“Moses said to the people, ‘Remember this day on which you came out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery’” (Ex. 13:3). Second only in importance to this seminal story, the Old Testament tells a long and complicated saga, not about going to and founding the land of promise, but of returning to it.
From the mid-eighth century to the mid-sixth century B.C., the nation of Israel, or rather, Israel in the north and Judah in the south, were under constant political threat, first from the Assyrians and then the Babylonians. In the end, the nation was destroyed, its temple torn down, and its inhabitants deported to Babylon. The event is generally dated 587-586 B.C.
The psalmist describes the bitterness of captivity in a foreign land, “By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept, when we remembered you, O Zion. As for our harps, we hung them up on the trees in the midst of that land. For those who led us away captive asked us for a song, and our oppressors called for mirth: ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion.’ How shall we sing the Lord’s song upon an alien soil? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill. Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joys” (Ps. 137:1-6). For a generation, for a full 70 years, the people of God wept and hoped for a return to their land and their temple.
In the fullness of time, Babylon fell to the Persians, and under Persian rule, the Jews were allowed to return home. The prophet Isaiah announced the great moment, saying, “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid” (Isa. 40:1).
A universal longing reverberates in this ancient story, the hope for a home, a familiar landscape, a center of worship, a common culture, a sense of belonging, and being, all of which are echoes a more profound longing, the longing for God. The Jews went home, and they went home to their God. “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 made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and all the rough places plain” (Isa. 40:3-4). This great migration was the great act of God. “The Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him” (Isa. 40:10). 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” (Isa. 40:11).
Like all great stories, this one was repeated, again and again. For instance, we hear it in the opening words of St. Mark’s gospel, “The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, ‘See I send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying in the wilderness; ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his path straight’” (Mark 1:1-2). John the Baptist prepares a way for “one who is mightier than I,” that is, for Jesus. In this retelling, Jesus becomes our homeland, temple, culture, being, and belonging. Baptized into His Spirit, we find comfort, tender love, divine food, and protection.
In a sense, we prepare for the Lord by constant longing. “Do you not feel yourself drawn with the expectation and desire of some Great Things?” (Thomas Traherne)
Look It Up: Read Isaiah 40:9-10.
Think About It: Your God will lead you home.