Prophets and prophesy. Generally speaking, when people think about either, they think about unpleasant people delivering the unpleasant message about God’s judgment and the punishment. Deep down inside, we know we deserve both. How can we believe and accept the message of God’s love when we are overwhelmed with the evidence that humanity tends to be fairly inhumane? If we were all so loveable, why is it that all families struggle with brokenness? Yet, since we wonder how we are worth loving, we also puzzle: how can it be that God really loves us. So, when we hear the message of the prophets, what do we tend to hear? We hear what we know that we deserve, not what God promises.
But this week’s first reading of Isaiah 40:1-11 begins with a promise. He did not proclaim “afflict, afflict my people; but comfort, comfort my people.” Speak not harshly, but speak tenderly. Prepare the way of the Lord. The job of the prophet is to encourage, not excoriate. In the Acts of the Apostles, a fellow named Joseph became known as the son of encouragement, for the way in which he was so filled with the power of the Holy Spirit to offer positivity in the face of the other disciples’ struggles and discouragement. He became known as ‘Barnabas’ which is literally translated as ‘a son of encouragement.’ But ‘Barnabas’ is derived from the Hebrew bar (son of) nabi—that is the son of the prophet.
Granted, some camel skinned, locust munching fellow who probably should have taken a bath in the very Jordan River in which he baptized may not present us with what feels like the image of comfort. But even in strident language of John the Baptist there’s a message of great comfort. That message? Quite simply, that a new start and a new beginning are always possible in God’s sight, even when it is not possible from the human point of view.
Advent is the message of hope: we can turn again, and find yet again the grace and forgiveness, the new start in the eyes of God.