This is a slightly-revised manuscript of the sermon I preached at UDTS chapel yesterday.
For the third time in Advent chapel, we hear the word of the Lord about lifting up and bringing down. First, in Mary’s song (Luke 1:46-55) and then in Zechariah’s (luke 1:67-79), we were reminded that God is turning things over, making things right, exalting the lowly while deposing the mighty. God is changing everything.
Now here in Isaiah, we discover some of the roots of their prophecies: all of reality, the ground itself is headed for a seismic upheaval.
Think for a minute about what Isaiah’s images would actually look like, sound like, feel like.
Shaking earthquakes, red-hot volcanoes, roaring rockslides, canyons filled up to the very edges, tall mountains crumbling to pieces—
It would be terrifying for the land itself to change so much right under your feet, confusing, chaotic, overwhelming. This is not really a sweet scene at all, no matter how lovely it is to sing about. [We had just sung “Let the Valleys Be Raised,” by Dan Schutte, S.J.] This is really a picture of the apocalypse—an end-time of such everlasting change that can hardly be imagined or endured.
While reflecting on this passage for several weeks, I kept remembering a sci-fi series that I read earlier this year called the Broken Earth Trilogy. In this series, the Hugo Award-winning African-American author N. K. Jemisin creates an earth far in the future, an earth which suffers from episodes of apocalyptic seizures of earthquakes, floods, and tsunamis. Human beings are understandably very afraid of entering into another one of these seasons of unbalance and disorder. In families, clans, and towns, they try to find ways to survive the literal overturning of the land around them – running away from shattered cliffs and wide open crevasses, suffering the loss of animals and crops and entire villages, and then turning on one another with weapons in the wake of the earth’s shaking and breaking. That’s really the sort of experience envisioned by Isaiah, no matter the beautiful music of Handel and the song we sang today.
So what makes such a total upheaval necessary? Why does God want to do this, to change the whole world so completely?
In the time of Isaiah 40, God is preparing the way for the return of the exiles to Judah after decades in captivity in Babylon. For the people, this is a great overturning, an unmistakable sign that God forgives them. That Cyrus, ruler of Persia, should conquer Babylon and release the captives is a sign of God’s almighty power—so much power that the earth itself is radically changed.
For Mary and Zechariah, and for all later Christ-believers, God’s powerful, earth-shaking changes are also signs. Signs that all will be made right within us and with the world because of the coming of the Messiah in the time of Caesar Augustus and in the future. The first verses of Isaiah 40 capture the good news preached by Jesus: the reign of God is coming—in both power and compassion. Because even though the overturning of the world is absolutely terrifying to us fragile humans, it also brings peace and justice. It brings a straightening of crooked things, a smoothing-out of all the rough places.
In fact, the “highway for our God” is not for God to travel on, right? Why would the Almighty need these changes to the land in order to make for easy transportation? The overturning construction of this path is for the people to travel. Like a shepherd, God cares for the people, and commands that a straight and smooth path be made for the people. And, to put it simply, God cares for us, so the path is for us too.
In re-reading the passage from Isaiah, I noticed something else: look at the verbs. In the Hebrew and Greek, and even in the English translation, you can see that many of the verbs are imperatives. The two imperatives in verse 3 are in the second person plural, meaning, “you all do this!”
You prepare the way of the Lord. You make a straight highway
So who, exactly, is going to do this work of constructing a road in the desert? In the timeframe of this text, no one constructed a nearly 1700-mile path for the exiles to return to the land, so we can see that the prophet was again speaking in images.
Since the text is clearly open to imaginative interpretation, I allowed my thoughts to wander a bit. Almost 2500 years later, I wondered how are we to answer the command to prepare the way and make it straight? Two ideas came to mind:
- Each one of us has an internal landscape of our own history, preferences, gifts, and sins. What if we spent some time in prayerful self-examination as a way of preparing and straightening? Maybe we could make some rough places plain by observing our tendency to interrupt others. Or we could openly acknowledge our mixed motives for service, and the ways we elevate ourselves over others. We could notice how stressful situations make us exaggerate our selves, and ask forgiveness.
We each have “valleys” within us as well, parts of ourselves that seem too humble or weak to present to the world. A talent for singing or for justice-speaking that is held back because we’re afraid of what others might think. Or a traumatic experience that feels like a wound that cannot be expressed for fear of being reinjured. A physical problem that causes us to disengage from other people. Such “low places” might turn out to be just the gifts that God wants us to offer. It does no one any good for us to try to conceal what we think of as flaws when these are the things that make us human and that allow us to connect with other humans. Plus, God has already seen the ups and downs of our internal landscape and desires to make us whole in body, soul, and spirit.
- In the external landscape of our global society, the mission of God is to prepare the way and make it straight for everyone. We can join in that mission, which I also think of helping to create a level playing field. Among my network of family and friends, and I’ll bet among your family and friends, too, there are some who need to have an easier road in front of them. My grandchild on the autism spectrum and my less-able 95-year old father need literal help in navigating this world. My transgender sibling and my gay nephew need to be accepted for who they are. The Afghani refugee family sponsored by a friend and all the people affected by the tornadoes a few days ago need emotional and economic support. My pastors who are Black and my friends who are Muslim need to be able to walk around this world in safety. Can we prepare the way of the Lord for them? Make the way straight and at least a little bit smoother?
Yes, says the prophet. Yes, says the voice of one crying in the wilderness. Yes, says the Lord Jesus.
You create a level playing field for all people, all people everywhere, so that every one of us, all flesh, can see the glory of God together on this path.