The Interstate Highway System is wonderful for going quickly from one place to another (unless, of course, you're sitting in rush hour traffic on I-270). These roads are built to exacting Federal standards. Grades and curves are limited, and three or more lanes in each direction is becoming the norm for new freeway construction. To the planners the ideal highway would be absolutely straight and totally flat, and there are some stretches where this is actually possible; otherwise, engineers try to simulate this as much as possible.
Today when you go through hilly areas, modern road builders have largely masked the roughness of the terrain. You see the rising and falling of the land all around you, but you don't experience it directly as in former days. It hardly slows you at all.
A hundred years ago everyone knew the difficulty of travel first-hand. Roads were winding and snaked along natural valleys. Often the traveler's path was determined by a river's flow. Where possible you went around obstacles; otherwise, going over the top was the only choice. You might also have to ford small steams where there were no bridges. Roads were anything but straight and quick. So our forebears, because of their experience, could perhaps more readily identify with our scriptures this morning and their emphasis on making straight paths.
Back in the days of the Babylonian Empire, when a king traveled he did so by chariot. This was rather a crude vehicle and, even though elegantly decorated, probably bumped along slowly except under the most favorable of circumstances.
Because of his power and might a ruler expected the best, and that included travel. Wherever he went a king would be surrounded by two kinds of soldiers. The first contingent was large and well-armed. They were his protection. The accompanying troops were similar to an engineering battalion. Their assignment was to go on ahead and prepare the way. Sometimes they even had to literally build the road as they went along.
The soldiers leveled small hills, built up ditches, and filled in holes so that the royal chariot could pass in relative comfort. The way may not have been perfect, but at least the king could move forward without obstacle. The chariot often stopped to wait but, when it moved, it did so quickly and its speed must have impressed those along its path. The fast chariot symbolized the monarch's unstoppable movement and rule.
You'll recall that the core of our scripture from Mark is actually a quote from Isaiah. Perhaps the prophet had this impressive entry of worldly kings in mind when he presented such an image of the Lord coming in a similar, but greater, way. All four gospels carry this reference as a way of introducing the ministry of Christ. All four understood the passage to refer to Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah, the King of Kings, who came riding triumphantly into the world and just as unstoppable.
If Jesus is the king in this scenario, then John plays the part of the construction soldier. He is a one-man force who precedes Jesus, laying out the path he will follow, and making it straight and smooth. Through John's work Christ's way was prepared and opened. Some thought John was the Messiah, but John pointed to another. Face to face with Jesus, John understood his assignment as the means and not the end; more importantly, he recognized and announced Jesus' role in God's plan.
The road that John carved out of the wilderness was not a road of dirt and stones, but it was a spiritual road. He came preaching repentance and forgiveness of sins. He baptized in a ritual cleansing that leads to new life. John's work was prophesized to prepare the way of the Lord, God's coming in a new and powerful way in the midst of the world. John was what we might call the "advance" man for doing what needed to be done.
Perhaps it's appropriate that this scripture with its emphasis on action falls in the midst of Advent. There's much to do as the days move ahead toward Christmas—shopping to finish, cards to address, rooms to decorate, meals to prepare, and gatherings to attend.
Carols each year bring back memories of Christmas' past and the twinkling lights turn the darkness of December into a place of beauty and enchantment. As we move forward toward Christmas, however, our busy agenda can easily sidetrack us from the day's real importance. Sometimes we hardly even realize it.
One mother was so preoccupied with shopping that she momentarily lost track of her three-year-old son. All of a sudden she realized that the small mittened hand was no longer clutched in hers. She frantically retraced her steps until she spotted him in front of a store window. He was just standing there, with his nose pressed against the plate glass.
She glanced toward the window long enough to see that what he was peering at was a manger scene. "Look, mommy," he cried out gleefully, "it's Jesus. See baby Jesus in the hay!" Instead of looking, she grabbed him impatiently and jerked him away from the glass. "Come on," she said loudly, "we don't have time for that."
Perhaps this story is a parable for our times. We can get so caught up with the spin-offs of Christmas that we run the risk of missing what this time of year is really about. Without that manger, there is no Christmas. Without that child, there is no Savior. Santa Claus may be a lovable figure, but he isn't the Messiah. The reindeer may be fun to think about, but they will not lead us on to the Holy Night.
The fun, but extraneous, elements of the season threaten each year to override the meaning of December 25. Without the true Christmas in our hearts, gift giving loses part of its meaning. Without a real desire to celebrate the birth of Christ, the carols are mainly nostalgic words set to pleasant tunes. Without hearing the angels declare, "Glory to God in the highest," we might as well be satisfied with the generic "Happy Holidays."
This is where John comes back into our thoughts this morning. John had an important job to do. He did what was asked of him, to lay out the way through which the Lord might choose to come into the world. Yet, despite everything he did, his work isn't complete. John may have done everything he could do, but the task is still unfinished.
God's fullest revelation was in Jesus of Nazareth and it is upon that affirmation we are gathered here now. If we're willing to consider the possibility that God is still speaking today, then it isn't inconceivable that God is still coming today—coming into the world around us through the same means as then in this Chosen One. Christ continues in his mission. The obstacles put in the way of the Servant Son in that time are not unlike the obstacles put in his way now.
John is long gone and unable to contribute more than he already has. That forerunner was faithful to his time. If the work of preparation is still needed in our day, then who must assume the responsibility now? Can you guess?
My understanding from Scripture is that it has been passed down to us, to each one who believes, to each one who sees a vision of a new heaven and earth spread out ahead. John's work is now entrusted to you and me, and that's both exciting and frightening, both compelling and overwhelming.
This is the basic work of discipleship. Every door we open in life for Christ is another door by which he enters into the world. Every path made clear is a way that he moves ahead in his saving work.
Preparing the Lord's way can take many forms. It can be through reading the stories of faith again this Christmas as a family. It can be by meeting the harried look of a sales clerk and greeting her with Christ's love. It can be by baking a plate of cookies and taking them to a neighbor. It can be through spending time with someone who is lonely. It can be by placing a gift in a Salvation Army kettle.
Preparing the way of the Lord can be through standing up for the rights of the marginalized. It can be by insisting that we have integrity in our elected officials. It can be by advocating that the way of peace is mightier than the way of war. It can be through a call to care for the earth that begins with our own lifestyle choices. It can be through welcoming and honoring the diversity of God's people. It can take a thousand forms.
Preparing Christ's way never ends for us, his disciples. We are always about preparing the times and places for Jesus to break in on the world. This is ministry in the most basic of terms. Even then, we have the easy part. We just create the way. We are the conduit. Christ does the work.
"The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths." Today's scriptures remind us that we've got important work to do, and there's no time more important than now to do it.
Copyright 2005, The First Congregational Church