(12/6) Isaiah 40:1-11 • Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13 • 2 Peter 3:8-15a • Mark 1:1-8
Brought to us courtesy of George Handel's Messiah, this week's Isaiah reading is one of scripture's most well-known passages. You may have memorized the passage without knowing it. Read the first several verses and you may find yourself humming the melody line for the rest of the day!
The context for the reading, however, is less clear. While the first 39 chapters of Isaiah were set in an earlier century, chapter 40 begins some 60-70 years after some of the Hebrew people have been deported to Babylon. Cyrus of Persia is emerging in the region as a powerful ruler who will conquer Babylon. A different sort of leader, he will allow the Hebrew people to go back to Jersualem, with his blessing. The prophet is telling them that it's almost time to go home.
Not everyone was that excited about going back (Ezra 1:5). Over the years of their captivity, life had gotten easier for some families. Others may have been concerned about the trip back. Possibly some could still remember the challenges of the journey to Babylon. Maybe they had heard the stories of hardship. The trauma had been shared in the family and handed down the generations.
The journey would involve a roughly 600-mile trek in a northwesterly direction along the Euphrates river. Then they would head south for an additional 300 miles through a mountainous region, legendary for its stark changes in elevation. Having hiked a few miles on the Appalachian Trail, I can imagine their reluctance. Never mind that Cyrus has approved the trip and that enemy soldiers will not be inflicting pain on them. Snakes, bears, and all manner of trouble may be out there! For 900 miles! They are afraid to go.
The prophet speaks to their fear. He tells them to take comfort. That a highway will run straight through the wilderness. The valleys will be raised, the mountains lowered, uneven ground levelled, and rough places smoothed over. All of this will happen to prepare the way of the Lord.
In this case, the way of the Lord was seen as the way for the Hebrew people to go home. In every case, the way of the Lord involves being part of something bigger than oneself. The pandemic has brought unlimited opportunities for humans to cooperate together against a common enemy. We humans evolved this way, surviving not because we were the strongest but because we could work together. More than that, working together can be a rewarding experience in itself.
Still, it's not easy. For the Hebrew people, it remained a difficult journey home. There was no interstate highway. The words of the prophet were true at a deeper level. His words helped them to face the challenge of the trip home. Once they had engaged the opportunity, they could solve the problems they would face along the way. Once they had pictured themselves making the trip, they were ready to do it.
On a public platform, world-class athletes illustrate the prophet's logic to the rest of us. Whether it's baseball or golf, basketball or curling, badminton or soccer, those who can visualize their own success have an advantage. Neuroscience suggests that such visualization involves several regions of the brains, and the connectivity between them. A first step is identifying what one is trying to do.
Identifying one's own intention – naming it and seeing it – makes a difference. But setting and sticking with an intention can be hard. Like the Hebrews deported to Babylon, life can make us fearful. Anxiety originating in trauma can be passed down through generations. Add to that another challenge, such as an infectious disease, unseen and yet lurking around, and a person's responses can become somewhat… tentative. Clarifying one's intentions, while staying flexible on the methods or highways that one might travel to get there, is a tall order. Right now, though, it's the only game in town.
Morning: What are my intentions for today?
Evening: What might I visualize for tomorrow?
Psalm 85:10 Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other.