Craft of Preaching

Tender Prophecy

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I find it curious that John the Baptist took his identity from the Isaiah 40 prophecy: the voice of one crying in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord.”

My problem is that Isaiah 40 introduces the “prepare the way” statement by promising comfort and tender speech. Excuse me, but John the Baptist is the last person I would go to for comfort, and I don’t know if the guy was even capable of speaking tenderly. He was fierce, demanding, and relentless.

Because of this, I find it necessary to consider Isaiah’s words, not in the context in which John used them, but in the context in which they were written, in the context of comfort and tender speech.

Isaiah spoke these words in the midst of almost unbearable sadness, when his people were reeling from the greatest catastrophe they could imagine. Their homeland was destroyed, many friends and family were killed, the survivors taken into captivity. They felt that God had utterly abandoned them.

Those who are paralyzed by grief are not the target audience for a motivational speech, a scolding, or a warning. Isaiah knew that. So what was he trying to say in the midst of his message to a grieving people with his call to prepare the way of the Lord?

Prepare the way of the Lord is not a message of guilt. Isaiah’s words do not command us to prepare the way of the Lord because it’s our duty and obligation, and we need to get this done, now.

Rather, they are a message of hope for the future. They tell what will come to pass.

In the movie, The Princess Bride, one of the characters keeps repeating what he plans to say when he meets the man he’s looking for. “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”

When Montoya says, “Prepare,” he is not expecting the murderer to do something. He is not urging him to get up off his duff and start accomplishing something. All he is saying is, “Get ready. Because it’s going to happen, and there is nothing you can do to prevent it.”

In fact, God is doing the preparation. In John 14, Jesus says, “In my father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?”

Who is doing the preparing for Jesus’ coming in those verses? Jesus. He will do it all himself, with no help at all from anyone, if that’s what it takes. Jesus is willing to do whatever is necessary, because God is determined that this great vision of peace and prosperity is going to happen. There is no doubt about it.

In the prophecy of Isaiah, God is speaking to those who are so wounded, so beaten up, so weighed down with sorrow and grief that they hardly know where to turn.

God gives a tender and comforting assurance very similar to what the book of Revelation will offer when it says, “A time is coming when I will wipe every tear from your eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more.”

Through the prophet Isaiah, God is saying, “Do not give up. I am coming. Get ready, because it’s going to happen, and there is nothing anyone can do to stop it. I will see that all the preparation of lifting up every valley and leveling every mountain in the world, and making all the rough places a smooth highway for that coming will take place.

“You can be part of this. You are invited to join the preparations for this magnificent event because it will be so much more meaningful for both of us if you get to take part. That will be a bond that will remain with us forever. It will be great and meaningful and profound.”

God came to us in the Christmas birth. We celebrate that now, but we also know it is just the beginning. Prepare the way. God is coming. Get ready. It’s going to happen.

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