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

Wilderness is a strong word. It brings to mind vivid images, and it does this in most people’s imaginations, too. When we hear of wilderness, we may think about a barren desert place or the picture that comes to mind may be of rugged mountains with no one nearby. The wilderness that the prophet was referencing was physically near for the people of Israel, and their national story of years spent in a circular journey in it were also well known to them all. Yet, Isaiah was speaking in terms of the conditions of their hearts and their souls. The people and their nation were traveling through life in the barren dryness of a wilderness of faith. They had turned away from the sweet water of the Spirit of God, and their table was now set with the bitterness of prideful separation from their Lord. Although they may have been sleeping in comfortable houses, their hearts were residing far from the presence of God. 

Most of us can identify with aspects of this situation. It seems to be true that almost everyone goes through some of these hard and lonely times during the course of our days. As it was in Israel, these days spent in isolation and seeming separation from God can become the reality for our churches, our cities, and the nations that we call home. Individuals lose touch with God’s truth, will, and righteousness so that they may, in turn, lead these larger groups and organizations along the desert path. Sometimes we just touch upon the edges of the barren places and find that its harsh heat or emptiness are overwhelming. Then, we turn back to the sure nurture of God’s presence and the security of His Word of grace and truth. In many instances, we relocate to those rugged environs over a long period of time wherein a short day trip becomes an overnight camping experience that is followed by ever increasing days, months, and finally years spent in turning away from the Lord’s way of thinking and of living.

However deep we may have gone into these deserts of the soul, there is a way out. Even when we have traversed so far into the barren lands of rejection of God and the deep valleys of separation from the Lord’s gospel of love and grace, He is still seeking after each of us with the singularly redemptive intent of the shepherd who has nurtured and cared for His flock since the beginning of time. Life may seem like it is being lived out in an unrecoverable and lost place, but Christ is a singularly qualified and skillful builder of roads. He desires to lead each of us out of the living purgatory that we have exiled ourselves into, and when we open up our hearts to Him and surrender our lives to His loving authority and sovereign rule, the Lord comes to us where we are located, and He guides and supports us for each and every step of the journey back into the bountiful land that is found in the center of God’s will.     

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For this is he who has spoken by the prophet Isaiah when he said,

“’The voice of one crying in the wilderness:

“Prepare the way of the Lord;

Make his paths straight.’”

Matthew 3: 3

 

John’s message was straight forward and rather simple, for he called upon people to repent. He pointed them toward God and to the awful difference that existed between the way that they were living and the standard of righteous life that was set out for all people by the Lord. Interestingly, John went out into the wilds of the countryside to proclaim this message from God. He left the populated centers behind and found his audience out among the open spaces and the scattered villages, long-distance travelers, and assorted wanders that he encountered in those less hospitable locales. His first and primary appeal was to the people at large and not to the powerful or the prominent. John didn’t start out speaking with religious or with governmental leaders, and his message wasn’t directed at corrupt institutions or at their ungodly leaders.

 

John was called by God to go to people who were not so different from any of us, and he was directed to call upon us to turn to the God of our creation as our only valid hope for salvation from the ruinous path that we and that all of the rest of humanity had taken. Although John went out into the literal desert places to start to preach the Lord’s call to return to Him and to the truth of His word, he was restating the words that Isaiah had set out long before when he spoke about God’s promise of restoration and of peace with Him that was given then to the people of Israel and promised in extension to all of the world. In Isaiah we see the idea of wilderness as depicting the vast wasteland of human souls and all of the barriers that we have built up that separate us from God and from doing His righteous and redemptive work in our world. Isaiah speaks of mountains made flat and valleys being raised up, of other forms of impediment gone so that God’s glory is revealed to all of the world.

 

This is done through the lives of people just like us. God works in and through His people to bring this same message of hope through repentance to the world around us. We all reside in a barren landscape like that of Isaiah’s and john’s wilderness of the soul, and every one of us rubs shoulders on a daily basis with people who dwell in the harsh and bitter lands of that wild place. Our first calling is to personal repentance as we hear God’s voice and respond to His Gospel of righteous hope, peace, and love by turning our lives in full measure to Christ and to serving Him. Then we are to turn to our neighbors and to others that we encounter and that we seek out and reveal to them the glory of the Lord as it is made visible and tangible in our redeemed and transformed manner of thinking and living. Christ calls to each of us in our own wilderness, and then He sends us forth to do this crying out to a lost and a needy world. As Christ sends, so we must respond like john did with all of our mind, heart, and soul.

But now, O Lord, you are our Father;

we are the clay, and you are the potter;

we are all the work of your hand.

Isaiah 64: 8

 

When Isaiah writes these words, the idea expressed here is not so much a reality as it is a wish or a formative desire. The nation of Israel is not yielded to their Lord. It is rare to find a person who is truly committed to following God’s way, either. They are a prideful, stubborn and stiff-necked bunch that thinks that they can sort out all of life’s great challenges on their own. In light of the actual state of affairs, the Prophet’s words are purely aspirational, at best, and they might even be considered to be delusional.

 

Yet, Isaiah was a man who listened well to God. His life was given over to responding to the calling that God had given to him, to seeking out truth and to stating the will of the Lord in clear and uncompromising terms. When Isaiah speaks about us seeing God as our Father and being yielded to God’s hand as the one who totally shapes us into being useful for His kingdom, the Prophet is speaking about the desire of God’s heart and about the way that God knows things will go in the future.

 

Now we live in a time when God’s desires are being made tangible. In Christ we are a newly reformed people who are being shaped by that very potter’s hand that Isaiah is discussing. We can enter into the Lord’s intent by surrendering ourselves fully to the working of His fingers of love on our hearts, minds, and spirits. This might very well mean that we will come out on the other end of the process looking quite different than we thought we would. This may lead us into forms of service that are frightening or highly distasteful to us today. However, total surrender to Christ also assures us that we will become the beautiful vessel that God’s creator eye has envisioned for each of us.