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 like these about roads don’t sound miraculous anymore. Modern highways everywhere make the way straight and smooth. Bridges raise valleys. 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.
When I was in college the road home led south on I-35 to Des Moines, and west on 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.
If you’re hiking in the wilderness, once you find a road or path, you find your way. You’re no longer lost. Isaiah’s ancient 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.
We take modern roads for granted. Yet, like our ancestors in faith, once again we need God to bring us home. We need to find a road, a path, or a good map that takes us forward. Now, when when so much is uncertain, when what we thought we knew about ourselves as Americans, and as people of faith is changing and even collapsing, we must look to Jesus, our pole star, to point the way.
History has so challenged our Founding Story it is no wonder it feels our world has begun to unravel. French philosopher Régis Debray and historian Yuval Noah Harari point out that such Stories are the ground beneath our feet that enable us as homo sapiens to purposefully cooperate in collective endeavors and to build civilizations. Without a common story, societies can’t hang together and thrive, no less survive. When the story unravels, so then does the society.
What it means to be an American is undergoing profound revision. What it means to be a follower of Jesus is melting away. God has placed both into the refiner’s fire of truth. We pray to God that we will find our way to a more perfect union and that the church will be reborn in flesh and blood.
We are bewildered, confused, lost. Yet the truth is startling. We do not have very far to go to find our way home. One of those road signs should be posted beside the kingdom of God. Maybe you’ve seen one like it that reads, ‘If you lived here, you would be home by now.’ God’s kingdom is already, always, everywhere, here, and now. In fact, this home travels with us. It’s never far away. John stands beside the road signaling at the off 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 ripped 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. Jesus will straighten the crooked pathways. Jesus is working out a way to you and to bring you home again, amid shouts of joy. “If in your heart you make a manger for his birth then God will once again become a child on earth” (Angelus Silesius, b. 1624 – d. 1677).
In the fifteenth year of the 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 windbags 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.
Perhaps the biggest surprise is that the road Jesus opens also links us with each other. The pathway to God runs to, not over, our fellow human beings. In fact, we reach our destination, not by coming to the end of the road but simply by being on the road. We are in Christ simply by walking the way of Jesus. We are home. Christ is with us, and we are with one another. In the words of Martin Luther, “We are not now what we shall be, but are on the way. The process is not yet finished, but it is actively going on. This is not the goal, but it is the right road. At present, everything does not gleam and sparkle, but everything is being cleansed.”
God’s home is here. 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. Once we live there, we are always, already home no matter where we travel. This is our founding story. This is the ground upon which to build a more perfect union.
It comes into view 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.
This is how the church becomes the gathering place of those once scattered. Diverse and different, we are one in Christ. The is the way the church also sends us out. We are secure in the house of the Lord—even 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. See ‘every mountain and hill is made low.’ We are joined in one great communion by the Advent of our God. Let the people say, Amen!