Sunday, January 22, 2023

Isaiah 40, Desert Wanderings, and Punctuation

During Advent, which honestly felt so much like Lent that Jay and I started calling it "Lentvent" and the "Lentiest Advent ever",  there was a particular scripture that caught my eye. It really struck me and I spent the rest of Advent and the Christmas Season with it mulling around in my head. I wanted to write a blogpost about it before Christmas, which I started doing, but it felt clunky and I just had such little time to write that I never finished it. I considered that it might be something to ponder on my own, but I'm still thinking about it all these weeks later. And even though it's clearly no longer Advent..or Christmas...I think that it's still relevant. (Hopefully you do too!)

One particular line caught my eye from the reading of the day back in mid December. The structure of the sentence was actually different than I always thought it was. It made me think of this meme: 

Photo credit:

The scripture was from Isaiah 40:1...
"A voice cries, "In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, 
Make straight in the desert a highway for our God."

When I hear that verse read out loud, I always thought it went, "A voice cries in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord..." And it actually does in the Gospels, which I discovered as Advent went on.(See Mt 3:3, Mark 1:3, Luke 3:4, and John 1:23)  

Do you see the subtle difference in the comma placement? It just really jumped out at me when I read it. I've thought about it almost every day since then, mostly trying to figure out why this small punctuation change struck me so much. Here's what I've figured out so far.

The way I always heard the verse when it was read in the Gospel readings, "A voice cries in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord", always spoke of John the Baptist.  He was the voice crying in the wilderness, (literally), for people to repent. As can happen when you hear a certain scripture verse over and over again, that one was easy to just gloss over. It was quickly dismissed from my head..."that's just the one about John the Baptist trying to get people ready for Jesus." 

But seeing a simple comma placement changed all that.

When I read Isaiah 40:1-11, it made me think in a whole new way. 

"A voice cries, "In the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord...." Isaiah 40:3
(emphasis mine)

Let's start with the part of the sentence that I highlighted, "In the wilderness". We are supposed to prepare the way of the Lord in the wilderness. What does that mean? When I see "wilderness" in the Bible, I automatically think of the Israelites wandering around in the desert wilderness for 40 years until they were able to enter the Promised Land because of their unbelief and lack of trust in the God who freed them from slavery in Egypt. During Advent, I happened to be reading a book called Just Rest by Sonja Corbitt. The book is a a study about the spiritual lessons from the Israelites' Exodus and how to apply those lessons to our own desert, (or wilderness), areas that we have in our own lives. I highly recommend it. (Quick tangent: I got to hear Sonja at a Women's Conference in the Fall and she was amazing. She also has a podcast called the Bible Study Evangelista that I also love and would recommend checking out.)

So what's our wilderness? Well, our wilderness is the broken places, the unhealed places, that we all have in our hearts. It's the areas in our lives where we struggle to trust God and where we rely on ourselves to get what we need because we think that's the only way we will be filled. Our wilderness is the places where we have put up walls around our hearts because life has been hard and we have believed the lie that only we can protect ourselves. Our wilderness is the broken family relationships, the broken friendships, the sins we struggle to let go of, the way of grief when we have lost someone that we love, the unhealed trauma and anything else that keeps us from living fully and authentically.

"A voice cries: "In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God." Isaiah 40:3 

These words of Isaiah are a direction for us. They are an encouragement. God knows what we are going through and He is coming to us. He wants to heal us, forgive us, and bless us. He wants to fill us with all that we need. We are not forgotten or abandoned. But we need to be open to Him. We need to "prepare the way" in our hearts to let Him in. We need to put down our defenses and our self sufficiency and all the unhealthy ways, (big and small), that we self protect and trust that He will come and take care of our needs. (And, wow, is that so NOT easy!!)

That Isaiah verse reminds me of Hebrews 12:13. 
"and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint 
but rather be healed."

How we act and react in times of hardship and pain can make us more predisposed to healing or make everything even harder for us in the long run. (I, unfortunately, have more experience with the latter.)\

Because after we "prepare a way for the Lord", what happens next?

"Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.
And the glory of the lord shall be revealed..." Isaiah 40:4-5

God will take away the obstacles, He will heal our grief and brokenness. His Grace and Mercy will be apparent to us. But it will most likely happen in the desert, because in the desert, God is teaching us trust and reliance on Him and a whole slew of other lessons that aren't easy to learn in the moment but make us stronger, more loving people in the long run.

God wants us to bring our needs to Him, and then He wants us to trust Him to take care of them. He doesn't expect me to find my own way out of the wilderness...that's His job, not my job. My job is to remain open, to be patient, and to watch for Him. God always gives us the next step. It might take longer than we would like, it will most likely involve people we don't expect that help us along the way, and it might be a path that isn't our preference, but He will show us the way. Our job in the wilderness is to "prepare the way of the Lord", and that starts with the disposition of our hearts.  

Sonja says in Just Rest, "Needs are an invitation to experience God's love and provision, and to overcome our bondage to fear and bitterness." 

I just automatically want to look at that word "need" and turn it into "needy", which is such a negative connotation. The world..and the devil...lie to us. They tell us that "I" can do it all and "I" can have it all and I..I..I..I..I. But we were made for a purpose and for relationship and yes, God gave us needs. And those needs are good and necessary because it lets each of us be a conduit of God's Grace and Love to our family, our friends, and even to strangers that God places in our path. 

With age brings wisdom, (at least sometimes!), and I've learned more often than naught to realize when I'm stuck in the wilderness. Unfortunately, I still find myself wandering around my personal deserts complaining like the Israelites instead of relying on God and being in awe of all the ways that He provides for me I'm stuck looking at my circumstances, trying to figure out my own way out, and not preparing a way for God to have access to my heart and my problems. Reflecting on Isaiah 40 is helping me to lean into my desert experience and to wait on God. It's going to help build my "trust muscle" which, between you and me, needs a lot of work. 

(Another important thing that I've learned is that I don't want to be stuck in my deserts longer than I have to be!  I want to learn the lessons and get to the milk and honey...or maybe hot chocolate and cheesecake.) 

If I had to give a "cliff notes" version of what I've learned it's this: 
less self reliance and more reliance on God.....

.....And, of course, that commas are very important!