The Tears of John: the Turning-Point of History


job-silohetteToday we continue our Lent series, “The Weeping Word“, looking at different moments of crying, lament, and tears in the Scriptures.

The Bible has 66 books. After 39 of those Old Testament books, God’s people are left with these words:

Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse.

And the Hebrew Scriptures end. God’s people sit wondering what the heck is happening to God’s promises, all while God just gives them another promise: “I will send Elijah, and I will not curse the land”. That’s it.

Matthew, then–the Bible’s 40th book–opens the New Testament with words of hope about God acting on these historical promises (he does this through a genealogy).

Hold that thought.

Nearly every prophetic book in the Bible has the same progression. God comes to his people, talks for a while about how he’s going to destroy and/or punish them, and then right when things look their bleakest, there’s a “turn” where suddenly he approaches them in absolute grace and love. The Prophets begin in darkness, but light eventually breaks. Exile turns to Homecoming.

This is especially true in the book of Isaiah, which is a sort of “Bible in Miniature”. The Bible has 66 books, Isaiah has 66 chapters. When we look at Isaiah’s 39th chapter it (just as in the Bible’s 39th installment), we get a similar negative outlook followed by anticipation:

Hear the word of the Lord of hosts: Days are coming when all that is in your house, and that which your ancestors have stored up until this day, shall be carried to Babylon; nothing shall be left, says the Lord.

But wait. Turn the page. Here in the Old Testament, in Isaiah’s 40th Chapter, we get a foreshadow of the Bible’s glorious turn to 40:

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,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
    double for all her sins.

And then what is the first act of accomplishing this Comfort on the behalf of God’s people? “A voice cries out.”

The Hebrew word used here for “cries” is often used for the cry of animals in pain. It is a call from the depths of who one is. It is a weeping shout. It is the engagement of one’s full self in demanding and arresting a response from the hearer.

This is Isaiah’s “turn” towards beauty and grace. And what is the content of this weeping?

A voice cries out:
“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.”

It is no less than the words used years later by the promised Prophet in the vein of Elijah–a prophet named John. The earliest Gospel begins with these words:

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”

Isaiah’s turn happens at the same place as the Bible’s turn, and using the same words. Exile is turning to Homecoming. Just as in Malachi’s words quted above, the land will not be cursed. In fact, it’s cries will be heard and satisfied.

This crying out–these tears and wails–is the hinge of the story, and it involves crying out. Tears are the turn. We saw before how the world cries out for our Confession. This is God through his Prophet crying out for our Repentance and extending Forgiveness. The tears of John the Baptist are the turning point of all of redemptive history.

The turn that happened at the Bible’s first tears have has no been reversed. In these tears were the tears of the whole cosmos. Your tears. My tears. All crying out to make straight the paths of the Lord.

In this Lent season, will we hear the voice anew today? Will we see the very tears of God on behalf of his world? Will we make his paths straight and press onward into Repentance and Upward into Forgiveness? Doing so is the only way to know the turn. It’s how the world knew it. It’s how Isaiah knew it. And it’s how the world knows it.

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