No one can overestimate the importance of Sunday's first reading (Is 40: 1-5, 9-11). It contains the initial lines of Deutero-Isaiah's groundbreaking 16 chapters. Though we don't even know the name of the prophet responsible for Isaiah 40 to 55, his influence on our faith has been tremendous.

The priestly author of Genesis 1 had a copy of Deutero-Isaiah in front of him when he wrote his well-known creation narrative, and borrowed freely from the prophet's insights and theology, especially from his emphasis on the power of God's word.

Deutero-Isaiah prophesies during the Jewish community's most difficult biblical period: The Babylonian Exile. Nabeuchadnezzar shattered almost every religious tradition and institution in 586 B.C.E. when he destroyed Jerusalem and forced a huge percentage of its inhabitants to return to Babylon with him as captives.

Hope to come

BY the time Deutero-Isaiah comes on the scene 50 years later, the descendants of the Israelites originally forced into exile believe they'll never again return to the Promised Land. They have no army, no leader, no religious framework on which they can ground even the slightest glimmer of hope.

Yet the prophet reminds his people that there's one thing not even an exile can destroy, something which their pre-exilic traditions and institutions had pushed to the background of their faith experience: Yahweh's word.

The essential statement in the consolation oracle we hear on Sunday is the prophet's assurance: "The mouth of Yahweh has spoken!" God's forgiveness, the return to Israel, the promise of God's continual care -- all revolve around a conviction that God said God will do these things. Deutero-Isaiah believes that whatever Yahweh says, Yahweh is already accomplishing right here and now.

That's why the road between Babylon and Jerusalem must be made straight, why messengers announcing the return should be dispatched immediately, and why no one should doubt Yahweh's power. The exile ends as soon as Yahweh says is ends.

This dependence on God's word logically carries over into the Christian Scriptures. Jesus' followers recall, for instance, how John the Baptizer's words about repentance eventually led to Jesus' arrival and His call to join in His dying and rising (Mk 1: 1-8). If, through John, God proclaimed a "forgiveness of sins," then God's people knew God's forgiveness was already taking place.

It was the certitude that their sins were already being forgiven which prompted many in John's audience to "acknowledge their sins." They no longer had anything to fear from them. Only the details of the forgiveness had to be worked out, something Jesus would supply.

Jesus' return

It's this same theology of God's word which prompts the author of the second reading (II Peter 3: 8-14) to reflect on Jesus' delayed Parousia. By the time the passage was composed -- in the early second century -- most Christians were no longer looking at the skies, expecting Jesus' imminent return. They, like us, presumed He would not triumphantly come back on earth in their lifetimes.

The person who composed II Peter is still trying to keep alive the faith that Jesus will return. Just as Deutero-Isaiah countered his exiled community's despair with his emphasis on Yahweh's word, so this author of one of the last books of the Christian Scriptures counters his community's despair with a reminder that they have Jesus' "promise" in the matter. No one can follow God for long unless he or she understands the power of God's word.

The official change in the formula the lector uses at the end of the liturgical readings -- from "This is the word of the Lord," to "The word of the Lord" -- is an attempt to remind us that God's word isn't confined just to one book or even to a sacred collection of books. The reading the lector proclaims is just one part of God's word. It should lead us to discover those other dimensions of our life in which God's word is also being proclaimed.