St Christopher’s, Rantoul —Isaiah 40:1–11, Mark 1:1–8
As are many of you, I’m a member of the Baby Boomer generation. When Baby Boomers were young children, they couldn’t build schools fast enough to keep up with our mushrooming numbers. After two years at one school in the Chicago suburb of Addison, shifting demographics had me being moved to a new school for the third grade. Indeed, the whole neighborhood was new, and the streets around the school were not even paved yet when the school year began. And as an eight-year old boy, of course, I would much rather have spent my days watching the heavy equipment work on the streets than be indoors learning cursive! First, the graders would level the street surface. Then dump trucks would deposit a layer of gravel, which would promptly be tamped down tight by steam rollers. Meanwhile, forms were laid for the curbs, and cement trucks poured concrete into the forms. When it was dry, the forms were removed, and different dump trucks arrived and put down a layer of asphalt on top of the packed gravel. And there, at last, was a respectable street. I managed to file all that information away in my third-grade brain just from what I could see coming in the morning and leaving in the afternoon over a few weeks in the fall of 1958.
Many decades later, while visiting the Diocese of Tabora in Tanzania, I got to observe the construction of a road heading west from the city of Tabora to the smaller city of Urambo. It was being built by Chinese contractors, using a mix of Chinese and Tanzanian labor, in return for the Tanzanian government signing over some valuable mineral rights to China. The quality of construction wasn’t even up to the suburban Chicago standards of the 1950s, but it was a vast improvement over the rutted dirt roads that continue to be the norm in that part of the country.
Of course, over the last ten years, as I’ve driven the federal and state highways and county roads of central and southern Illinois, there has been nary a trip that did not involve some form of construction delay. Because of the hot summers and cold winters in the midwest, highway maintenance is an ongoing project. By the time the last stretch of road is fixed, another one is ready to be resurfaced, and the cycle begins again.
For those who are the heirs of the Judeo-Christian tradition, thinking about roads leads organically to reflection on the circuitous route—without an actual road to guide them; only a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night—the winding route taken by the children of Israel from slavery in Egypt through the Sinai desert to freedom in the Promised Land.
Centuries later, the descendants of those desert wanderers walk a more organized path, as they were taken from Jerusalem by their Babylonian captors along the royal highway—this time through a different desert–into the city of Babylon. And then, the next generation took that same royal highway on their return to Jerusalem, in order to rebuild its walls and restore its temple. As they approached the holy city, they literally walked through the “cities of Judah,” which are mentioned poetically in today’s first reading—“Say to the cities of Judah: Behold your God!” It is this context of road building and road traveling that informs how we understand this familiar reading from Isaiah, chapter 40. Just as the cities of Judah had been the first to absorb the Babylonian invasion, so now they are the first ones to see Israelites returning from exile and reoccupying their ancestral homeland. They are the first witnesses of God’s powerful and victorious acts of redemption and restoration. The prophet is instructed to “comfort” the people of God, to speak words of comfort to Jerusalem. Well, the ultimate act of comfort is to announce that God is retaking possession of his chosen people and their destiny.
John the Baptist, whom we encounter in the gospel reading, bases his whole schtick on Isaiah, and Isaiah 40 in particular. John very deftly paints himself into the picture. He calls for repentance on the part of the people, the descendants of those who had traveled the royal road through the cities of Judah to be the harbingers of God’s saving action—he calls the people to repentance with an eye toward obedience. Obedience is part of the foundation of the roadway—the packed gravel underlayer—that John’s ministry is announcing.
The season of Advent focuses our attention on the preparation of a road—a road on which the gospel of Christ can enter human experience, a road on which comforting good news can reach those who have been traumatized by tribulation, by oppression, suffering, and persecution. This road is constructed individually by believers, and corporately by the people of God, through the practices of repentance and obedience. Repentance is sometimes dramatic, a decisive 180-degree change of direction. There are circumstances when that’s what repentance needs to look like. More frequently, however, I suspect that the repentance required of us takes the form of constant, daily, small mid-course course corrections, kind of the way we handle a steering wheel as we drive down a road, never simply holding it in a fixed position, but always making small adjustments to get us where we want to go.
Obedience can be a little more complicated than repentance. Sometimes, the path of obedience is clear, and when it’s the clearest is usually when it’s the most undesirable and difficult—or, at the very least, inconvenient. I recently saw a graphic meme on Facebook that posed the question: “How has being a disciple inconvenienced you lately?” That’s not a bad question to ponder!
Advent has dual themes—once might even say conflicting themes. It offers us hope and expectation and joy. Advent culminates in our celebration of God pitching his tent among us in order to rescue us. But Advent also offers repentance and, finally, judgment. The prophet in Isaiah is called to speak words of comfort to God’s people. But that comfort doesn’t arrive instantaneously, all at once. The debt has been paid, and then some. But it takes a while for the redemption to be realized. The road to salvation, redemption, passes through judgment. Judgment is a way station on the road to comfort. So, we embrace Advent in its contradictory complication. Through active repentance and obedience, in the light of judgment, we build the road on which the gospel of Christ comes to us and speaks words of comfort. Come, Lord Jesus. Amen.