John the Baptist calls out to us with Isaiah’s words: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” Isaiah here was referring to the return of God’s people to their rightful home from which they had been uprooted by the Babylonians. Even today, we live in exile, not living our lives in God as we ought. The call to repentance (metanoia) in John’s baptism means, literally, to turn our minds. This does mean just filling or minds with new books; it means turning our whole embodied selves in a new direction to see and live in a different way.
Isaiah prophecies a leveling process where the valleys are filled in, the mountains are brought low, and the crooked ways are straightened. That is, the obstacles within ourselves and within our culture that prevent God from coming to us must be removed. The image of leveling seems to suggest a social upheaval where the mighty are brought low and the lowly are raised up so that all are on the same level. This would be to overlook the real obstacle to God: our tendency to compare ourselves with one another without reference to God, preoccupied with being better than others or fretting that others are better than us. This preoccupation and the resentments they foster maintain the isolating barriers of valleys and mountains and block the way to God.
The repentance that Isaiah calls for is the renunciation of our rivalrous entanglement with others and allow for God’s leveling process that holds everybody in the same regard without exalting some or lowering others. Unfortunately, while God is smoothing out the way for us, we prefer to maintain the barriers that we think protect us. Opening a highway for God makes us vulnerable, not only to God but to all of God’s people. Take out the valleys and mountains and anybody could come deeply into our lives! Isaiah gives us fair warning by declaring that “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
Like all analogies, the analogy of smoothing out the landscape has its liabilities. Flat ground makes for boring scenery. Valleys and mountains make for beautiful scenery. God doesn’t destroy the landscapes God has made. That means, if we turn our embodied minds, we see that God’s leveling process is to rejoice in the valleys and mountains and twists of the road without rivalry or resentment.