The words of Isaiah 40:1-11 are a message of comfort and hope in a time of tragedy and exile. The people of Israel and Judah have been deported from their homeland by the nations of Assyria and Babylon. However, more than merely a military-political act of the nations, the prophets tell us that this exile was a theological matter, brought about by God because of the sins of his people. In Isaiah 40, we find that this time of exile is coming to an end. God seeks to comfort his people and he tells them that their punishment is over; their penalty has been paid.
As a result, a voice calls out saying "Clear the way for the Lord in the wilderness". This path is being cleared in the desert that lies between Israel's homeland and their current residence in Babylon. It will be the path of God's coming to their rescue as well as the path of exodus for the people from their captivity. V.5-8 say that "Then the glory of the Lord will be revealed" and that "all flesh is like grass...the grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever". In other words, the return of God's people from exile is a testament to God's glory and God's faithfulness. It shows that his promises to his people were not thwarted when Assyria and Babylon took Israel and Judah into exile. Although it appeared that these kingdoms were in control of Israel's fate, these nations actually sprout up and then fade away like grass or flowers that are here one day and gone the next. These nations, the most powerful in the region at that time, were only serving God's word which stands forever. His promises to his people far out live the lifespan of these kingdoms and nations. Therefore, Israel is now to proclaim the good news that God reigns and that he will once again guide and care for his people like a shepherd.
V.3 of this passage (combined with a verse from Malachi) is quoted in the gospel reading for this week (Mark 1:1-8), the second Sunday of Advent. The way that Mark uses this quotation at the beginning of his gospel is extremely significant. This is because Mark clearly intends for John the Baptist to be understood as the one who is preparing the way for the Lord since he goes on to talk about John preaching in the wilderness immediately after the quotation. This, in turn, is significant not so much because of what it says about John the Baptist but because of what it says about Jesus since Jesus is the one for whom John is preparing the way. Therefore, by quoting this verse from Isaiah (along with the one from Malachi), Mark has already called Jesus Lord, a titled reserved for Yahweh, the one true God of Israel, within the first few verses of his gospel. Mark has proclaimed Jesus as "the Lord" of Isaiah 40, the Lord who delivered Israel from exile, without stating it in such explicit terms. Instead, he has invited those in his audience who know the story of Israel to see Jesus in light of that story; even to see Jesus as the one who delivers Israel from its exile under Rome in his own time.
In many ways, God's people continue to live in a kind of exile today. For some Christians around the world, this exile takes on a very real, political form in that they are a small minority in their own nation and they often suffer for their faith as a result. However, even here in America, when the Church is truly being the Church, we find ourselves in a certain kind of exile. That exile certainly does not come in the political form that it does for others since we hold a considerable influence as a large constituency within our democracy. But when we refuse to be defined by the politics of our nation and instead commit ourselves to being defined by our life in Christ, we begin to realize that the values of our nation, our culture, and our political parties are not and will never be Christian values. Compared to our culture, Christ has some very strange things to say about how we should use our money, live out our sexuality, and spend our time. So in this way, even the Church in America finds itself in exile. Like Israel, we are in need of deliverance from a land that is not our true home.
Therefore, we can take the words of Isaiah 40 to heart. Although they were written as words of comfort to a people in exile about 2500 years ago, they speak words of hope to our current exile as well. The same God whose word did not fail then is still faithful to deliver us today as well. So we continue to look forward to his coming kingdom and the deliverance of all of creation from its exile in sin.