On Friday afternoon Minjing and I were driving home from Tukwila during rush hour. It was about 4:30. Traffic, as usual, was a mess. I tried I- 405. It was bad. I exited and tried Grady Way. It was bad, too. I tried cutting behind Fred Meyer on Rainier Ave. and that was bad. I was impatient and Minjing was getting impatient with my impatience.
Well, anyone who drives through Renton knows what I’m talking about! Even if you don’t drive you probably know what I’m talking about. On top of rush hour, on top of holiday traffic, we have road construction. Not on some out-of-the way street. Not where nobody notices. On Rainier Avenue South, the main drag, where all the traffic goes!
Well, there are alternative routes. Problem is, everybody has the same idea you do…and they’re on those routes, too! Night-time isn’t much better; the traffic is less but the construction never stops. It’s still slow!
On this second Sunday in the season of Advent the theme is “road construction!” Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight. But it’s not something as simple as the inconvenience of local street repair:
Quoting the prophet Isaiah, Luke writes:
Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth…
This is major earth-moving! We live in hilly country. Can you imagine waking up one morning and finding everything as flat as North Dakota? Making that happen would be one big project! Have you seen pictures of large mining operations or major dam construction, where the earth-moving equipment is bigger than most of our houses (like on the front than we can imagine!
With a project this big—preparing for the arrival of God in the world- – who do you think is best equipped to do this big and important work? If God is big and powerful, then it must be the great and powerful among us who are the most likely candidates. Luke makes a long list that sounds almost like a seasonal song: three rulers, two high priests, one emperor, one governor (…and a partridge in a pear tree!). Okay, there’s no partridge in Luke, but the rest of the list is pretty impressive!
And yet…preparing the way of the Lord is not given to any of these powerful ones but to one unexpected: Zechariah recognizes that his son John has been chosen, as he says in today’s psalm, to go before the Lord to prepare his way. Really? John the Baptist? This scruffy guy, this misfit? This man who holds no worldly influence or power? It’s he who is given the task of leading this effort to prepare the way of the Lord?
Prepare the way of the Lord. John wasn’t the first to proclaim this message, nor was Luke. Four hundred years before Jesus the prophet Malachi appeared on the scene: See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, he writes in today’s first reading.
Do you see where this is leading? God’s work primarily is not given to kings and queens, emperors, presidents, senators, corporate CEOs or billionaires. The work of preparing the way for God in this world is placed squarely on the shoulders of faithful, ordinary people. We are chosen to prepare the way of the Lord; we are the ones chosen to invite the world to prepare the way of the Lord.
So it’s our duty. It’s our calling. It’s our privilege to be called. But it doesn’t do much good if we don’t know what that means. What does it mean to prepare the way of the Lord?
Today’s first reading, psalm and second reading all point to righteousness. Righteousness, as we know, is not simply being a nice person or a law-abiding citizen or having good intentions. To be righteous, as the Bible describes it, is to be in right relationship with other people. And it all starts, as John the Baptist proclaims, with a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
Preparing God’s way begins not by looking around us but looking inside ourselves. Preparing the way of the Lord begins with something that can feel as difficult and overwhelming as filling in valleys or leveling mountains. It starts with forgiveness.
In fact, God has already begun the work of filling in valleys and leveling mountains by practicing forgiveness toward us. This is the free gift given to each of us and all people, no strings attached. Knowing that we are already forgiven we can muster the courage to look inside ourselves to see ourselves as we really are, and then to have compassion and mercy toward ourselves, as God has done for us.
Those are two words that also show up more than once in today’s readings: compassion and mercy. In our psalm Luke declares that in the tender compassion of our God the dawn from on high shall break upon us. And Paul, writing to the Philippian church, says, For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus, that your love may overflow…
You see? Preparing the way of the Lord means imitating the one we call Lord! If preparing the way of the Lord means leveling mountains and filling in valleys, we do this by practicing forgiveness, mercy, compassion and love, both toward ourselves and toward others.
Sometimes tearing down mountains and filling in valleys sounds a lot easier than practicing love, forgiveness, mercy and compassion toward myself, or toward others who I don’t like or who I might not think even deserve forgiveness. If we’re honest in listening to our hearts, we may find ourselves feeling something like, “God, just give me a pick and shovel. It would be easier to tear down a mountain than to practice forgiveness.”
One day Jesus said to his audience, “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.” Something so small can do something so great. On another occasion he said, If you have faith … if you say to this mountain, ‘Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ it will be done. He wasn’t talking about mountains and valleys. He was talking about preparing the way of the Lord.
God seems to have faith in what’s small or weak. God chose John the Baptist over emperors and rulers. Likewise, God chooses little old me, and little old you. We are the ones called to prepare the way of the Lord. We are the ones called to be earth-movers. And against all odds, we do. When we practice repentance, forgiveness, mercy, love and compassion, something big shifts within us. The mountains begin to be leveled; our valleys begin to be filled in. Our interior landscape begins to change.
Just as importantly, the earth itself begins to change. We may have a hard time believing it but when something shifts inside of us God promises that the world itself begins to change. We are earth-movers, not by our own strength but by the power and mercy and compassion and forgiveness of the God who first loved us. AMEN