More than fifty-five years ago in 1963, a very creative author and illustrator named Maurice Sendak published his now-classic children’s book, Where the Wild Things Are. How many of us remember reading this as a child, or reading it to our own children or grandchildren? It tells the story of a little boy, Max, who gets into trouble when he wears his wolf suit and so he’s sent to bed without any dinner. In the mind of a little boy, his room is magically transformed into the outside world and he sails off in his private boat to where the wild things are. As the book puts it, “And when he came to the place where the wild things are they roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws til Max said ‘BE STILL!’” Max is then named “king of all wild things.” But there was a problem: “… Max the king of all wild things was lonely and wanted to be where someone loved him best of all. Then all around from far away across the world he smelled good things to eat so he gave up being king of where the wild things are… and sailed back over a year and in and out of weeks and through a day and into the night of his very own room where he found his supper waiting for him and it was still hot” (Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak). In this pandemic year and this season of short days and long nights, we may find ourselves dreaming of far away places, like Max.
And yet (as Max found out, and we know), there’s something scary about being in the wilderness. There’s the physical wilderness, the middle of nowhere places that seem empty, desolate, and lacking life. Then there’s the theoretical wilderness in our spiritual, emotional, and psychological existence – times when we’re alone, destitute, feeling as if nothing will work, that nothing can be done. The internal wilderness of despondency, isolation, doubt, fear, or anger, and wondering, “Where, oh, where is God in the midst of all of this?”
Wandering out in the wilderness leads to fear and the unknown. This passage from Isaiah was written during an intense time in Israel’s history. Israel repeatedly turned away from God; the prophets were trying to warn the people to turn from their selfish ways and to turn back to God. The prophets stated that if the Israelites didn’t turn back to God, something bad was going to happen.
That something bad was the Babylonians. The Babylonians not only conquered Jerusalem; they outright destroyed it. The Babylonians then carted the Israelites away from their home, marching them to Babylon. The Israelites were whisked away from a land that they loved and knew as home. The Israelites were in an awful wilderness in a foreign country, being held against their will in a place they knew nothing about, in a land that wasn’t theirs. They had turned away from God, and they found themselves out in the wilderness. Yet God was with them in the wilderness of Babylon, bringing words of comfort.
This period of defeat and loss was not the end of the story. So here, in the 40th chapter of his book, Isaiah had a vision or dream in which he saw the Lord God in heaven, speaking to a group of supernatural beings. “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term” (Isaiah 40:1-2).
Isaiah must have had one of those coveted positions in which you get paid to sleep. You know: A dream job.
“Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,” God said to the supernatural beings all around, “and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins” (40:2). God was saying that the people of Israel had paid a great price for their sins of injustice and unfaithfulness. Their time of punishment was now over, and nothing more would be required of them.
When God forgives, the slate is wiped clean. For them, and for us.
Then a voice cried out in the heavenly council: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken” (vv. 3-5).
A great desert wilderness stood between Babylon and Jerusalem, and this voice called for the creation of a highway for God, one in which the people could travel home. This way in the desert is God’s way, says Old Testament professor Christopher Seitz. “This way is the way of restoration, and it belongs to God.”
The way of restoration is the highway created for God’s people. Defeat was being replaced by victory, sin by forgiveness, and loss by restoration. Years later, Mark spoke of the word of God coming through John the Baptist in the wilderness: “as it is written in Isaiah the prophet: ‘I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way’ – ‘a voice of one calling in the wilderness, “Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.”’
And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” (Mark 1:2-4).
Baptism of repentance. Forgiveness of sins. The way of John is also the way of restoration, and it belongs to God.
So where do we need restoration today? The apostle Paul looked forward to the day when all creation “will be set free from its bondage to decay” (Romans 8:21), and we know what he is talking about. We look around and see the fouling of air, land, and water. We look at our relationships and see brokenness between friends, colleagues, spouses, and family members. We look inside ourselves and see the decay of our morals and our aspirations. We know we need restoration in so many areas of life: Ecological, relational, ethical and spiritual. Each of us needs the message of hope that Isaiah and Mark delivered with the words, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”
So many crooked things need to be straightened out, and we know that we cannot do it alone. In Isaiah’s vision, a voice says, “Cry out!” And Isaiah said, “What shall I cry?” The message: “All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever” (Isaiah 40:6-8). Isaiah knows that we humans are like grass that withers away, but the word of our God is rock-solid and eternal. When we open ourselves to the power of God’s word, when we let it touch us and transform us, we are straightened out and restored.
There’s something interesting about Isaiah’s words and the words of the Gospel. God is found in the most unexpected places. And even if God’s people have royally screwed up, God makes a straight path home for them. And God has continued to speak into our wilderness through the words of prophets such as Isaiah, through the proclamation of messengers such as John the Baptist, and most powerfully through the teachings of Jesus, the Word of God in human form (John 1:14). In the chaos of 21st-century crookedness and decay, we need these divine words more than ever.
In his “I Have a Dream” speech during the 1963 March on Washington, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King said, “We will not be satisfied until justice runs down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” The crowd responded to the emotion of the prophet Amos, and biographer Taylor Branch reports that King could not bring himself to deliver the next line of his prepared speech.
Some of the people on the platform urged him on, and the gospel singer Mahalia Jackson called out as though she were in church, “Tell ‘em about the dream, Martin.” Branch says that King began to preach, and his words “went beyond the limitations of language and culture.” His “Dream” message took him from Amos to Isaiah, and he ended with the words, “I have a dream that one day, every valley shall be exalted.”
Martin Luther King, Jr. knew the wilderness road. And into that wilderness, he called out the words of Isaiah. The words of Isaiah dreamed the world better, and then Jesus Christ made those words real. Jesus is, for us, the Word of God made flesh, and we can be thankful that “the word of our God will stand forever” (Isaiah 40:8). Jesus forgives our sins, wipes our slates clean, straightens us out, and gives us hope for the future.
All we have to do is receive Him, believe in Him, and walk behind Him. Jesus is the one that Isaiah was talking about when he said, “lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, ‘Here is your God!’” (Isaiah 40:9).
Jesus is Isaiah’s dream come true, the one who fulfills the prophecy: “See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him. … He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep” (Isaiah 40:10-11). That’s Jesus, the one who possesses God’s might but also feeds his flock like a shepherd. He is the One who has the power to straighten us out, but also the grace and love to restore us.
When the birth of Jesus is celebrated again this Christmas, remember the words of Isaiah: “Here is your God!” Jesus joins Isaiah in bringing you back from where the wild things are, wherever you may be wandering in a far-off land. Jesus does the work of restoration, forgiving you and giving you new life. He makes the rough places smooth and the crooked ways straight. God, in Christ, knows our wilderness experiences – because He’s been there too.