The narrative lectionary puts the reading for the second Sunday in Advent between the story of Josiah’s attempt to get the people of Jerusalem to worship the true God and John the Baptist’s much later call for repentance. The words of John will presuppose the words of Isaiah of the Exile. So the lectionary reading is Isaiah 40:1-11.
When they make a movie about the Exodus, they make a movie about Moses and the wonders at the Red Sea and in the wilderness. But Isaiah, beginning in chapter 40, pictures an even more wonderful exodus. The return from the Babylonian exile did not have a divided sea or a drowned chariot force, but it was an even more astound turn-around in the fortunes of the people of God.
After Josiah’s reform, which correlates to the discovery of a version of Deuteronomy during a Temple renovation (2 Kings 22), Israel might seem to have returned to God. But the people were worse than the king about idolatry, if Jeremiah 44:13-19 shows their attitude. So God dealt to Jerusalem “double for all her sins (Isaiah 40:2). Babylonian armies destroyed the city and Temple. Many of the people became forced refugees in Babylon.
But the message of Isaiah 40 is that there will be a new exodus this time from the east instead of the southwest. Again a desert lies between the place of captivity and Israel. From the map above, you can see that the route of this exodus was much longer than that of Moses. So the LORD makes a new and smooth road for Israel.
Every valley must be elevated,
and every mountain and hill leveled.
The rough terrain will become a level plain,
the rugged landscape a wide valley (Isaiah 40:4 NET Bible).
The thing about this is that it is not miraculous in the sense that God zapped the road and leveled it by supernatural fiat. Making a movie about it would be harder than making a movie about the Exodus of Moses. But God does, in fact, ease the passage of the exiles back to Jerusalem. He does it by giving them the support of the Persian state and its king, Cyrus. Whereas in the original Exodus the heart of the king was hardened against Israel, now the heart of the king is with Israel and his army is a protector (and perhaps road builder).
A few weeks back the lectionary included the story of Elijah. God zapped a sacrifice somewhere in the Carmel mountain range to show up the priests of Baal. But the story went on to a pilgrimage of Elijah to the mountain where Moses had received the Ten Commandments. That revelation was accompanied by storm and fire and the shaking of the earth. But now God is not in those spectacular displays. He is not in the fire. Rather he is in the quiet breath (1 Kings 19:12). In other words, you have to pay attention. You have to listen for God in the silence. You can’t always rely on spectacular displays.
This is fitting for reflection during Advent. The season will culminate, not in a spectacular display, but in the birth of a peasant baby. The exodus from the Babylonian exile was preparing the people to see God’s action in mysterious and indirect ways. It was preparing us to see God acting even in the still, small breath of a baby on a silent night.