“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” (Isaiah 40:2)
“Righteousness shall go before the Lord and shall prepare for God a pathway.” (Psalm 85:13)
“Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” (Mark 1:8)
Here is what strikes me first as I hear again these familiar words.
God comes to us. Not the other way around. This is a highway, a pathway, a path upon which God will and does travel. A highway, a pathway, a path, which God travels daily, hourly, every moment of every day to come to us, to be with us, alongside us.
And I am thinking now of how those who traveled to find John in the wilderness did not let anything get in their way of seeing him, listening to him, being baptized into a way of encountering the world which was, perhaps, new and different than anything they had heard before, or at least in a long while. Were there actual roads which took them there? Or did they simply make a way into the wilderness even then?
And I am thinking deeply about John himself and how little we know about him prior to him bursting on the scene here in these first verses of Mark’s Gospel. Of course we turn to Luke and hear of his miraculous birth and the joy-filled welcome he received from his aging parents. But other than that, this is what we have.
- One who has spent a lot of time in the wilderness, allowing God to clear the pathways to his own heart, his own understanding of what mattered in the world, and receiving words which countless others could then also hear and receive for themselves.
- One who dresses in a way and whose diet is reminiscent of another prophet, Elijah, who preceded him by generations, but whose impact was brought to mind again by the appearance of John, so much so that there was an ongoing debate about whether John was, in fact, Elijah come back to life once more.
- And one who lived confidently into his own call, but who fully recognized his own place in the order of things clearly saying that the One coming after was the one who truly mattered.
And so it is that today I am full of thoughts about highways, pathways, paths — both physical and otherwise — those upon which you and I travel all the time and I am wondering at how that which impedes our own travel may also somehow slow God coming to us, or to others — or at least in this way, perhaps cloud our awareness of God already having traveled and God already having arrived.
And so I would offer a couple of stories of ‘blocked roads’ which have helped me understand more deeply the prophets’ urging for us now:
My sisters and I grew up on the south side of town. What separated the north side from the south side was a very active railroad. Today there is a railroad park there where train aficionados go to picnic and watch the trains go by. When I was growing up, I mostly experienced all those trains as a nuisance, but looking back today I recognize that on the south side of town there was:
- No health care. The hospital and the doctors were all on the other side of the tracks.
- No grocery store — other than the corner store where we could go to buy penny candy and you could get a loaf of bread or a gallon of milk in a pinch.
- No bank or retail shop — everything was on the north side of town.
And there was no way around that blocked street once a train or trains stopped there. Which they did often. And sometimes for long periods of time.
As I said, as a child, I remember experiencing it as a nuisance, but in reality it meant that if you lived south of the tracks you often had to work harder and wait longer for everything. It also meant that ambulances would also have to wait, regardless of the nature of the emergency they were rushing to or were carrying to the hospital.
It was not until I was an adult that the city finally saw fit to build an overpass, mitigating at least some of the inequity experienced by those living on the other side of the tracks.
And I wonder now what it means to ‘prepare the way’ when for some there are real obstacles in the road to their receiving all the gifts of God meant for them. And I wonder what it means for you and me to be a part of making such a path so that God’s pathway to being more fully known to all of us is all the more clear.
Indeed, I would offer another this now, one I have long carried as I consider the urging of this 2nd Sunday of Advent to ‘prepare the way.’
My dad grew up in a quaint, historic town in Massachusetts. It is one where the dates in the graveyard date to before the Revolutionary War and as a result, it is a place where it seems history is literally to be discovered around every corner. And this is also so. This is not a town where the streets are laid out on a grid. Rather they wind up and down and around, paving having simply replaced the muddy, rocky paths which horses and carts once navigated. Specifically, this is what I recall: the story behind the house pictured here.
For look closely and you will see that the left front corner has been cut out. Now it is likely that this accommodation was made when it was discovered that it would be easier for coal wagons to make their way down this street without that corner. Another theory goes that removing it made the flow easier for water and sewage. However, the story that has stuck is this: In 1824 General Marquis de LaFayette came to visit. He was met at the harbor and was given a tour of the town in a carriage pulled by six white horses. Now this particular house sits at the corner of five converging streets. It was a rainy day and the mud alone made it hard for the horses to navigate. They could not make the turn and so legend has it that someone took an ax and started chopping away at the corner of this house, making it possible for the General to pass. And to this day this is known as The Lafayette House.
Now all logic would argue the veracity of this story. And yet, true or not, it brings to mind the urging of the prophets today, doesn’t it?
- To clear away that which stands in the way of royalty getting through?
- To make a way for us to recognizing Christ coming now and coming again in all fullness?
- To just do what needs to be done, whatever that might mean, even if it means chopping away at what before seemed essential to all that we are, in order to make a way for the new, the even more important, the presence and power of life itself?
But for starters, surely what the prophet, Isaiah, and the prophet, John, call out in their urgent words to ‘prepare the way,’ is something which calls us to pay attention in our own hearts, for John speaks of a ‘baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.’ Andsurely that ‘repentance’ leads to building bridges (or overpasses) so that all people might have access to what they need. Surely it means doing whatever it takes so that the Holy One might more fully take residence in our hearts and yes, in our neighborhoods, both the ones we physically call home and the neighborhood we share with people all over the world. Or, more to the point, as you and I believe that God’s presence is already there, already here, this call means to work at making it all the easier to recognize this is so in how we live alongside one another now. And in doing so, such holy royalty not only ‘makes the curve,’ as General LaFayette apparently did in Marblehead 200 years ago, but wholly, visibly makes its home with us now.
With all of this, though, I do find myself returning to John, alone in the wilderness, listening for, hearing and finally articulating the message entrusted to him in words he first had to hear before he could begin to share them. Surely all of this for all of us and for all those impassable highways in the world begins there. In the sitting in the ‘wilderness’ for now, wherever and whatever that wilderness may hold, making do with what we have been given as John did and as Elijah did before him, and listening to hear and understand where God is already present, how God is already speaking. It means paying attention to the pathways to our own hearts and imaginations which are somehow blocked, even before we venture into the world and start building bridges or chopping off the corners of houses, for the sake of all of us that God’s presence already come might be all the more fully known.
What do you think? How do you hear the meaning of ‘preparing the way’ in your experience now?
- It is an age old debate, of course: does contemplation come before action or does action lead to contemplation/reflection. I’m not sure there is necessarily one correct order for this, but I am confident both are necessary. What are your thoughts on this?
- What stories of blocked/opened highways might help you go deeper into the message of the prophets Isaiah and John for us now?
- What do you make of the thought that God is already fully present, but we are often simply unaware? hat does ‘preparing the way’ or ‘making paths straight’ mean for us then?