For years, as part of my sermon preparation every week, I have taken notes on the assigned readings for the upcoming Sunday. Every passage has its own page, covered in various colors of ink—words and ideas from various commentaries, my own thoughts, questions people have asked as we have studied them together…my method was inspired by photos of Jewish Talmud, for those of you familiar with Judaic scholarship. That image of the Word of God being in the center of the page, with ideas going out from it in every direction.
On the sheet for today’s passage from Isaiah is a note that makes me laugh every time I see it. The phrase “no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray” is circled in red ink and a line connects it to a comment someone who knows me well once made as we studied it together: “Not even Nancy can get lost!” I am notorious for my ability to get lost in even the most unlikely places. Seriously—I tried to walk the labyrinth at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco and got turned around so that I never made it to the center. (In my defense, it was because I stepped aside to allow someone to pass me on a corner and when I stepped back in I was facing the wrong way.) The google maps app on my phone, giving me step by step instructions as I drive has made my life so much better. I haven’t gotten really truly lost in years.
But there were blessings in those occasions when I “misplaced myself,” as I prefer to call it. My mom called it “taking the scenic route,” and there is some accuracy in that phrasing, too. I discovered hidden beauties—a pond filled with water lilies, a rock wall looking out across a wide field, a used book store with unimaginable treasures, a café beside a river where I could sit with a cup of coffee and just rest. I saw a lot of beautiful scenery while I was trying to find the place where I was supposed to be.
I also learned quite a lot about patience and trust. There were times when the only option is turn around and go back the way I came, but I often could point myself in the right general direction and look for intersections with state roads (or at least paved ones). Most of the time, I found my way back to something familiar without incident. I only needed a tow truck once, and the tale of getting stuck on a snowmobile trail provides great sermon fodder. (But that’s a story for another day.)
The passage in Isaiah is not a ban on taking the scenic route. It’s reassurance to people who have stopped traveling altogether. They are feeling weary and lost and defeated; they need to hear that they have not been abandoned. This passage promises that God will not leave them lost in the wilderness; a way will be provided for them to return home. There will be times of joy again, in the perfect reign of God.
The signs of God’s kingdom breaking into this world appear in several places in Isaiah: the blind will see, the deaf will hear, the mute will sing, the lame will dance. We can recognize the faithful servants of God by the healing they accomplish.
When John sends word from prison to Jesus, asking him if he is the one for whom John dedicated his life preparing the way, I don’t think he was expecting Jesus to answer using these signs as evidence of his identity.
The commentaries I read all warn against ‘psychologizing’ John in this passage—assigning motive to his actions, or reading a particular meaning into his decision to reach out to Jesus this way. Remember that in Matthew, there is no mention of a family relationship, no indication the John knew Jesus before that day on the bank of the River Jordan, when Jesus presented himself for baptism. Remember that in those days, there were all sorts of people calling themselves the Messiah, the one who would lead Israel out from under Rome’s thumb and establish an independent, self-governed nation. Their understanding of that role of Savior was more political and earthly. They wanted someone to start a revolution.
Whether John was reaching out to Jesus simply for information, or as a kind of prod to get him to start acting like the person they were waiting for, we don’t know. What we can tell, from Jesus’ response, is that Jesus was not interested in the kind of violent overthrow some of the people wanted. He wasn’t going to be that kind of Messiah, no matter how hard they pushed him.
He looked to the words of Isaiah and took a different road out of the wilderness. He wasn’t going to be a force of destruction, but a force for healing. He wasn’t interested in who he could throw down, but who he could build up. He wanted a different kind of kingdom—a kingdom reflecting God’s priorities, not humankind’s. A kingdom that makes space for all who are willing to enter.
I have to confess I don’t fully understand the point Jesus is making in that section about “what did you go out into the wilderness to look at?” But I think if we focus less on the images Jesus uses—a reed shaken in the wind, a person in soft robes, a prophet—and more on the bigger message he’s trying to get across, we’ll begin to circle in on what he meant.
He is challenging all those assumptions people brought with them about who John the Baptist was supposed to be. About who Jesus was supposed to be. He once again pushes against their expectations and offers an alternate vision for the kingdom of heaven—one so unlike the systems of domination and oppression they knew. They would need new eyes, new ears, new hearts to recognize it when it appeared in their midst. Fortunately, those were the very things he could provide.
They were being invited to a way of being in this world; a way that used a completely different method of orientation, like the difference between my old Maine Gazetteer atlas and the GPS system on my phone. The maps required I already have a general sense of where I was to know which page I was on; the GPS system in my phone knows where I am, even when I haven’t a clue, and guides me out to a place I recognize.
We don’t have to find ourselves; God knows where we are, God knows how to find us. God claims as we are—blind, deaf, lame, mute—and offers to lead us through the wilderness to a place of wholeness, healing, refreshment. The kingdom of God has room for us all, however we arrive. There’s even a seat for those of us who might come rushing in a little late because we took the scenic route.