In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene— during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the desert. He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet: "A voice of one calling in the desert, 'Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him. Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth. And all mankind will see God's salvation.' "
Originally posted December 6, 2009.
Prepare the Way for the Lord!
In ancient times, inhabitants of cities built wide, straight, smooth roads when kings were coming into the city. The king had to have a special entrance. Craig Barnes tells us that:
One of the most exciting archeological digs going on in Israel is in Beit Shean which is uncovering a great Roman City. If you go there today you can see the main entrance into the city which is a wide, straight, even road, with magnificent columns on either side. That city is located at the juncture of the Jezreel and Jericho valleys. John the Baptist must have been by it all the time. Anyone traveling from Galilee to Jerusalem would have seen it. Everyone knew that a long straight road was what you made when a king was coming.
The Romans spent a lot of time building good roads so that they could expand their empire. Roads were used as trade routes, for foot travel, and to move armies from place to place. And as I said earlier, the best roads were built to welcome the royal entourage. It is said that at the height of the Roman Empire, there were 53,000 miles of good road. Of course the roads fell into disrepair when the empire crumbled. But some of those ancient roads are still used today, although they’ve been paved and repaved over and over again.
During Advent, we wait in joyful expectation preparing for the God who comes, for the God who is always coming as Carlo Carretto so beautifully put it. We need God to come because we are inclined toward destruction. Left to ourselves we make straight paths crooked and smooth places rough. We throw booby traps onto the road, make pot-holes or manholes that people fall into and can’t climb out of. Left to ourselves, we cut paths that depart from the way, the truth, and life without even knowing it, ending up God-knows-where. Left to ourselves, we become destroyers of the road and destroyers of all who pass by—robbing them, beating them up and even killing them. We pollute. We corrupt. We devalue the valuable and value the worthless. So you see, we desperately need the God who comes and is always coming and will eventually come to redeem all things.
I love my husband and daughter infinitely, but at times I say and do things that can destroy, things that mar the beauty of our marriage and family. I cringe as I think about a time when words that I meant for good, had an evil effect in the church, on a friend, because I didn’t think more about how to say them. And you know, as Coldplay sings, sometimes I wonder if I am part of the cure or part of the disease, the destruction. So you see, I desperately need the God who comes, who is coming.
John the Baptist has been considered by some to be the last Old Testament prophet. Although he wasn’t the Messiah, he paved the way for Jesus the Messiah. He was filling religious valleys and excavating spiritual hills and mountains. But his road construction didn’t just affect and threaten the gospel-less religious institutions, his message paved socio-political and economic roads that some didn’t want paved. He both intrigued and threatened Herod in the political establishment. However, neither Herod nor his wife would allow John the Baptist to build inroads. So eventually he lost his head, beheaded on the road to Zion. Sometimes that happens when you make ready the pathways for the Lord. And God will reward those who sacrifice their lives to pave the way for his coming.
John the Baptist still speaks. He speaks to us in the words of Isaiah the prophet in Luke chapter three and calls us to prepare the way for the Lord, to make straight paths for him so that every valley is filled in, and every mountain and hill is made low. Then the crooked roads will become straight and the rough ways smooth. But we’re going to have a hard go of it, a hard time making straight paths for others if we are all crooked inside. And all of us are crooked in some way.
It is said that the phrase, “I am stumped” comes from back in the day when tree stumps were left on wagon trails. Apparently, when the trees weren’t completely taken out, when stumps were left, sometimes wagons got hung up on a stump, thus the phrase, “I’m stumped.” Are we stumping Christ, stumping others or are we currently stumped?
This Advent, Christ is knocking at the door of our hearts asking if he can come in to make the rough places in us smooth. Are we going to be hospitable to God? Are we going to allow him to get to work and fill in the valleys and bring low the hills and mountains in our souls so that we can do the same in the world? We must. For as Saint Teresa of Avila says (as quoted in A Guide To Prayer For Ministers and Other Servants):
No body on earth but yours;
No hands but yours;
No feet but yours;
Yours are the eyes
Through which is to look out
Christ’s compassion on the world;
Yours are the feet
With which he is to go about
Yours are the hands
With which he is to bless now.
Missing His Coming
We know Christ came, is coming and will come again, but we need to remind ourselves that it is possible to miss his coming. Many who looked forward to his coming, missed it because he came unexpectedly. Most of the educated religious people of his day missed it. And today, we can miss him because we’re too busy. Too busy paving our own roads while claiming to be doing his work. Notice that the word of God came to John the Baptist in the desert. The desert wilderness was a place where people went to hear God. Sometimes God sends us into the wilderness to get us away from our busy lives, so that we can hear him. Sometimes, we have to pack up and head there ourselves if we are to hear him. What I mean is, we have to have silence and solitude to hear God. It could be in our rooms or in a park in the city. But we have to make time to hear him speak.
Why? Because our incessant busyness puts us in grave danger of missing Christ when he comes. We want to advance ourselves, sometimes in the church or in Christian institutions. So we miss him as we play church or play at Christianity. It is a very real danger. In Matthew 25, at the end of the age, when Jesus rewards those who were hospitable to him, who noticed him when he came, he says, “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” We can’t say, Oh Jesus, I wanted to, but I was too busy doing things (or paving my own roads) to welcome you when you came. He’ll tell us to depart, that we never knew him. May that never be for anyone here. May we not miss Jesus when he comes.
I close with a poem written by monk John L’Hereux reprinted in the book, Monk Habits For Everyday People by Dennis Okholm:
Christ came into my room
and stood there
and I was bored to death.
I had work to do.
I wouldn’t have minded
If he’d been crippled
Or something—I do well
With cripples—but he
Just stood there, all face,
And with that d—ned guitar.
I didn’t ask him to sit down:
He’d have stayed all day.
(Let’s be honest. You can
Be crucified just so often;
Then you’ve had it. I mean
You’re useless; no good
To God, let alone
Anybody else.) So I said
To him after a while—
Well, what’s up? What do you want?
And he laughed, stupid,
Said he was just passing by
And thought he’d say hello.
Great, I said, hello.
So he left.
And I was so d—ned mad
I couldn’t even listen
To the radio. I went
And got some coffee.
The trouble with Christ is
He always comes at the wrong time.
Christ is coming this Advent, may we be prepared for his coming and pave the way for him to come into the lives and institutions and the world so that all humankind will see his salvation. Amen.
 Found online at: http://www.natpresch.org/sermon.php?d=1997-12-14%200000
 Found online at: http://www.triplenine.org/articles/roadbuilding.asp
 Ruben P. Job and Norman Shawchuck, A Guide To Prayer For Ministers And Other Servants, (Nashville: Upper Room Books, 1983), 22.
 Found online at: http://www.natpresch.org/sermon.php?d=1997-12-14%200000
 Matthew 25:34-37 NIV.
 Dennis Okholm, Monk Habits For Everyday People: Benedictine Spirituality for Protestants, (Grand Rapids, Brazos Press, 2007), 88.