It’s not just as a grammar purist that I bring you a reminder today.
And that reminder is that punctuation is incredibly important!.
In fact it is not only important, it is life saving
Punctuation, such as the careful placement of commas saves grandparents from cannibals.
Wayward and lazy use of punctuation is extremely dangerous to girl scouts
Swapping a comma for an exclamation mark can make all the difference to a woman’s status.
It changes the weather to a welcoming attitude to animals
And even gives us a new way to understand songs from the 1980s.
But it can also change our understandings about the character of God.
When the gospel writers were drawing on the quotation from Isaiah 40
in a way that could reference the great character of John the Baptist, they played with punctuation.
In the gospels, the verse is recorded as saying “A voice cries in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord”
But in Isaiah, it is just a little different. There is says
“A voice cries: ‘In the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord”
The simple change of punctuation made it
so that in the gospels it is the voice which is in the wilderness
However when the heavenly conversation is taking place in Isaiah 40,
with the first 11 verses set as a discussion in the Heavenly council (just like Isaiah 6)
It is not the voice which is in the wilderness,
but the preparation for God’s coming which is there
So what? What does it matter whether the colon is before or after the wilderness?
Because the difference between the two is the picture of an outsider,
yelling words of comfort back into what is going on in the “main” part of the world (gospel)
and the picture of a God whose heart, whose compassion is directed to the place of the outsider.
“Comfort, comfort, my people” commands God.
Speak tenderly – literally “speak to the heart” of those who are oppressed.
These 11 verses effectively act as a prologue – a summary – of the message of Isaiah 40-55.
And the theme of this prophetic work – the one which is one of the foundational elements of scripture for understanding the life of Jesus – Is that the work of God takes place with those who are alienated, exiled, marginalized, oppressed.
This is the prophet who sees what is going on in the world of politics and military action
with the Babylonians and the Persians and who can see the hand of God in the strangest of places.
This is the prophet who voices the most radically inclusive understanding of the compassion of God
“All people shall see the glory of God”
This is the voice that is expressing the most fundamental of divine truths: that God’s grace doesn’t depend on your history, that God’s grace doesn’t depend on the way you live. God’s grace simply depends on God’s character, which is gracious.
Prepare the way of the Lord in the wilderness.
Don’t get caught up looking in the corridors of history and power.
Prepare for the fact that God’s action is compassionate, inclusive and will start with those who are dispirited, who have suffered the pain of exile who have been told that they are people whose are second rate who have been denied rights and privileges afforded to others around them.
Comfort them!. Speak to their hearts! Get into the wilderness with them and comfort.
This is why Isaiah 40-55 has offered for centuries an insight into the character of God as displayed in the coming of Jesus, the Son of God. Because God’s actions, God’s initiative, God’s grace does not wait until people have started to act the way that we may think that they should
God’s grace does not wait until people have come back from exile into the holy city.
God’s grace comes in weakness as an infant.
God’s grace comes to live alongside and include and welcome those who are always left outside
God’s grace comes in the wilderness.
That is why there are so many Christians – from Desmond Tutu, to David Pocock, to Rowland Croucher, in fact from recent evidence a majority of Australian Christians – who support Marriage Equality.
In comparison to human frailty and fickleness – being like grass, coming and going – God’s grace is eternal, sure and found most strongly in the desert with those who are on the outside.
The words of Isaiah 40 –
sung every year in the Messiah, and warming the hearts of people throughout the centuries,
promises that God’s comfort will bring an end to all inequality:
every valley will be lifted up
and every mountain and hill made low.
the uneven ground shall become level
and the rough places a plain
And all people shall see the glory of God.
God’s grace is surprising. God’s compassion is boundless and we are called to see what new thing God is doing in our midst.
Comfort, comfort my people, says God.
In the wilderness, prepare a way for the Lord