Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
“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” (Luke 3:5).
Ancient words about roads like these don’t sound miraculous anymore. Modern roads everywhere make the way straight and smooth. Bridges raise valleys and tunnels level mountains. Yet, to our forebears in faith, Isaiah’s roadway was an answer to prayer, an interstate highway home through the dangerous desert wilderness, straight and fast, from Babylon to Israel, from slavery to freedom, from death to life.
In my younger years, the road home led south on I-35 to Des Moines, and west along I-80. I remember driving between Minnesota and Colorado late at night in the middle of a winter storm. I could only see the dotted center line to my left and the solid white line to my right. With the foolishness of youth, I just aimed the car between those two lines and trusted the road to be there through miles of open country, over hills and rivers, in the darkness, through blinding snow.
Perhaps we take roads for granted. In the wilderness, once you find a road, you find your way. You’re no longer lost. Isaiah’s royal highway led people home without a map, without exhausting themselves, without special knowledge. They didn’t have to do anything but follow the road home.
Next to God’s kingdom, there should be a sign that reads, ‘If you lived here, you would be home by now.’ God’s kingdom is already, always, everywhere, here and now. Our truest home travels with us. It’s never far away. John stands signaling at the on-ramp for the lost to be found, for those stumbling in deep darkness to find light, for the hungry to find food and for those who thirst to find living water to drink.
It’s John the Baptist, after all, and not St. Nick whom Luke calls “prophet of the Most High” (Luke 1:76). It’s the wild and wooly John whom God appointed to prepare the way for the infant Jesus. So, we should listen when John announces there is something more than a messy pile of wripped boxes and wrapping paper coming into our lives. God is coming. Grace un-folding and abounding is making a way again to us. A royal highway is being prepared. God in Christ Jesus will bring low the high obstacles. Christ will straighten the crooked pathways. Christ is working out a way to you and to bring you home again, amid shouts of joy.
In the fifteenth year of an Emperor, when governor so-and-so and two other rulers had authority, and the high priesthood of (blank) and of (blankety-blank) were in charge in Jerusalem, the word of God came—not to any of them—but to John, son of nobody you’ve heard of, in the wilderness. (Luke 3:1-2). Luke’s gospel is a shot across the bow to political and religious wind-bags and despots everywhere. God’s holy highway breaks through the wilderness, from the margins, among the lowly. The voice in the wilderness cries out for the way of God to be prepared with relentless urgency.
The wilderness is a place that exposes our need for God. It’s also a place that calls us to repentance. For 21st century Christians like us though, “sin” and “repentance” are weaponized words we fear will lead, not to liberation, but to humiliation.
So, what is sin? Growing up, we were taught that sin is “breaking God’s laws.” Or “missing the mark,” as an archer misses his target. Or “committing immoral acts.” These definitions are incomplete. They imply sin is a problem only because it angers God. But God’s temper is not what God is worried about.
“Sin is a problem because it kills. It kills us. Why? Because sin is a refusal to become fully human. It’s anything that interferes with the opening up of our whole hearts to God, to others, to creation, and to ourselves…Sin is estrangement, disconnection, sterility, disharmony. Sin is apathy. Care-less-ness. A frightened resistance to an engaged life. Sin is the opposite of creativity, the opposite of abundance, the opposite of flourishing. It is a walking death. And it is easier to spot, name, and confess a walking death in the wilderness than it is anywhere else.” (Debie Thomas, Journey with Jesus, From the Wilderness, 12/02/18)
Maybe the biggest surprise is that the road to heaven Christ opens has also linked us with each other. The pathway to God runs through, not over, our fellow human beings. As if by some miracle we reach our destination in a moment, all in an instant, not by coming to the end of the road but simply by being on the road. Walking the way of Christ, we are in Christ. Christ is with us and we are with one another.
That’s why people matter, justice matters, how we live makes a difference not only for those around us but for us too. The peaceable kingdom is more than a dreamy vision of heaven. It is God’s dream for the world. If ever once you’ve lived there then you know you’re already home no matter where you travel.
The apostle Paul was a living example. The church in Philippi, located on the coast of northern Greece, was of particular delight to Paul. It was the first church he established among the Gentiles of ancient Macedonia. Lydia, a successful businesswoman, a trader in ‘purple cloth’ was his first convert there. It seems Paul and Silas stayed in Philippi quite a while. Paul wrote, “I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you.” (Phil. 1:3-4). Paul’s words are particularly striking given that he wrote this letter to his brothers and sisters in Philippi while he was still in prison.
What did Paul find to be so joyful about? Living conditions in an ancient jail left much to be desired. Yet, across the miles, Paul continued a deep relationship with the Philippians. Their mutual affection strengthened them and was a source of grace despite the locks, walls, and obstacles between them.
John Wesley once observed there is no such thing as a solitary Christian. Through the gift of baptism into Christ’s body, we have all received the gift by which we, like Paul and the Philippians, are bound together into one family of God. It comes without shiny paper, ribbons or bows. It comes with Christ’s promise, announced by John the Baptist: “every mountain and hill shall be made low”.
It comes as we move forward in faith, keeping the dotted line of compassion and forgiveness for one another on our left, and the solid line of God’s steadfast love on the right. You don’t need anything more. You don’t need any special knowledge or skill. You don’t have to know where you are to find your way home and into the loving arms of God.
The church is the gathering of those once scattered. Diverse and different, we are one in Christ. The church is also a sending forth of those gathered. We are right where we need to be—we dwell securely in the house of the Lord—as we stay on the move, walking the way of the cross as Jesus did. The one who came, and is coming draws us together, holds us together. We are together in our life in God, moving together toward the consummation of all things. (William Willimon) Rich and poor, slaves and free, male and female, young and old, gay and straight, Jew and gentile, Christians and non-Christians. All are welcome. We are joined in one great communion by the Advent of our God. Let the people say, Amen!