Monday, December 11, 2023

Make Straight a Path


Mark 1:1-8

Advent 2 / Year B

Several years ago I spent a wonderful week vacationing at Canaan Valley in West Virginia.  Now there is no easy way get to anywhere in West Virginia, hence there is no easy way to get home.  On my return trip I decided to make my way to Seneca Rocks, which was a wonderful decision if you don’t mind driving on remote roads.  From there I headed south and found myself on a scary, winding, narrow, and at times dirt road before connecting with U.S. 250, which I could have driven all the way to Richmond if I opted to.  A United States highway will be smooth sailing, I reasoned.  I could not have been more wrong.

Getting on 250 in the Monongahela National Forest and heading east, it took me nearly three hours to drive approximately 90 miles to Staunton.  There were, to my recollection, seven step accents and seven step descents over ridge lines.  And each way up and each way down over all seven was cluttered with numerous switchbacks and hairpin turns.  One ridge would have made for a fun drive.  Two would have given me my fill.  But after seven I vowed never again to drive 250 in West Virginia.  When I finally got to Staunton I decided to get on I64 and from there it was an easy drive home.

I thought about that drive as I pondered the words of the prophet Isaiah which we heard read just moments ago:

“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,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

The people of Israel had lived in exile in Babylon for more than forty years, but change was on the horizon.  Soon they were going to be allowed to go home.  Isaiah’s call to make a straight, level, and smooth highway in the wilderness was a message of hope.  I was a call for the people to plan and prepare for a second Exodus.  And, it had a practical element to it: the path from Babylon to Jerusalem had been sparsely traveled for four decades and no doubt was in sad repair.  The journey was going to be arduous.

Five centuries later, John the Baptist quotes from Isaiah and draws on the call to prepare a way and to make straight a path but utilizes this in purely spiritual and personal terms.  John senses how the twists and turns of life, with its highs and lows, have left people feeling disoriented, uncertain, and lost.  For him, the way forward and the way to God had become much, much to difficult and the average person needed a way to be reoriented.

For John, this looked like calling people to repent.   The Greek word metanoia, which we translate as ‘repent’, literally means to stop in your tracks and turn around.  We might say “do a 180” or “make a U-turn”.  There is so much to distract us along our journey and our lives are going to be a mess until we decide to stop traveling in the wrong direction. 

John offered a way to ground one’s decision to repent… baptism in the River Jordon.  This provided people with spiritual strength to return to the way.  And getting on the right way is essential to prepare the way for the Lord, who wants to do something marvelous in and through you.  But for this to happen we need to stop and ponder what God desires from us.  The prophet Micah asked, “What does the Lord require of you?  His answer: “To act justly, love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God” (6/8).  If your life is not moving in this direction, then you need to repent.

I suspect for many of us the images of twists and turns and highs and lows (like driving in West Virginia) is more poignant than metanoia.  We are trying to do the right thing and to be the people God calls us to be, but there are so many obstacles in our way. 

We want there to be peace in the world, but other than prayer and perhaps a charitable contribution, there seems to be little we can do.  We want there to be civility in our society, but short of treating others with respect and limiting our exposure to the most reprehensible voices out there, again, there is little we can do.  We care about climate change, but other than being as responsible as we can be, we are powerless to make an impact on the bigger picture.  We want to live into the Baptismal Covenant’s promise to respect the dignity of every human being.  We can do our part, but sense in our world a rising disdain for ‘the other’. 

It occurs to me believing your witness does not make a difference is a distraction from which we need to make a metanoia.  And if one witness makes a difference, it gets doubled if another joins in.  Think what happens when an entire faith community commits itself to living into God’s dream for all people.  Add enough people and soon you have a movement and movements have the power to reshape the world, or, as Isaiah put it, “to reveal the glory of God.”

God calls us to make a straight way in the desert.  Advent is a season marked by hope and it comes at just the right time… when we are burdened by a spirit of despair.  Both Isaiah and John proclaimed a hopeful message and they call on us to change, to be expectant, to be ready, and to prepare the way of the Lord!