“In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judea and saying, Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. For this is he that was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah, saying, The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight” (Matthew 3:1-4). Here was one passionate and eccentric man. His clothing was camel’s hair, which makes my skin itch just to think about, and his food was locusts and wild honey – so, sweetened bugs. Most scholars agree that John baptized Jesus and was related to Him in some way through their mothers, Elizabeth and Mary. He was beheaded by King Herod at the demand of Herod’s wife, who hated John, presumably for publicly criticizing her…but we all know how the powers that be handle prophets. I picture him roaming through the wild, whether desert or forest, calling out so that anyone within earshot could hear. He may have been unusual but he was sincere. His purpose was to prepare the way of the Lord.
And what is the way of the Lord? First, to “prepare the way” means to create a welcoming place; to prepare the way of the Lord is to make a place where the Lord is welcome. John gives us some suggestions for how to do this: repentance and turning from our ways that are not God’s ways. It is not that we are unlovable until we repent; it is that our confessing where we have wandered from God helps us see God more clearly. Confessing our sins is required of us but it does not mean that we need to manufacture false guilt. Sometimes repentance is a posture: that is, we come before God and ask to be shown where God may want to draw us closer. Just as it is the Holy Spirit’s job to convict others (John 16:8), it is the Holy Spirit’s job to convict us as well. It was God who sent John the Baptist to call us to repentance; surely God will be present in that process as well.
Looking at the original source of John’s cry to “prepare the way of the Lord” reveals that this preparing is about more than repentance. “A voice cries out in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 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” (Isaiah 40:3-4). The context here is that the prophet Isaiah is praying for Jerusalem’s forgiveness. She has “served her term and received double from the Lord’s hand for all her sins” (Isaiah 40:2). This sounds harsh, but the passage is about preparing the way of the Lord – that is, inviting God in and welcoming God’s presence in our lives. Even after we’ve sinned repeatedly, we can always make a way back for God to come in.
And this “way of the Lord” involves a lot of upheaval – mountains will be leveled; valleys will be raised; choppy ground shall be smoothed. When I imagine valleys being made high and mountains being made low, the first thing I think of is equality – seeing no one as above or below us but all of us as equal before God both in need of grace and as candidates for receiving it – prepares the way for God to dwell among us. When I imagine rough ground being smoothed over, I imagine healing of grooves, cuts and canyons. Our healing is both in preparation for and a response to the presence of God. So to prepare the way of the Lord is more than repenting of and turning from our sins; it is also about honoring each other as equals in the eyes of God, seeking that our jagged places be gentled and letting our lives be overturned in the light of the love of God.