We may live in a world full of individualists and individualism, but when it comes to reaching the individual conscience and the individual ear, it is often not so simple. For the one in the crowd, for the individual among the masses, any appeal for moral action or ethical change is likely to be heard more with one’s neighbor in mind than oneself. Whether rooted in human nature or simply another form of individualism, it seems our neighbors’ flaws are far more worthy of commentary. F.W. Boreham noted this tendency in any congregation with more than one member. “[I]n a congregation of two, each auditor takes it for granted that the preacher is referring to the other.”(1)
True to form, it is on rare occasions that the words of ancient prophets, who cried out at injustice and wept loudly for repentance, seem like they are talking to me. Most of the time, they seem very clearly to be talking to a people and situation well in the past, or at best a wayward culture, or a particular philosophy, policy, or party. This is perhaps why the prophets had to weep and yell so loudly. Though the great command of Israel assumes that the crowd is listening—”Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One”—often, we are not. Or rather, we might be listening, but we are listening for someone else.
With every fiber of their unique beings, the prophets attempt to counter our selective hearing. The last prophet, the prophet who cried for the world to recognize the savior among them, was no different. John the Baptist came bounding through the wilderness with an immensely personal message, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, and calling the masses to see their collective and individual need for the one who could make all things new. This is where Mark begins his gospel: with the cry of a prophet to open the ears of all. The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, he tells us, begins with the call of John the Baptist: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight!”
Somewhere along the path to Christmas, many Christians revisit these words first recorded by the prophet Isaiah and later described as the message of John. It is a message that perhaps seems easiest to hear for someone else; after all, John’s words were aimed at the “Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem” who responded by coming to the Jordan to be baptized. Or maybe the prophet’s call for universal preparation just seems an all too familiar part of a familiar story. Regardless, it is likely that all the many years of hearing the prophet’s cry for someone else has dulled the command in our minds.
Yet in fact, no matter whom we hear that message for, it is actually quite a radical suggestion. How does one prepare roads for God? How does anyone make the paths of God straight? What does that even mean? When you remember the story of Christmas, do you picture men and women preparing the road that brought God to earth, human beings taking an active role in shaping the paths and highways of God’s coming?
Now, how much more radical is this image if you hear the command for yourself? Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight! Beginning his gospel with the cry of the prophet, Mark attempts to open ears to this very thought. The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ involves you. How are you preparing the way of the human Son of God, paving roads and clearing paths for the sake of God among us? It is a question every bit as much aimed at your ears and your life as it was the first audience who heard it—or your neighbors who might need to hear it.
The story of Christ’s coming as an infant in Bethlehem marks the beginning of the great promises and reversals we anticipate because of his presence with us—beauty rising from ashes and mourning turned to dancing, waters breaking forth from the wilderness and streams from the desert. But this story is not finished. John continues to call us to prepare the way for the one who shares our own humanity, to join in the restoration that God has started. All of the prophets, in fact, continue to cry out with inviting and challenging images of God’s countercultural movement: swords made into plowshares and spears to pruning hooks, wolves lying down with lambs, cows and bears grazing together, justice rolling down like waters and righteousness like ever-flowing streams, the desert blossoming, the blind seeing, the lame leaping, the lowly lifted up, and the hungry filled with good things. How are you participating? How might your life change, if the prophets are talking to you?
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) F.W. Boreham, “The Ideal Congregation,” Dreams at Sunset (London: Epworth Press, 1954), 88.