Isaiah 40:1-11; Mark 1:1-8
The Rev. Melanie McCarley
As I saw it, there were only two topics of conversation when we were visiting relatives in West Virginia. To my ears, both of them were mind-numbingly dull. Roads, and the weather. How people could wax eloquent for hours about roads was beyond me—the miracles of interstate forty and I sixty-four. For the life of me, I failed to comprehend the significance of these conversations. Who cared? I told my ten year old self—these people need to talk about more significant life issues, such as “What’s on TV.”
Fast-forward several decades and I moved to West Virginia myself and came to understand. In the Mountain State—you never ask “How far is it?” you ask: “How long does it take to get there?” Like Massachusetts, there are no straight roads in West Virginia. Roads meander, they curve, they traverse hollers and climb mountains. Sometimes there are guardrails—frequently there are not. Often there are coal trucks, logging trucks and (the ones from personal experience I learned to be most leery of), red pick-up trucks sporting gun racks and bumper stickers saying “I brake for beer”.
Bishop Robert Atkinson, who served in West Virginia told a story of making a visitation to a church when he was new to the Diocese. One evening, after finishing a visitation, he looked on a map and noted that he was scheduled to make yet another visitation to another church which, when he looked at his map, appeared to be just a few miles away. Why, he wondered to himself, could he have not made both visits on the same day? Yet, when he referred to his written directions, he saw that his Secretary had meticulously drawn out driving instructions that would take him between three and four hours. He was baffled—and irritated—immediately suspecting a hidden, vengeful nature in what he had hitherto assumed been a kind-hearted Secretary. He looked at the map again. That church could only be three, maybe four miles away—he was sure of it. And, as he peered closer, he saw that it was connected by a logging trail. How hard could it be? First he tried to drive it. His car slid into a ditch within the first mile. Then he tried to walk it. He made it to the edge of a crevasse, whereupon he learned the truth that every West Virginian confronts at least once during his or her life in the blue ridge state: “You can’t get there from here.” Eventually, he made his way back to his car, put his bag of vestments and crosier in the back seat, got a kind-hearted parishioner (who laughed at him) to tow him out of the ditch, and drove the three and a half hours to the church—which really was just a few miles away from the other—as a crow flies, but not, as he discovered, as a man can walk or drive a car.
In the Old Testament lesson for today Isaiah speaks these words to the people of Israel: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together.”
Let’s face it, roads are important. Roads are essential for people who want to get from here to there in a reasonable amount of time. The roads that Isaiah, and John the Baptist, speak of in today’s lessons, come with military allusions. It is the Lord who is to come and bring victory for the people of Israel. For the people to whom Isaiah is speaking to in today’s Old Testament, they are a defeated nation. As Isaiah speaks these words to them, they are living in exile in Babylon. And so, Isaiah, well, here he is offering them hope—the promise of returning home. He’s telling them that God has neither forgotten nor forsaken them. However, they have work to do in the meantime. It is the job of the people of God to prepare the way so that the Lord doesn’t (like Bishop Atkinson) get stuck in the mud on the way to their rescue. They are to prepare for the coming of the Lord. Think of it this way—the Lord’s arrival is something of a partnership—God is coming—yet God asks something of us in return—and that is the expectation that we be ready for him when he comes.
Now, the Romans, for their own part, they were great road-makers. They understood the importance of roads—roads, in many ways, were the key to their success. Flat roads meant you could see your enemies coming. Straight roads meant your armies could travel fast, with the shortest distance between point A and point B. Good roads may not be as romantic as a fully kitted steed sporting the latest in military armor, but they are essential, and more frequently than not, those who have command of the roads, they are the ones on the surest path to victory. To put it another way—infrastructure may not be glamorous, but neither wars nor any meaningful quality of life can be won without it.
How might any of this relate to us? Well, there’s no doubt that we’re familiar enough here in the Northeast with the perils of pothole season. We contend with snow and ice on a seasonal basis. None of us are strangers to the necessity for good roads with solid maintenance. So, give some thought as to how the words of the prophets Isaiah and John the Baptist might apply to you. “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” What, in your own life, needs to be straightened out? Are there tangled or broken relationships that are hindering your relationship with God? Or is there something else obstructing your way? Is it the piles of work on your desk that leave no room for faith or reflection? Is it grief or loss? Are you struggling with a lack of purpose? What is it that you need in order to see the way forward clearly? What do you think God needs from you in order to come your way? What needs to be done? Do you need to carve time into your day for prayer, reflection, intentional work for justice and peace, or do you simply need to set aside some quiet time to be with God?
Isaiah begins his words to the people of Israel by saying: “Comfort, O comfort my people,” says your God.” The English word “comfort” is a combination of the Latin words “com-fortis”, meaning “with strength.” What this means is that the word “comfort”—well, it’s a word with muscle. Before it is some tender and cozy sigh of relief, comfort comes first as a bracing, in-your-face message about what needs to be done in life. Being comfortable, then, begins with making straight, the highway for our God. It’s a word that implies that there is much work to be done. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a hopeful word—it’s a word of promise, but it asks something of us as well. “Prepare the way of the Lord. Make his paths straight.” In Jesus’ name. Amen.