In today’s gospel lesson (John 1:19-28), our attention is drawn to the ministry of John the Baptist. Given his fiery message and his dramatic appearance (described in greater length in other gospels), it’s little wonder that the religious leaders in Jerusalem send representatives to learn more about John. And if you know a little about biblical prophecy concerning the Messiah, it’s little wonder that he responds to their questions about who he is by saying, “I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness: ‘Make straight the way for the Lord'” (verse 23).
Of course, the main thrust of this response — which John quotes from the Book of Isaiah — is that the arrival of the promised Messiah is at hand, and it’s time for His people to prepare their hearts and lives for His coming. But I’ve always found it interesting that John’s citation from the Book of Isaiah — while recorded faithfully by Matthew in terms of its words — actually represents a slight deviation in terms of punctuation. In Isaiah (40:3), the statement isn’t, “A voice of one calling in the wilderness: ‘Make straight the way for the Lord'” — but instead, “A voice of one calling: ‘In the wilderness, make straight the way for the Lord.'” “The wilderness” isn’t the place from which the summons to prepare comes; it’s the place to which we must go in order to prepare.
Now I’ll admit, it might seem like I’m making an unnecessarily fine distinction here. And I certainly wouldn’t want to base any core theological principles on something as minor as a difference in punctuation. But as a matter of “life application,” it occurs to me that most of us (myself included) could probably use a little more “wilderness” in our lives in which to prepare for the Lord. Throughout the scriptures, after all, the wilderness is often the place where God speaks to His people and shapes their lives. And since most of us have so little “wilderness” in our lives (bombarded as we are by our unending streams of social media, text and email messages and so on), it becomes increasingly difficult, I think, for us to cut through all the distractions in order to listen to the “still, small voice” that calls us into greater grace, greater challenge, and more abundant life.
So here’s my question for us today: How could we place ourselves “in the wilderness” in order to prepare for the Lord? Could we put down the phone or turn off the computer? Could we turn down the background noise of radio, television, and office or neighborhood gossip? Might we even discover that some challenge or hardship that we’re facing becomes the setting in which we’re finally able to notice the ways in which God is trying to get our attention?
May any wilderness in which you find yourself today be a place not of isolation or fear, but a staging ground for preparation and meeting with the Lord. And may His faithful presence lead you from the wilderness and into promise.