Nativity of St. John the Baptist, Christ Church Cathedral, Nashville

A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God’” (Is. 40:3).

Today we celebrate the feast of the nativity of John the Baptist, the last and greatest of the prophets, whose birth (in the Gospel of Luke) presaged the coming of Jesus himself. John was the forerunner, sent to prepare the way of the Lord; and his ministry, preaching a baptism of repentance, is well attested in all four gospels. Our feast, however, singles out John’s birth, rather than any event of his ministry, because that birth set the stage for the birth of Jesus himself, and the beginning of a new chapter in the story of salvation. John’s birth and ministry stand at the critical juncture, between the prophets of ancient Israel, and the death and resurrection of Christ.

We don’t know how John was called to his work, though the story of his birth indicates that God was calling him before he was born. Instead, we’re given today a reading from the second part of Isaiah: a story of call embedded in chapter forty. Compared to the spectacular story of call found earlier in Isaiah, in chapter six, the grand vision of the appearance of God in the temple and the call of the prophet, this story of call is muted and subdued. Yet it is still a story of call, addressed not just to the one called as a prophet, but also to the People of Israel, who are in exile in Babylon.

There is logic here, in bracketing John the Baptist and Isaiah together. The gospels themselves do it, in associating these verses from the fortieth chapter with John’s own ministry. John is, according to the gospels, “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘prepare the way of the Lord’” (Lk. 3:4). Here in Isaiah, prophet and People are told to prepare a highway in the wilderness, a “royal road” from which obstructions have been removed so that the king can process directly and safely. What’s foretold is the return of the People of God from exile, led by YHWH himself like a shepherd leading the flock.

Notice the urgency of the call. “Comfort, O comfort my people” (Is. 40:1): repeated twice for effect. “Comfort”: a word having more to do with strengthen or fortify than with making comfortable; married here in the call of Isaiah to the command to “speak tenderly” (Is. 40:2). Then, “Prepare the way of the Lord” (Is. 40:3), followed rapidly by the evocative “Cry out!” (Is. 40:6). A series of imperatives, all of them, calling for urgent action on the part of prophet and People to welcome the action of God.

“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord” (Is. 40:3). That’s where we’re working and living these days, in the wilderness; not in the desert that stretches between Mesopotamia and Palestine but in a metaphorical wilderness created by the pandemic. In the waste places of the desert, optical illusions abound, and it’s difficult to chart a course. Take a sight on a star and try to get as far as you can before the next day. If you think there are no optical illusions in this desert where we’re traveling, just check out social media. It’s a topsy-turvey world, created almost overnight, by widespread and common illness. The kings of Babylon valued their highways because they smoothed out the rough places and made travel easy, but the wilderness road we’re on has many switchbacks and a steep grade as well.

“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord” (Is. 40:3). Yet this is exactly where we’re called to carry out our ministry. It’s a curious feature of the call of the prophets that hardly a one was eager to accept the commission. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, as well as a few others we could name, all looked for a way out. Our own prophet in chapter forty, invited to cry out, says instead, “What shall I cry?” (Is. 40:6). He marvels at the fragility and inconstancy of people, the instability of life. “The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it” (Is. 40:7). I suppose we could add our own reflections here, in this time of pandemic, about the nature of sudden and unexpected change, and our own wondering questions about the message God has for us.

It’s the same message, I think, that was given to the prophet. “The word of our God will stand forever” (Is. 40:8). “The grass withers, the flower fades”: yes. Things change suddenly and unexpectedly, yet God is at work in it, shaking things up and bringing to birth a new world. God is still at work in history. The very instability and fragility of the old world, revealed by the pandemic, may cause us to think again. The hunger for justice, the desire for peace, the call to love God and to love our neighbor: these things endure.

You who are being confirmed this evening, in this most unusual confirmation service, are also being called this evening. Like the prophets and People in Israel in our reading this evening, God is addressing imperatives to you. God has been active in your lives, all along, whether you were mindful or not, but now you hear the voice. Not mine, of course (that would be to confound things), but the words of our collect this evening. My prayer for you is that you too will repent, each time you fall into sin; and that you too will “constantly speak the truth, boldly rebuke vice, and patiently suffer for the truth’s sake.” These gifts are needed, and God will continue to raise up prophets and people like you, to serve his purpose in the world.

  • The Rt. Rev’d John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee