Isaiah 40:3
John 1:23
In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD! Make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God!
I am “the voice of one crying out in the desert, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’”
These are different verses, but they have the same meaning. Correct? Not correct. Let me reread them to you and listen carefully for the changes. (Reread)
Okay, are you still confused? Let me make it clear. The first one was from Isaiah, the second was from John in our gospel reading for today. In the first one Isaiah is telling the people to create a highway in the wilderness, or the desert. The people that Isaiah was writing to were the Israelites who were in captivity for a second time in their history. This time, they were in Babylon. The first time, they were in Egypt.
So Isaiah is telling them that they need to cross the desert area. To break free from their captivity. To allow the Lord to lead them back to their homeland. This was a very important point for them, and needs to be for us as well. In many ways, we are in a desert – spiritually. We find ourselves in the midst of a wilderness that is hostile to our faith, and growing more, so seemingly every day.
The bad news is that we have to go through that desert, through that wilderness. The good news is that God is calling us to call others out of that wilderness. This was what John the Baptist was experiencing in his day. We believe he had gone into the desert as a call from God to purify his own faith experience. He had felt the call to remove himself from the society in his day that was fighting against God, and not really realizing what danger they were in. Does that sound familiar?
So, John is asking people to return to their first love, who is God. In some ways, John’s preaching reminds me of the call that comes from the prophet Hosea, and other prophets. A call to return to the first love. But many people both in the Jewish faith of Jesus’ day, and throughout Christianity, spiritual writers understood that the call to holiness included going through the dryness of the desert.
This is why these two verses, from Isaiah and John, tell a story that is so vital to the needs of the Church today, especially, I think, here in the United States. Things have been very successful in so many ways. So much so that many people find no need to rely on God. The secularization of our society cannot be denied.
But what Isaiah and John call us to as the people of God is to be transformed from a worldly way of living into a holiness that will be attractive before the world. John the Baptist attracted many people to him partly because of his strange way of living. But more importantly because they understood – on some level – that he was calling them back to their first love.
How do we build this highway that Isaiah speaks of? As John the Baptist did, how do we make the desert inviting for people who find it so easy to live in the prosperity of our society today? We have to succeed. We have to tell people the glory of God. We have to show people that our God is a loving husband, a loving father, who desires to show us his love.
Yes, I know, with all of the damaged families that our society is producing these days, it is becoming increasingly difficult to understand the role that husbands and fathers are meant to play. I think that is the reason why Pope Francis has declared this year, starting this past week, as the year of St. Joseph. In his letter announcing this as a year of St. Joseph, Pope Francis wrote:
“Each of us can discover in Joseph – the man who goes unnoticed, a daily, discreet and hidden presence – an intercessor, a support and a guide in times of trouble. Saint Joseph reminds us that those who appear hidden or in the shadows can play an incomparable role in the history of salvation.”
St. Joseph is called the universal patron of the church. Only his wife, the Blessed Virgin, is mentioned more among the saints in the writings of the popes. Do you think, maybe, they are trying to tell us something?
In the hidden life of Nazareth, Joseph helped to reveal what it means to live a life through the desert – not in it, but through it. This is the call that Isaiah and John give us today. We may remain seemingly anonymous in our lives, as Joseph did in Nazareth. But God calls us to change the world around us. Not just to make a better world, but to make a world that is pursuing God above all things.
God knows, we need that. We need a highway through the desert, the wilderness of our modern age that tries to tell us that God is irrelevant. We know the truth.
Whether we proclaim it through the silent works of our lives, like Joseph; or through a call from God to become a prophet to the world around us like Isaiah, Hosea, John the Baptist, and countless other saints – we know the truth has set us free and is the only way to genuine freedom that our world is chasing after but not knowing what they want.
Lord Jesus, you have shown us the path out of the desert into the glorious Kingdom of your Father. Help us while we endure this desert not to be discouraged, but to be hopeful so that others can receive the same gift you have given to us. Help us to make the rest of this Advent, this Christmas, this life you have given us a message that reveals your gifts of faith, hope, and love.
Help us to be apostles. Whether you make us apostles like St. Joseph in the quiet of our lives, or make us apostles like the prophets of old, help us to be the apostles our world needs today. Help us to make straight the highway for our God. Saint Joseph, pray for us. Amen.