Prepare the Way of the Lord

Advent 2B – Isaiah 40:1-11 – Mark 1:1-8

Whenever I hear the words of Isaiah 40, I always hear them being sung in Handel’s Messiah. In Mark’s passage, I hear Godspell’s “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord”. The phrase that ties the Isaiah 40 to Mark 1 is “A voice cries out, in the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” Mark cuts the verse short, effectively re-punctuates it and conflates it with other prophetic texts. Despite Mark’s redaction, the allusion to Isaiah 40 remains unmistakable.

Isaiah’s language calls for a massive engineering project to prepare a highway through the rough terrain of the desert: the gullies and ditches are to be filled in, the hills and mountains are to be leveled, all to make things quick and easy for the returning exiles on their journey home. Isaiah’s language is, of course, rhetorical. He does not actually envision a battalion of engineers moving earth about. Neither the Judean remnant nor the Babylonian exiles had the resources to begin such a project, and no one would take his language literally. His words are simply an announcement of what God is going to do. If anyone was to prepare the way, it would be God himself.

Mark uses the language differently. John the Baptizer cries out, “Prepare the way of the Lord”, but his words are not merely rhetorical. There is a step to take in preparation for the coming act of God: baptism for repentance and forgiveness of sins.