Mt. McKinley in Alaska, originally known as Denali, "the Great One." .... "Lead me to the rock that is higher than I; for you are my refuge..." (Ps. 61:2-3)

       "Who do you say that I am?" Jesus asked.  Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."  And Jesus answered, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! ... You are Peter (petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church..."  Jesus then began to speak of the rough road ahead. And Peter took him aside and rebuked him... "Get behind me, Satan!" Jesus replied. "You are a stumbling block..."
                                                (Matthew 16:13-23)

May these words of this Peter be like a rock,
not a stumbling block!

Under construction

Message preached December 7, 2014
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA

based upon Isaiah 40:1-11

Order of Worship

  listen to this sermon (mp3)

             Did you catch the news? This very weekend a new section of express toll lanes on Interstate 95 north of Baltimore is now open! With an easy-pass payment of only $3.50 (starting next weekend, this week is free), you can by-pass eight miles of traffic between Moravia Rd. and White Marsh, and speed in or out of town. Of course, how many years of construction and rush-hour congestion did it take to get to this point?... In a related note, the most recent clog on the north side of the Baltimore beltway is where they are doing work under the Old Harford Rd. overpass. Sigh. Sometimes it seems like our highways are always under construction.

             Of course, you know – don’t you – that this is not the kind of road suggested in the scripture I just read. Those words from the prophet Isaiah were not addressed to busy commuters, though I’m sure many a weary driver nowadays would appreciate a bit of “Comfort, O comfort my people,” especially during rush hour (which is wrongly named, since it actually covers about 3 hours). No, Isaiah was speaking, instead, to tired people who weren’t too interested in going anywhere. If truth be told, it was on a highway many years before that God’s people had been forcibly taken away from home, against their will, and brought to a land where they didn’t want to be. With time, they’d gotten used to the situation, and decided to make the best of it. These folks were the original recipients of Isaiah’s prophecy.

             According to the Bible, they were there because - prior to the exile - God’s people had done a bit of wandering off the road on which they should have been traveling. So, God made their wandering official - thus the “exile.” Politically speaking, the empire of Babylon was to blame for conquering Israel and resettling the best and the brightest in a different place. That’s how they kept their huge empire under control. Of course, the Bible asserts that God’s hand was in this move. King Nebuchadnezzar and his gods may have been powerful, but the God of Abraham and Moses was the great “I am” who was really in charge.

             Speaking of Babylon and its gods, there were processional highways at the center of the empire upon which they held grand parades. These routes were not just for getting from one place to another as quickly as possible. No, they were for displaying the power of the nation. On this highway, soldiers marched. On this highway, the emperor processed. Most importantly, on this highway the images of Babylon’s gods were lifted up and carried for everyone to see. It was an intimidating sight! Among those who noticed were the exiled children of Israel. It was to these people that Isaiah spoke the word from God.

             He envisioned another highway, a road leading home for those who had almost lost hope of ever getting there. Imagine, for a moment, our refugee sisters and brothers in Nigeria finally making their way home. Or ponder the path of grief some of our folks currently travel. That is somewhat the road of which Isaiah spoke. It takes a great deal to encourage discouraged people to get up and journey home. One can get “stuck” in exile. At least the foreign land of exile is a “known” spot after so much time spent living there. Home is no longer a “known” entity. It could well now be a dangerous place. Isaiah was speaking for God to folks who were “stuck” in their troubles, encouraging them to get up and go home - to step out onto a different kind of highway.

             Now, that highway was not for getting from one place to another as quickly as possible. There was a purpose to that road beyond mere transport. Upon that highway, it says, “the glory of the Lord would be revealed.” The Babylonians weren’t the only ones who could lift up their power in parade. However, for the God of Israel, whose name cannot be spoken, whose image dare not be shaped into a statute or graven into any type of metal or stone, whose face could not be seen; for this God, a Babylonian style parade was out of the question. The real power of the universe would not be found in conquering armies in procession, in instruments of warfare on parade, in symbols of empire displayed, in religious objects lifted up to represent this deity or that. No, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the great “I am who I am,” the One God who had long ago caused Pharaoh to relent and set the enslaved children of Israel free from Egypt; this “immortal, invisible, God” would be glorified on the highway of which Isaiah spoke. But how?

             Can God be glorified on the road? Not by how I drive, sometimes. After all, roads are for getting from one place to another as quickly as possible. Isaiah spoke the words of the Lord to those exiles in Babylon, calling them to “prepare the way.” They were to be part of the crew constructing the road upon which they were to travel home. On their journey, God’s glory would be revealed. These words went with them from Babylon back to Israel, where much encouragement was needed for a new beginning - the rebuilding of a nation from the ashes of the past. Later on, these words played a significant role in a new journey. All four gospels used Isaiah to describe the prophetic ministry of John the Baptist, who – even today – calls us to listen to these words as if they were addressed to us, which they are. “Prepare the way of the Lord,” John cried out in the wilderness. And as he cried, his finger was pointed not at himself, but in the direction of Jesus.

             We find ourselves, in this season of Advent, getting ready for the birth of the Christ child. For many of us, it’s time to go get the Christmas tree and decorate it, and well as our home, with all the ornaments we have. Of course, some among us are so organized, that our places are already prepared in this way. Some already have all the gifts purchased and the cards sent. I marvel at such folks, knowing that I’m not one of them.

             Advent is a time for preparation. There is an outer adornment involved. Be sure to appreciate all the decorations which have been, and are still being lovingly placed in and around our meetinghouse and sanctuary. I think we know, however, that as important as these things are for keeping the tradition, there is a deeper preparation that needs to be made. There is what we might call an “inner adornment” which needs to take place if we are to truly prepare the way for the Lord. After all, we’re not just talking about the birth of the Christ child, something that has already happened. In Advent we anticipate something which isn’t yet a reality. God’s new realm will come into existence someday, in a much greater way than what we currently know.  Jesus will return, and the kingdom will come. We can’t quite imagine that homeland which will one day inhabit, just like the exiles in Babylon couldn’t quite see the Israel to which God through Isaiah was calling them to return. Still, the voice cries out, “Prepare the way!”

             When John the Baptist uttered these words, his call was to repentance – the word ‘repent’ literally meaning, ‘to turn.’ … “Prepare the way of the Lord” by turning from sin, he cried out, baptizing whoever responded, whoever ‘turned’ away from sin and toward the Lord, with a baptism of forgiveness. It was an act of cleansing, being made holy, set apart by God…  How often do we think of repentance during this month? It’s such a “feel good” time, or at least that’s what it’s supposed to be. If we feel bad about anything, it’s usually over how the holiday never quite lives up to our expectations. So, what of repentance? What sort of “turning” are we to do in preparation?

            Let’s put on our hard hats and ponder this for just a bit. We are, after all, in a construction zone. This season is a time for paying attention to the spiritual, relational, as well as ethical infrastructure of our lives. Of course, when it comes to repentance, to turning, there are two parts to the equation. One involves turning “from.” What do you/we need to turn away “from” this season? What might be getting in the way of your/our journey with Jesus? Is something preventing a deeper walk with the Lord, as individuals and as a community of faith? Be careful as you ask these questions, however. These aren’t just thinking caps we wear. Whatever we turn “from” usually doesn’t give up easy, whether we’re talking attitudes or addictions or deeper, darker sins. As we turn, we may need protection from ourselves.

             There is another aspect to repentance, to turning. We aren’t just turning “from,” you know, we are also turning “toward.” When it came to preparing the way, John the Baptist pointed beyond himself. His construction work, according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John involved paving the path toward the One who was coming after him. His work was leading toward Jesus. In Isaiah’s day, preparing the way was all about summoning the courage to leave behind the familiar and head toward the unknown, even if the familiar was exile and the unknown was home. That was truly the hard part for God’s people at that point. Perhaps it still is. You see, it’s easy to want what is right. We come to church and say “amen” to all this Jesus stuff, like loving your enemy as yourself, turning the other cheek, walking the second mile – something our increasingly divided society and world desperately need. It’s one thing to want this, especially during an “on earth peace and good will toward men” season. It’s quite another thing, however, to take one step in that direction, and then second step and third. Peace requites courage! Did I mention that these aren’t just thinking caps we wear. There is a stretch of highway between “Blessed are the peacemakers” and “they shall be called the sons and daughters of God.” This is a construction zone, whether we’re talking hope, peace, joy, love, or whatever God is constructing in, around, and beyond us.

             This business of (as Isaiah put it) “valleys being lifted up, mountains made low; and  rough places made plain,” indicates that the process of preparing the way is an earth moving experience. The purpose of it all, though, isn’t to make the road so smooth and straight that we can jump into our spiritual vehicles and race from one end to another as quickly as possible, with no traffic jams or other congestion. There is no such thing as a “smooth” life in the Spirit, where things are so peaceful that you can blissfully turn on your radio and enjoy the music and, before you know it, find yourself back home. If that’s what you want out of God, you’re not going to get it here.

             The thing about this road is, it’s always under construction. Even at Christmastime. That’s what repentance is: construction work. In the daily turning from sin and turning toward God, this road is being built, one foot at a time. Furthermore, the purpose behind all the construction work is, as Isaiah said, that “the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together.” How is God glorified on this road? I mean, it’s not like we parade down it carrying God for all to see. In reality God carries us. No, the world beholds a bit of God’s glory as they observe us - and maybe join us - upon this highway, this road under construction.

            Let’s not try to rush through the season, to get from one end to the other as quickly as possible. There’s important work to be done on this road. “Caution,” the sign reads, “Repentance work ahead.” Prepare the way!


©2014, revised from 1996  - Peter L. Haynes
(you are welcome to borrow and, where / as appropriate, note the source - myself or those from whom I have knowingly borrowed.)

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