“Road Crew in Camelhair”
Delivered to Church for the Highlands
2nd Sunday of Advent, December 6, 2020 by Rev. Dr. John Henson
I recently spent the day working on a road on our farm. It seems like I’m always doing that, as there is not a paved road or even a gravel driveway. It’s all grass or dirt, which means getting around can be tricky when it gets wet. The road I’m working on now is for some timber trucks that need to get to the back of our property, with as straight a path as possible. This roadwork is more work than I realized when I first had the idea, with lots of unforeseen challenges, equipment problems, energy issues (mine as I am feeling my 50’s), and a few setbacks. I have concluded that roadwork is necessary but isn’t so easy.
I thought about all of this as I read the texts for today, this second Sunday of Advent. I can relate to them, as they are all about making a clear road for an important day in the future. All three texts we’ve just heard are about preparing a way for God in this world. The first, Isaiah 40, is the call from Isaiah to prepare the way for the Lord. This is that text that is a source for popular Christmas carols and songs, with those favorite phrases, “Comfort, O comfort my people,” “every valley shall be lifted up,” and words about “good tidings.” These were the words Isaiah wanted Israel to hear as they imagined a better future, one created when God would intervene in their misery and deliver them from their enemies. The good news for them was that God was coming. They were to not just wait for God’s arrival; they were to prepare for it by making straight the pathway of God.
Our gospel reading today, written hundreds of years later, continues Isaiah’s theme. Mark begins his short gospel with an announcement of good news, quoting Isaiah, and then goes into an introduction of John the Baptist. He tells of how John was sent to prepare the way for God to show up in their midst; as a forerunner for the Messiah to come. His work of preparation was calling people to come out to the wilderness and enter the Jordan River for a baptism of repentance from their sins. Their work was to continue making that road for God. To do so, they were to prepare themselves and their nation by turning away from their way of living for themselves and to turn to God’s plan for the world. Their first step was to take the first step of repentance, changing their minds and their agendas for God’s way and agenda.
Peter, in his second letter to the churches, carried on that same work of preparation, reminding his readers that a day is like a thousand years for God. So the road construction may indeed feel like it’s taking forever. He called the churches to live out their repentance and righteousness in the world as a way of joining God in bringing a new heaven and earth to be. Peter certainly knew about repentance in his own life and called others to the work of preparation out of his own awareness. They were to live in the peace of Christ, ready for him to arrive at any moment.
As we have heard, the work of preparation continued through the centuries from Isaiah to John the Baptist, to Peter, his churches, and all the way to us today. There’s still more of God to arrive in our world. This world of ours still looks old and the road still isn’t straight and ready. It is obviously still in need of the kind of transformation Jesus brought and calls us to bring as well. We know that the work of preparation is not easy. It requires work on ourselves, which I don’t think any of us enjoy doing. We know there are potholes left from our neglect of our souls, thickets of sin that we’ve allowed to grow like thorny vines that impeded progress, and weeds we’ve let grow out of our indifference to having smooth paths for God in our lives. We know what we need to clear and it’s work we would rather not do.
Preparation also involves working outside of ourselves and in the world around us. Our world is a mess and the road to something better is anything but straight. What it needs is to be made right; the kind of shaping and scaling that comes only through righteousness. As you may recall from previous weeks, righteousness is justice work. It is where God’s justice intersects with the issues of our day. It is sometimes excavation, other times deconstruction, occasionally reengineering, and then ultimately a reconstruction. We do all of this while envisioning that along this pathway God is bringing a new world, one where there’s peace instead of violence, equality instead of racism, freedom rather than oppression, selflessness in lieu of selfishness, forgiveness in place of condemnation, love and not hate. Such work isn’t easy and it sometimes gets into trouble, or as John Lewis said about it, “good trouble.” And it isn’t to be done by ourselves. It is the work of the church, as we, like the people John the Baptist called out to the river, step into our calling and build a better world, as we work together as a church to share glad tidings and say to everyone, “Here is your God.”
The cuts on my hands, the aches in my back, and the strain of my muscles remain a while after working on my farm road. I keep working on it though, whenever I can, and it sometimes seems like it will never be finished. But I can see that what I’m doing is making a difference; a road now taking shape for future use.
And the same is true for the kind of preparation we do for God’s arrival, as we pray and sing, “O Come, O Come Emmnauel.”