Make Straight in the Desert a Highway for Our God

By the Rev. Darren Miner

Bible Readings

It’s already the second Sunday of Advent—how time flies! For many of us, this season is a frenzied time of Christmas shopping for friends and family. But there is more to this season than that. It is a time to pause and to consider the two advents of Christ: the first in Bethlehem some 2000 years ago and the second, when Christ will come again in power and great glory. And as we consider, we also prepare.

Like our ancestors in the faith, Christians today look to prophecy to guide us in our preparation, to point us in the right direction. And like our predecessors, we find that God’s oracles can speak different messages in different times. Today, we heard an excerpt from Isaiah chapter 40 and an echo of that same scripture in the Gospel reading from Mark.

Isaiah spoke of a voice crying out to prepare a highway in the desert for our God. The ravines are to be filled in. The hills are to be leveled. And when this roadwork is done, God’s glory will be revealed to all. (It sounds a bit like a press release for Caltrans!) When these words were originally prophesied, the Jews were living in exile in Babylon, pining for the day they could return home. With this oracle, Isaiah prophesied the eventual vindication of the Jews. A highway would be made through the desert separating Babylon and Jerusalem, and God would lead his people home in glory. (Interestingly, Isaiah doesn’t make it clear who exactly was supposed to build this divine highway, whether God’s angelic minions or the Jews themselves.) This prophecy would seem to have been fulfilled with the Jews’ return from exile and with their rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem. But then again, maybe not!

Centuries later, the Jewish sect responsible for the Dead Sea Scrolls interpreted Isaiah’s prophecy in another way. This group understood the call to build a desert highway as a divine command to live in the desert apart from the rest of society and follow their own sectarian interpretation of God’s Law. For them, the reference to the desert was taken quite literally, but the highway was understood metaphorically as strict obedience to the Torah.

In the Good News of Jesus Christ according to Mark, we find yet another understanding of Isaiah’s prophecy. For Mark, the voice crying out is not the voice of God, nor even the voice of some anonymous angelic herald, but that of John the Baptist, and the Lord whose arrival is eagerly anticipated is not God the Father, but his Son Jesus Christ. Here, for the first time, Isaiah’s prophecy of a divine highway through the desert is understood entirely as a metaphor—a metaphor for another kind of work that is just as strenuous in its own way as filling in ravines in the desert—namely, repentance!

In Mark’s Gospel, the divine way is not a physical highway through the desert, nor is it a call to live apart from the rest of society. Instead, the desert highway signifies the path to God that believers must build through the wilderness of this sinful world. And all those who travel this road to its end will see the salvation of God. As Mark understands it, John’s work was to prepare the way for Jesus’ ministry by exhorting those Jews who had turned away from righteous living to repent and return to the path of justice and righteousness. As a token of their conversion of life, John called the people to submit themselves to a ritual bath, to be baptized in water for the forgiveness of their sins. I have no doubt that those who faithfully responded to John’s call to conversion did indeed see the salvation of God. Some of them, we are told, came to see the salvation of God in the face of Jesus Christ. And these would be baptized with the Holy Spirit.

As I mentioned last week, the Church has struggled with the long wait for the return of Christ our King. And some have abandoned the faith as a result. The Second Letter of Peter seeks to explain this delay. The epistle gives two reasons. Reason #1: God’s time is not our time. A thousand years, even a billion years, is like a single day to God. Reason #2: The delay is a temporary reprieve. God is giving the world more time, because he does not want “any to perish, but all to come to repentance” and to find their way home through his Son Jesus Christ.

But what about us gathered here today? What meaning does all this prophecy have for us? We are not living in exile in Babylon, looking for a divinely ordained way home as in Isaiah’s time. Neither are we living in anticipation of Jesus’ first coming to proclaim the kingdom of God, as were the followers of John the Baptist. No, but like the church addressed in 2 Peter, we are living in anticipation of Jesus’ second coming on the Last Day, when he will judge the world.

Just like then, we are called to keep ourselves “without spot or blemish.” And just like then, we are called to a life of repentance and continuing conversion when we inevitably fail in that task. In our Baptismal Covenant, we promise to persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever we fall into sin, to repent and return to the Lord. In each of our individual paths to God, we will encounter spiritual ravines that need filling and hills that need leveling, temptations that need acknowledging and sins that require confessing. We will encounter crooked, twisty bits in our lives that need straightening and rough patches that need smoothing, relationships that need mending and priorities that require adjusting. And just like doing roadwork in the hot desert, we will often find the work of repentance and conversion to be both painful and laborious. But the reward, nothing less than eternal life in a new creation, is more than commensurate to the labor.

Based on the rhetoric coming out of North Korea, this world may very well end in a fiery conflagration, just as predicted by 2 Peter—and sooner than we think! Even so, even if (God forbid!) some madman triggers a nuclear holocaust, we always have the Christian hope: Those who persevere in faith, even though they die, will live again to see “new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.” Hold on to that hope—no matter what!

© 2017 by Darren Miner. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

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