God with power!” Then he presents the tender picture of God leading the exiles as a shepherd cradles lambs. The words of Isaiah about the “voice of one crying out in the desert: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths,'” were a prediction of John the Baptist. He was calling upon people to prepare for the coming of the Lord. And the Lord was Jesus who brought about true liberation from the bondage of sin for all mankind.
Malachi’s view of the mission of the messiah: “I send my messenger before you and he will prepare your road for you” (Mal.3:1). In its original context this was a threat and warning from God to the Temple priests. In those days, the priests were failing in their duty by offering blemished and the second-best sacrifices to Yahweh and living a lazy life. Hence the messenger was to cleanse and purify the worship of the Temple before the Anointed One of God emerged upon the earth. So Malachi anticipates the mission of John the Baptist as one of purification. John gives the Jews some down-to-earth advice as to how to change their lives for the better. He wants them (and us as well) to fill in valleys of prejudice, level the mountains of pride and straighten out the crooked paths of injustice. Preparing a way for God in our hearts is a time-consuming and costly business. It demands our listening to what God is saying to us and then making changes in our behavior. Welcoming God also involves removing all blockages and obstacles, which prevent Him from coming close to us.
John’s message calls us also to confront and confess our sins; to turn away from them in sincere repentance; to receive God’s forgiveness; and most importantly, to look to Jesus. Do we need to receive God’s forgiveness? There are basically two reasons why we fail to receive forgiveness. The first is that we fail to repent, and the second is that we fail to forgive. Jesus was very explicit about this in Matthew 6:14 and 15. He says, “For if you forgive men their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions.” Is there someone we need to forgive today? Let us not allow what others have done destroy our life. We can’t be forgiven unless we forgive. Let us let go of that bitterness and allow God to work healing in our life. Perhaps we need to draw closer to Him. Like the prodigal son’s father, God will run to meet us. He will throw His arms around us and He will forgive us and restore us. He will keep us as His sons and daughters. Let us draw close to Him today, and He will draw close to us.
The effectiveness of John’s ministry: John’s ministry was effective primarily because his life was his message: he lived what he preached. He was a man from the desert. In its solitude he had heard the voice of God and hence he had the courage of his convictions. His camel’s hair garment and leather belt resembled those of Elijah and other great prophets of Israel. His food, too, was very simple: wild locusts and honey. The Israelites had not had a prophet for three hundred years and the people were waiting expectantly for one. John’s message was effective also because he was completely humble. His role was to serve Jesus and to serve the people. “He must increase, I must decrease,” he says elsewhere (Jn. 3:30). That is why he publicly confessed that he was not fit to be a slave before the messiah. He frankly admitted that he was the messiah’s humble and obedient messenger, preparing a straight way for the messiah in the heart and lives of the Jews. His message combined three scriptural passages familiar to the Jews, namely, Ex. 23:20, Mal. 3:1 and Is. 40:3. That is why John’s influence continued to live on after his death. When the apostle Paul went to Ephesus nearly 30 years later, he found a group of John’s disciples (Acts 19:1-7).
Making use of Advent as a season of reflection and preparation. We are invited by the Church to prepare for Christmas. Christmas is the time for reflection and personal renewal in preparation for the coming of Jesus into our lives. Through his epistle today, St. Peter reminds us, on the one hand, of God’s great desire to come into our lives and, on the other, of our need to be prepared for that event when it happens. We want God’s help and comfort but we are not prepared to change our ways to enhance genuine conversion. For God to come to us, we also need to go to him. We need to let every day become Christmas and the “Day of the Lord” for each one of us.
Do we accept Jesus or reject him during this Christmas season? It was their stubborn pride and self-centeredness, which blinded the eyes of the Jews and kept them from recognizing Jesus as their long awaited Messiah. The same stubborn pride, the same exaggerated sense of our own dignity, blinds the intellects of many of us today who not only fail to accept Christ and His good tidings, but also prevent others from accepting him. The mad rush for earthly possessions and pleasures, the casting-off of all reasonable restraints and restrictions, which are so necessary for the survival of human society, the rejection of all things spiritual in man’s make-up, the general incitement of the animal instincts in man—all these are signs of the rejection of Christ. Let us accept Jesus as our personal savior and Lord during this Christmas season and remain, or become, true Christians in our daily conduct. Let us use these days of preparation for Christmas to prepare ourselves for his daily coming and his Second Coming, remembering that it will occur for each one of us on the day of our death.