Isaiah 40: 1-5, Mark 1:1-8.
Amy and I will remember forever the road in Kentucky that we once took. We were taking a short cut, or so we thought! The farther we drove, the worse the road became. The longer we drove the narrower it got. It moved from paved, to gravel, to dirt, to two tire tracks and suddenly dead-ended at the edge of a river. There was no place to turn around, and we had to back up a considerable distance before we could extricate ourselves.
On the other hand, I lived in England for the first 15 years of my life. As a child I played on nearby Roman Roads that had been built 1800 years earlier. The Roman armies tried to control an empire that sprawled from the Middle East all the way to Scotland. But the roads of their world were so bad, that they were usually impassable and had to be rebuilt over and over again. So the Romans built cobblestone roads wherever they went, that would last the centuries. But the Romans were an exception.
This is actually what usually happened across the ancient world. When it was announced that the King or an important official was coming to town, an interesting series of events were initiated. The whole town was conscripted to start fixing the roads. Some started filling in potholes. Some helped reconstruct the dilapidated bridges. Some were conscripted to cut down the weeds and remove the garbage from the side of the road. Some started to whitewash the buildings along the route. The highway was being made, temporarily, into the King’s Highway.
The Message of Isaiah
The prophet Isaiah, whose words we read earlier, knew all about the practice. His people have been in exile for 50 years. They have been living as deportees, scattered throughout the Babylonian Empire. As a consequence they have descended into deep depression. Life has become bare existence. The people reflected often upon the memories of times gone by, but lived without hope for their future. They had succumbed to the numbing despair of their difficult lives.
It is at that moment the prophet breaks into their darkness with words that sound like this: “Good News, Good News. Our prison sentence is coming to an end. We have served our time. God is coming to rescue us. The King of the universe is on His way. Let’s get ready. In this wilderness of ours let us repair the highway for His coming. Let every valley be lifted up, every mountain and hill be made low, let the crooked roads be made straight, and let the rough places be flattened out.”
Now Isaiah is not suggesting that his Jewish friends become construction engineers. God needs no such roads as others need to travel. The prophet is a poet. He writes in metaphors. He is saying, “God is about to arrive to help us, let us prepare for that event. Let us remove any barriers to his coming. Let us put aside our sins. Let us put away our idols.”
The Message of John the Baptist
Several centuries later another man picks up the words of the ancient prophet. John the Baptist has listened to the “Good News” announced by the prophet Isaiah to the people lost in the wilderness of Babylon. And now he stands in the Wilderness of Judea. The wilderness, he knows, is a symbol of the spiritual dearth of his nation. He sees them captive to their sins and to their own despair. And his message is the same as that of Isaiah of old. “Prepare the way for the coming of the Lord.” But this time he wants them to get ready for the coming of the Messiah, Jesus from Nazareth, and John calls on his people, to start repairing the King’s highway.
But again he is not the leader of a work crew getting the roads ready. He is calling for his people to prepare themselves. And it all begins, he says, with repentance. But not only Godly sorrow.
Listen to his counsel as recorded by St. Luke, when the crowds asked John, “What shall we do?” In reply he said, “whoever had two coats must share with anyone who has none, and whoever has food must do the same.”
The Tax collectors said, “What shall we do?” He said. “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.”
The soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.” John knew, that if these people were to benefit from the coming of Jesus, they would need to make provision for his coming.
A few years ago, my brother Ron & I, both Pastors, took a few days off for a retreat at my Sister’s Bed & Breakfast in Wisconsin. We helped Connie and her husband Bob to fix some crumbling steps and broken cement work. The Cement truck was asked to deliver the amount of new concrete that we needed. But we had miscalculated. The cement truck came with its load of wet cement. We had built forms for the steps and a patio and a sidewalk, but we soon realized there was more cement than was needed. Lots more. But we had paid for it, and they would not give us a refund. So waste not, want not, we asked them to pour the rest along the dirt driveway. But we had made no provision for that cement, we had built no forms along the driveway for it. And the cement dried faster than we could work it, and it started to clump here and there, and became too thin here and too thick there. And because there was no rebar in it, it cracked when it was driven on. And as the next few years evolved that drive way became increasingly impossible to navigate, till one day we had to tear it all out.
John The Baptist knew that if we are to benefit from the coming of the Christ, we will need to have made provision. So John calls out, “Prepare the way, prepare your hearts, prepare your life for his coming. And if you do, O what a difference.”
But those two events took place centuries ago. What does Isaiah & John The Baptist have to say to us today?
For quite a few years I was not sure that I enjoyed Christmas. There were a lot of reasons for that disenchantment. I spent too much, ate too much, got too busy trying to be at too many events. I felt that the season had become banal, with Santa Claus and elves taking central staging. Currier and Ives and Charles Dickens had redefined the reason for the season. The stories told were nice stories but they were not His story. I felt that the stores had kidnapped the story for their own profit. I became a reluctant participant in the season.
Then I caught myself. Just because the season is abused that doesn’t mean I have to be Ebenezer Scrooge going around repeating a sanctified version of “Bah Humbug.” This season is for the celebration of the goodness of God. It is the reminder of the coming of Jesus into our lives. It tells of remarkable people who had a deep faith in God. It tells me of sins forgiven and hope in a world’s darkness. It is a wonderful time to celebrate God’s goodness.
So I began making preparations for Christmas Day. Of course Amy and I continued to make all the normal preparations. We got a tree, decorated it, put up the lights, made the fruit cake, cooked the turkey, bought the gifts, filled out the cards and did all the other things that are part of the celebration.
But I also wanted to make preparations at a more profound level. That’s when I began to take Advent seriously. I can put up with Santa, and the Grinch, and sickly sweet sentimental Christmas movies. But at the same time I wanted to have a Christmas that nourished the central stream of my life. I wanted to come though the season less harried and more rested. More in touch with God, myself, my family, and my world.
I did not want to end the season praying, “Forgive us our Christmases as we forgive those who Christmas against us.”
I wanted to have lived in the reverence of that great event of His Incarnation.
I wanted to close the season overwhelmed with thankfulness.
I wanted Joy and peace to have been the experience of this bright season. And,
I wanted to enter the New Year, already having made resolutions for the year ahead, out of a heart that had rediscovered the things worth aiming for in life.
And I wish the same for each of us reading this. This season is too wonderful to waste. So I have been asking God, as I prepare for Christmas,
What mountains in my life need lowering?
What potholes and deep ditches need to be filled in?
What crooked places need to be made straight?
What rough places need reconstruction?
I have not felt the need to remove any physical mountains in my life. I have always loved them. Especially after living beside the Rocky Mountain for a few years. But there are mountains, made out of molehills, which need to be removed and cast into the sea of our own forgetfulness.
It is tragic to keep on making much about nothing.
It is tragic to keep on magnifying another person’s faults, so that’s all we see.
It is tragic to take the difficult moments in our lives, and make them into mountains that block out all other realities. And,
It is tragic to take a sin that occurred in our past and give it far too much prominence, so that it hinders us from getting on with life in Christ.
During these few weeks of advent, I want to ask God to help me reduce those mountains back to their original molehills. Don’t you?
Then there are ditches that need to be bridged in our lives. Sometimes there are words or activities that have interrupted relationships in our lives. Sometimes friends and family members find themselves parked across great gulfs from each other, unable or unwilling to bridge the chasms that divide them.
Some ditches begin, as we all know, as small potholes. They are easy to fix when they first begin. But much tougher to fix when they’re let go. A bit of road mending early can save much grief later. But even if potholes have eroded to become chasms, bridges can be built if either side of the great divide will make the effort. Words of apology and words of humility have been known to build wonderful bridges.
Then there might be crooked places in our lives that need straightening out. There are times when our lives are bent in wrong directions; when our attitudes are way out of line, when our appetites are distorted. You know as I do, that serious accidents take place at these crooked places in our lives.
Such places can be fixed if we begin with penitence. There is nothing in our lives that cannot be mended with the help of God.
Then there are those rough places that need smoothing out. There are times when we are insensitive, thoughtless, bulls in china shops. We do not intend evil. Sometimes we are just clumsy or stupid, and as a result cause far too much unintended disruption in the lives of fellow travellers, and sometimes we cause deep hurt. A child was once heard to pray “O God, make all the bad people good, and make all the good people nice.” Some of us are not nice. We are prickly people, causing friction. Some of us are as abrasive as sandpaper – taking strips off people as we journey through life.
Thanks be to God, He can make silk purses out of sow’s ears, and He can take rough people, and make them gracious. The process of healing begins with confessing the truth about ourselves.
As we prepare ourselves for the four Sundays of Advent, let us take some time to talk to God and ourselves about doing some road mending. Will you join me?