“Making a Desert Highway” Pilgrim Church UCC, December 7, 2014—Second Sunday of Advent (Isaiah 40:1-11)
When I was in college, my parents couldn’t pick me up for Thanksgiving one year, so my grandparents drove down to North Carolina to take me home to Ohio. Now this drive is still all-too familiar and fairly simple. You spend most of the 8 hour drive on 77 North. My Grandpa and Grandma switched driving once we hit West Virginia and Grandpa went into the backseat to sleep. My Grandma was driving, God rest her soul, and I was sitting shotgun merrily watching the rainy West Virginia scenery as she sped by.
We began to have a heart to heart conversation. To this day, I have no idea what we were talking about. But I recall that we were both focused and absorbed—on our conversation, not so much on the road. At one point I remarked, “Gramma, this looks different than I remember, I could swear that we’re supposed to be on the other side of that mountain.” She assured me that the rain was just making me see the scenery differently. My Grandpa woke up, looked out the window, and said, “Wow, I don’t remember that little airport.” To which Grandma responded, “Leon, go back to sleep, Lauren and I are talking!” More time passed as we drove along and then we saw the fateful sign. Grandma and I looked at the sign, at each other, and then back at that smug, stupid sign—WELCOME TO TENNESSEE! My Grandma looked into the rearview mirror and innocently asked, “Leon, why are we in Tennessee?”
My Grandpa sat bolt upright, yelled a couple of expletives: “Tennessee? Where have you taken us, Mary?” and then “Pull over, I’m driving.” We switched drivers again. Grandpa made me stay shotgun, a position I wanted very badly to relinquish at this point, and we sped back the way we came. The 8 hour drive ended up being an 11 hour drive thanks to our unexpected adventure into Tennessee. But thankfully, given our family sense of humor, we were laughing about our excursion by the time we got back on the correct highway to take us home to Ohio.
Today we hear the Prophet Isaiah talk about a highway for God. Isaiah proclaims: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.” This desert highway’s construction is the exact opposite of those misty mountain curves of 77 North through West Virginia that ended up being so problematic for my grandma and me. Isaiah imagines a straight road in the desert, God’s highway—going from Babylon to Judah with no wrong turns on the horizon. You will not end up randomly in Tennessee the way Isaiah envisions this path to God.
These words were written around the time that the Babylonian Empire got conquered by the Persians. King Cyrus eventually told the Jewish people (who had been in exile in Babylon for fifty years) that they could return to Israel. The time of restoration would be at hand—prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God, the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all the people shall see it together! No more being strangers in a strange land, no more trying to keep kosher in someone else’s kitchen, no treacherous mountains or valleys to contend with. Now Jerusalem has no need to fear and the cities of Judah will once again welcome God. God is going to feed God’s flock like a shepherd, gathering the lambs up into God’s arms and carrying them against God’s heart, gently leading the mother sheep back home to those green pastures.
What an image, right? In a lifetime of war and exile, these are images of restoration and peace. It’s also a reminder that there are tender images of God in the Old Testament. Sometimes we may think that the New Testament is the only part of the Christian Bible that presents God as kind and loving. Thinking of God cradling lambs and gently leading the mama sheep helps us expand our images of God and points to a God of mercy and peace that is deeply held to be true by both Jews and Christians.
Preaching peace in Advent this year feels strange though. It feels like our nation is imploding as this week a Grand Jury in New York City declined to indict the police officer who killed Eric Garner, another unarmed black man. This time, the incident was caught on camera as this asthmatic man repeatedly said that he couldn’t breathe. Protests have been occurring, even in Boston and in Lexington later today. People have continued to cry out: “no justice, no peace” and “black lives matter.” Right now peace seems elusive, peace seems naïve, peace could even seem dismissive. Almost as if some are saying—stop protesting, get over it, we just want some peace and quiet again.
The hopeful image of God gently leading the mother sheep and carrying the lambs in God’s arms seems far-fetched these days. The smooth highway in the desert seems like a farce when the road to equality seems like nothing but an uphill trek full of treacherous twists and turns. Yet, these words were penned during a time of catastrophe for Israel, during a time of oppression. They foreshadow a peaceful journey back home. Isaiah is a complicated Old Testament book in its authorship. We often speak of First, Second, and Third Isaiah as three prophets whose writings were combined into one book—it’s a composite work. First Isaiah was all about God’s judgment and the peoples’ sins. Second Isaiah, who speaks today, was all about comfort, forgiveness, hope, and peace. These are words of comfort for a people hungry for God to tend to them like a shepherd, knowing that God didn’t forget them no matter how bad things got.
The thing about God’s highway though is that even if Second Isaiah imagines that it’s straight and smooth and going to get the people from oppression back to freedom, we know that it can’t be that easy. The people have a task before them—prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. We are charged with making that road for God. We are charged with clearing the path so that we can fully experience the presence of God together. It’s about ridding ourselves of the obstacles that keep us from one another, smoothing out the rough places that we cling to because they’re comfortable, laying down that highway so that we can help God get us home. We’re co-creators with God on this road to new life.
And speaking of helping God get to us—this Advent, I’ve been reading Quinn Caldwell’s book, All I Really Want: Readings for a Modern Christmas. There’s a short morning and evening reading every day and he challenges you to think and pray and gives tasks to do or questions to consider. One of the tasks this week was to pay attention whenever you find yourself sitting around. Quinn wrote, “Don’t stick your earphones in or take your book out as soon as you get to the bus stop. Don’t go for Angry Birds as soon as you get to the grocery line. Instead, notice: who’s making you wait? Why? What are you waiting for? How important is it? Who’s waiting with you? Why are you so impatient; is the next thing you have to do really so important? Why? . . . What are you really waiting for?”
This week I met some friends for a movie and arrived first, so I waited. I put my phone away and tried to connect with these questions Quinn posed. My impatience got the best of me as I felt in the way in the movie theater lobby, and then annoyed. Then I felt bad about feeling annoyed while trying to engage with Advent devotional questions. So to compensate, I smiled when someone who was also waiting made eye contact—which was weird since they don’t know me, which then made me mad because I’m just trying to be nice over here and have a good, meaningful Advent. And what was this exercise supposed to be about again? Oh, waiting. What am I waiting for? Maybe it really is peace.
Is peace elusive today? Yes! On so many levels—from our personal lives to our nation to our world—peace is difficult to find. Can we truly make straight in the desert a highway for our God? Not without some effort, and possibly not without taking some wrong turns and winding up in Tennessee. That’s all I know. But just as the people of Israel so long ago were told to clear a path for God, we can make ways for God to come into our lives. This means removing obstacles and impediments, clearing out old animosities and grievances that prevent us from seeing how God is already present in our midst. It means paying attention and asking ourselves what are we really waiting for? What are we waiting for? Thanks be to God. Amen.