The Rev. Melanie McCarley
When Phil and I were first married, we began our life together in the state of Indiana. On the one hand, Indiana is a state which has a lot going for it. Namely, it’s people, who are a delight, solid American values and Basketball. On the other hand, it has some drawbacks. They, for instance, are the ones who encouraged the Baltimore Colts to flee under cover of night thus depriving the good citizens of Maryland (and the DC suburbs, from which I hail) of an alternative football team to root for other than the Washington Redskins. In addition—at least in the central and northern reaches of the state, Indiana is a flat land, possessed of few hills sparse trees, and straight roads—in fact the whole state was laid out on decidedly unimaginative, yet immanently practical grid formation. If someone says “scenic views”, the state of Indiana does not jump to the forefront of most people’s minds. The evangelist Luke would have loved it.: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth;” Indeed, if all flesh were to see the salvation of God, it seems to me that Indiana should be in the running of places where Christ is to make his second appearing.
I, however, come from a land of hills, trees and winding roads. Those hills, trees and meandering roads, they are lovely, comforting and a joy. In my mind, the vision of straight roads and level plains is neither desirable nor a thing of beauty. So, I wonder why Luke should be so intent on employing the language of the prophets to emphasize road conditions when it comes to preparing the way of the Lord?
The answer is found in military strategy. During the time of Jesus, the Romans were in charge. Now, for all their drawbacks, one of the great innovations that came from Roman civilization was this—sound infrastructure and good roads. There are Roman roads in existence to this day. As an invading army, the Romans knew that one of the keys to their success came from the ability to mobilize quickly and transport great numbers of soldiers, weapons and supplies over vast areas with great speed. If you are going to do this—having a strong, well-trained army is not enough. You need good roads. And everyone knows that the quickest way to get from one place to another is a straight line. Hence, highways.
And, if you are an army, in addition to straight roads, you would also prefer a clear line of sight—all the better to save you from sneak attacks from hostile forces. So, straight roads and a clear line of vision—those equate to a timely and successful arrival. You could move quickly and easily, getting where you wanted to go with a minimum of delay. All of this adds up to Victory!
So, listen again to what the prophets Baruch (and Isaiah) have to say: “For God has ordered that every high mountain and the everlasting hills be made low and the valleys filled up, to make level ground, so that Israel may walk safely in the glory of God.”; Later, Luke would reinterpret these passages to say “and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
The message is this: If we want God to come—and arrive quickly—we bear a certain responsibility of preparing the means of making ready for the Lord’s timely arrival. Here’s the thing. You and me—if we see a pothole, we’re apt to pick up the phone and call someone else, say the Department of Transportation or the City Manager to take care of the problem. In the mind of the prophets, if your road is in sorry shape, you should get out there with some rocks and tar and get to work. There is no angelic road crew who is going to do that for you.
This is because those roads, they’re not literal, they’re figurative—they are the pathways to the heart of the people of God. And the preparation that needs to take place is in strengthening the spirit and will of those who look to God for their salvation. The means of doing this is by cultivating the virtues of God: Faith, Hope, Charity, Fortitude, Justice, Temperance and Prudence. In other words, if you want God to come to your aid, and to come quickly, the best way to prepare is by looking to yourself, and the condition of your soul. If you see injustice and evil in the world—it’s not simply a matter of zapping prayers to God, angels or saints, asking them to take care of the problem—you bear a considerable responsibility for addressing the problem yourself.
Now, think about this. The idea that the very landscape in which the people were living needed to change in order to prepare the way for the coming of God…that indicates that tumultuous transformation was necessary. In other words, what was needed in the spirit of the people of God wasn’t simply a minor revision, seasonal upkeep, as it were, but a major upheaval, akin to the leveling of mountains. That’s a lot to take in during the season of Advent. Far from the comfort and coziness we associate with our preparations for Christmas, Advent, as seen from the prophetic perspective, seems to be advocating something quite different. And indeed, if this is the way you hear these words, you are absolutely correct.
These prophecies, they are a call for the end of superficial acceptance of the rotten ways of the world to end—beginning with me and with you. It is a demand that God be placed first in one’s life, rather than second forth or fiftieth.
And yet, this message is not without hope. This is a biblical call for us to live in partnership with God, working together to bring about a world of peace. Jesus is indeed coming—but to hasten his arrival, that means that our hearts must be in sync with the will of God.
So, here is one way to begin. Engage with the season of Advent as a time of spiritual renewal and transformation. Begin to look at the superficialities of the world in which we live and see them for what they are—take up a spiritual shovel (as it were) and dig deeper, looking for hope, taking responsibility for making changes to create a more just and verdant society. Open your heart and mind to seek the will of God in all you do. Love your neighbor as yourself. Do all this, and you will indeed be working to make the crooked ways straight, to level the hills and provide a means for you to see Christ when He comes, and for Him to see you as well. Do this, and perhaps each of us, including those, like myself, who harbor a preference for hills and meandering paths, will see those flat plains and straight roads as things of beauty—allowing us to behold at last the glory of the Lord shed over all the world, so that indeed, all flesh—all people, everywhere, shall see it together. In Jesus’ name. Amen.