The passage is found in the Narrative Lectionary, Advent 2, Year 2 (Most recently Dec 6, 2020).
Summary: This passage is almost impossible to translate because one has Handel's Messiah in the background! One possible direction: Highlight the work of the Holy Spirit, as that which kills but also creates through compassion and comfort. But I am preaching in Advent so I will focus, most likely, on preparing the way. In what way do we need a wilderness, a time of disconnecting, to connect to God? In what way is God's Holy Spirit present to us in the wilderness? I would argue that the wilderness is not a time of listening to inner voices, but a time of being comforted by the communion of saints and hearing the Word of God.
נחם ("nakham" meaning "comfort, repent or compassion", vs 1) This word appears in all sorts of amazing and significant passages. It can mean a range of things -- comfort, repent or have compassion. The idea is someone taking a deep breath. In this case, the translators of every language, whether Greek speaking Jews in the 4th century BC, or Jerome in the 4th century AD, to modern English translators, have translated this word to mean "comfort." I agree! The question remains linguistically in the passage -- who is doing the comforting? The ancient Israelites to each other? God? The pastoral question for us is -- who comforts us? How is do we experience God's comfort?
Lastly, it is interesting that the Greek translation of this word παρακαλεω (parakaleo) will also be used as a title for the Holy Spirit in John's Gospel!
יד ("yad", meaning "hand", vs 2) It is strange and disconcerting that the same God who offers comfort is also the same God, from whose hand the people have taken punishment. It is a reminder that God has two hands -- one to punish and one to build up. (An article by David Lose talks about these two hands) in Luther's writings.
מדבר ("midbar", meaning "wilderness", vs 3) Wilderness does not mean "place where God is not." The book of Numbers records God's faithful presence in the wilderness. Wilderness can mean a time of reflection and examination, comfort and repentance, but certainly not banishment from God.
Final note: If you are curious about the position of the comma in the sentence:
A voice cries out in the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord...see this week's post on Luke 3
מסלה ("mislah" meaning "highway", vs 3) The word highway is a fairly modern word!! The point here is that this is not a city street, but a royal road that would have been constructed. As NET Bible offers: "typically refers to a main road, possibly paved with stones or made level with fill (see HALOT 606 s.v. and The Concise DCH 230 s.v.)." The point is that there is a royal entourage coming into town!
רוח ("ruach" meaning "spirit, voice or breath", vs 7) The "literal" translation could be "the spirit of God blows upon it." I find it quite strange that anyone would want to translate this as breath. What is God's breath if not God's spirit? This is important because it helps us recognize that the Spirit's work specifically in this passage but also more generally in the work of putting to death. It is also worth noting that the Spirit is connected here to the Word of God (vs 8) and finally proclamation of the good news (9)
רעה ("rahah" meaning "shepherd", vs 11) It is striking that the glory of the Lord is revelaed not simply in power, but in merciful compassion. God's alien work may be bringing about death and destruction, but the proper and crowning work of God is exhibiting mercy.
Side grammar note: the is technically a verbal noun, like "the one who shepherds" or more literally "shepherder"
ישא עלית ינהל ("raise up those who are giving suck and lead them", 11) This verse can fairly be translated as "He will gently lead the mother sheep." But I see it a bit different: He will raise up and lead those who are nursing, those who are feeding. This is a little word of hope for those involved in ministry -- who are feeding other sheep. God will raise you up and lead you. The word lead here is also used in Psalm 23 -- lead us besides still waters. The leading is not into a hard place, but a place of rest.