[John] went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,[Luke 3:3-6 NRSV]
‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
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;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” ’
Today is November 30, the final day of the month. The Church commemorates St. Andrew, the brother of Peter, but more importantly, the first apostle to follow Jesus.
On a personal level, I have been retired exactly one year today.
If I had a dollar for every time someone has asked me, “How’s retirement going?” or an equivalent question, I would have quite a nest egg built up by now.
The truth is, the last twelve months have been strikingly similar to my final eight months in active ministry, minus, of course, the daily Zoom meetings, and the administrative challenges.
But beyond that, my lifestyle is remarkably comparable. COVID-19 has seen to that.
To think that I’ve spent my entire retirement under the restrictions of a pandemic is incredible. All the plans, the dreams, the vision of a life of leisure have been torpedoed by this public health crisis that refuses to go away.
As I studied the readings for this coming Second Sunday of Advent, the Gospel lesson resonated with me in an odd way.
The words of the prophet Isaiah, as echoed in Luke, speak of preparing the way of the Lord, filling in valleys, leveling mountains, straightening out what is crooked, and making rough ways smooth.
I’ve used the following illustration in many previous sermons, and not just at Advent.
It was a well-known political practice of the ancient world that when a king was travelling his empire, the roads were upgraded and improved prior to his arrival. It was particularly common during the expansion of the Roman Empire. Wherever Caesar travelled, road gangs preceded him making sure his travel was smooth and direct.
It may also surprise one to know that here in America, one motive for building the interstate highway system was to provide access to the military in order to defend the US during an attack. Other than 9/11, that attack has not yet happened, at least not in the form initially feared.
Yet we keep the highways under constant maintenance.
I couldn’t help but make the comparison to these past 20-months or so, when, like highway construction, we have had to make quite a few alterations in our lives.
This week many preachers will undoubtedly talk about how emotionally difficult it has been for those of us who are accustomed to worship on a regular basis. And BC (Before COVID) worship was something that many took for granted. We would worship when we got around to it, until we couldn’t.
Our indifference mirrors in many ways Israel’s relationship with God. As a nation, for many years they had closed their hearts to God’s Word. John’s metaphorical image of a highway in need of repair was his way of calling Israel to repentance, to look at what was going on in their lives and make whatever changes necessary, in order to welcome the Lord. Their highway of faith was in need of major road work.
Likewise we are called to live lives of preparation for Jesus to come to us and live with us, not just during Advent, but every day.
Our Gospel encourages us to do some road-building, to repair our highway. We are invited to prepare the way of the Lord. We are reminded to consciously work on our Spiritual lives, and take responsibility for them.
There’s an important distinction to be made at this point.
God is no bulldozer!
We are saved by God’s unconditional and undeserved grace in Christ; we live in the confidence of the pure Gospel. Everything we do as a Christian depends on the fact that God has already forgiven us because of Jesus’ death; it is to the cross that we need to return again and again.
God loves us, saves us, and calls us, but this is an ongoing and growing relationship.
The highway is kept in good repair by Word and Water, Bread and Wine, God’s construction tools that strengthen us to live in God’s grace, and live out God’s grace.