O Lord, raise up, we pray, your power and come among us, and with great might succour us; that whereas, through our sins and wickedness we are grievously hindered in running the race that is set before us, your bountiful grace and mercy may speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, to whom with you and the Holy Spirit, be honour and glory, now and for ever.
Almighty God, purify our hearts and minds, that when your Son Jesus Christ comes again as judge and saviour we may be ready to receive him, who is our Lord and our God.
Father in heaven, who sent your Son to redeem the world and will send him again to be our judge: give us grace so to imitate him in the humility and purity of his first coming that, when he comes again, we may be ready to greet him with joyful love and firm faith; through Jesus Christ our
See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?
For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as
a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.
I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day
of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defence and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion
of Christ Jesus. And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that on the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for
the glory and praise of God.
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,
‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” ’
Sermon on Second Sunday of Advent
We read these verses in the gospel today.
‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,…”’
We all know about this quotation from Isaiah used in the gospel, don’t we? We have heard it every year at Advent for all the time we have been christians. That lone voice is declaring that the way of the Lord must be prepared. That voice crying is John’s voice, isn’t it?
However, I want to take a step back, because we english-speaking christians have been reading this quoted Old Testament verse incorrectly. A Jewish friend pointed out that the voice is crying that “the way of the Lord is to be prepared in the wilderness”. That is how the Hebrew scriptures preserve Isaiah’s words. That is quite different to the quotation as used in Luke.
How has this happened? To understand this we have to look at the artefacts of the ancient world to understand this. An ancient manuscript of the gospel has no punctuation, nor do the words appear separately, and sometimes there are contractions and abbreviations to help confuse matters. Letter follows letter in one long, flowing stream. The biblical scholars parse the letters into words and add punctuation. Other scholars translate the newly formatted text and we read their work in various versions, like the RSV, the NIV and the NEB. Most recently the NRSV.
When we read a commentary on this passage, we find there are variations in original manuscripts and how these might affect translation. Is this change in word order significant?
In my more cynical moments, I say that we should be very careful about being dogmatic about any particular translation. But, usually, I don’t think we have to be on the alert because as christians we stand in a tradition of interpretation and translation. That tradition should protect us from error. Another protection is that I have always thought a great test for reading the bible correctly is to ask how it applies to you, in other words we should read any passage in the first person. So let’s think about this verse through that lense of interpretation this morning. Whose is that voice? Is it Isaiah’s voice? Or John the Baptist’s? Or can I say that that
voice is my own? Is that voice yours? Who has the courage to cry out the word of God?
Do you bewail your situation in loneliness, despairing of everything that is happening to and around you? Or is your voice prophetic? Do you call down justice like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream? Are you that lone voice decrying the errors of the present?
Do you see yourself in the desert where the way of the Lord must be prepared? Do you want to civilise the world around you?
Doesn’t moving that phrase “in the wilderness” define the interpreter’s place in the world, the interpreter’s self-understanding? Don’t we think that the interpreter’s task is singular – to clarify the text? The interpreter is to deal with the text in order that it will make sense for everyone. There is a secondary result of this activity to clarify the text as it
affects the message being interpreted for those listening to the new translation. This clarification – like clarifying butter – takes out the impurities of self interest and makes the interpreter of no consequence. We arrive at the text itself with proper interpretation. In other words there is no “spin” as there has been in our political lives, a fact that has become
very clear during the last few years.
The verse we are looking at is problematic, because if we see ourselves as “a lone voice in the wilderness” our intention about this verse is very different than if we see ourselves calling for the way of the Lord to be made in the wilderness. In either case our voice is raised alone, for it
is one single person crying out the words for all to hear.
If we see ourselves as isolated, don’t our actions and words take on a different cast? Don’t we show ourselves over against others in a very different way than when we place ourselves amongst others to declare the human enterprise of making the way of the Lord a reality in the desert of our experience?
Whether the way of the Lord or the voice is in the wilderness, tells more about us in our translation of the world than it does about the phrase in the text – we reveal our own spin on the place the wilderness has for ourselves. This discussion of our verse from Luke is important because
it reveals that wherever we place these words, “in the wilderness”, are valid ways of understanding this verse from the gospel. This discussion shows how connected we are to the subject matter which we are trying to understand.
There are times when we are speaking from a remote, perhaps even hostile, point of view and there are other times when we speak amongst our fellows about what should be done for the sake of God.
Interpretation exposes our prejudices and predilections – interpreted text reveals our most human desires. Sometimes it is all very clear, at other times they have to be teased out in a long and difficult exercise. This is everyone’s task – interpretation is an everyday, constant task.
Interpretation is our understanding of something. The philosopher talks about this task as circular. Every conclusion we come to, drives us on to another position which must be understood anew in the same way, and so we go on around again, every new insight forcing us to look at everything all over again. I think we are able to understand ourselves and our place in the world when we struggle to interpret. We do this every day when we try to read people, don’t we? We piece them together, just as we put this text from the bible together – in order to understand.
So where do we place the words “in the wilderness” in our text today? That is the problem I pose this morning. I am asking each one of us to interpret the text for ourselves. I only hope we don’t get lost in the wilderness during our preparations for the holy day of christmass.