Two truths exist about roads. Whenever they are resurfaced, the traffic tends to break the speed limit. Then within a year the spray painted hieroglyphs will appear on the road surfaces, signaling that they will be torn up again and then poorly patched only to slow things down again so things are pretty much like they were the first place.
But that’s what roads are for. Fast or slow. They are to get us from here to there. This is a far cry from the kind of road suggested in this scripture from Isaiah. The prophet was speaking to tired people who weren’t very interested in going anywhere. Earlier, there was a highway that they marched that took them away from home, against their will, to a land where they would live as slaves. But as with anything when people become accustomed to a situation, they learn how to make the best of it. That’s how it was during the exile for the people of Israel who were forced to live in Babylon.
Religiously-speaking, the Israelites were in this mess because they had over the years been drifting away from where God wanted their faith to be.
Politically speaking, the empire of Babylon was to blame for conquering Israel, desiring to expand their western border of their empire. Once conquered, King Nebuchadnezzar would control his vanquished territories by resettling its best and the brightest citizens in a place from their homeland. The Bible explains that God’s hand was in all this. King Nebuchadnezzar and his gods may have been powerful, but the God of Abraham and Moses proved to be even more powerful..
Speaking of highways, in Babylon, processional highways existed at the center of the empire upon which they had grand parades. These routes were not just for getting from one place to another like our interstates. They were for show, displaying the power of the nation such as the Russians using the Kremlin or the Chinese use Tiananmen Square today. Soldiers march. Chariots and war machines rumble. Powerful leader’s process. More importantly in Babylon, images of the nation’s gods were carried for the entire world to see, an intimidating sight to the exiled Israelites and any who observed.
But Isaiah envisioned another highway, a road leading home for those who had almost lost hope of ever getting there. Imagine what it would be like for the refugees from Darfur, Sudan, Bangladesh or Afghanistan finally traveling home. That is the road of which Isaiah spoke.
But sometimes people don’t want to go home. They can get “stuck” in exile. The foreign land becomes so familiar place after many generations living there. It can become “home.” Isaiah was speaking for God to the Israelites people as “stuck” in their troubles, challenging them to start walking on the highway. . .the road home.
There as another purpose for that road beyond travel. That highway was to be where the glory of the Lord would be revealed. The Babylonians weren’t the only ones who could demonstrate their power in parade.
The God of Israel, whose name could not be spoken, whose image could not be shaped into a statute, whose face could not be seen, whose power could not be found in conquering armies, in instruments of war or in symbols of the empire displayed.
How can God could be glorified on the road? Isaiah spoke the words of the Lord to those exiles in Babylon, calling them to prepare the way, prepare the road. We need these words to speak to us now.
The fact that this text was remembered from Babylon and carried back to Israel, and much later used in all four gospels to describe the prophetic ministry of John the Baptist, means that we ought to listen to it as if it were being spoken to each one of us. “Prepare the way of the Lord,” John cried out as he pointed his finger was pointed not toward himself, but to Jesus.
We are getting ready for the birth of the Christ child. It’s time to get the Christmas tree and decorate it, as well as deck out our homes and churches with all our ornaments. Some of us are so organized; their “places” are already prepared. Some already have all the gifts addressed and cards stamped.
Advent is a time for outer adornment. There is another preparation that needs to be made. There is what we might call an “inner adornment” to take place if we are to truly prepare the way for the Lord.
When John the Baptist uttered these words, “Prepare the way of the Lord,” he called for repentance, which literally means “to turn.” Turn from sin, and be baptized. Whoever responded, whoever turned away from sin and toward the Lord, was granted salvation.
ow often do we think of repentance during this month? Advent is such a “feel good” time, not “be serious” time like Lent or at least that’s what we’ve made it.
If we feel bad about anything, it’s usually over how the holiday never quite lives up to our expectations. But what about repentance? What sort of “turning” are we doing in preparation?
What sin do you need to turn away from this season? Let’s not trivialize it by “giving up something” for Advent.
Not eating chocolate for a month is not repentance unless, of course, it feeds an addiction that is preventing a deeper walk with God. But that “one month” deal is more like a pact with the devil – giving up for now what you plan on cashing in on big time later.
What sin is pulling you away from God, away from your brother or sister or neighbor? From what do you need to turn away, and thus face in the right direction? Examine yourself. Your sin may be something you consciously do, or even do without much thought. It may be something you aren’t doing, that you should. Examine yourself. “Prepare the way.” Prepare YOUR way.
This business of (as Isaiah put it) “valleys being lifted up, mountains made low; and rough places made plain,” (40:4) indicates that the process of preparing the way is an earth moving experience.
But try as we might we’ll never make the road so smooth and straight that we can jump into our spiritual automobiles and race from one end to another without any traffic jams.
The road of the Holy Spirit is always under construction. That’s what repentance is: it’s construction work. Every day it’s turning from sin and turning toward God. This is the road and it’s being built, one foot at a time. It’s glory work.
How is God glorified on our roads? It’s not like we parade down it carrying God for all to see. It’s more like God carrying down the road on his shoulders or in arms or however we might need assistance. And while we travel our part of that highway, the world beholds just a little bit more of God’s glory as it watches us.
So don’t rush through this season. There’s important construction to be done on this road. “You are a witness to the Christ child’s coming. Prepare the way!
May the Peace of Christ be with us all.
Rev. Mike Ader