Friends out east are always asking me when I’m coming back to the beach for good. It’s where most of my family live. I smile and tell them I do come to visit. But I prefer the mountains. I do enjoy visiting out east, but home is always closer to the mountains, where the air is fresh and the scenery is not flat and boring. I also do enjoy the sun and sand and saltwater, but not enough to make me want to stay. Besides, traffic is more congested and stressful, and I can only take so much of that. When I was in graduate school in Ohio, friends would ask me where home was. When I’d tell them Virginia Beach, they would give me a look of concern, and ask, “So why are you here?”
I suppose it’s a matter of preference; different people will like different things. It’s not a question of good or bad, just what makes you more alive, more joyful, more energized. There doesn’t have to be a rivalry between creamy and crunchy, chocolate and vanilla, cake and pie, red and blue. And there’s no need to cast aspersions on what you don’t prefer. Because if we all liked the same thing, we would run out of it much more quickly, and greedy people will try to own more of it, and the cost would escalate quickly making it unaffordable, and people would get even nastier about it, and there would be rioting in the streets. But maybe some prefer that to peace and quiet, which is my preference. I wouldn’t want to be around those people. But I can walk away.
So in this Advent season, we hear about God restoring Jerusalem to glory. I can be on board with that. And those who had been led on foot by their enemies into exile would find their way back home borne aloft in glory as on royal thrones. That too, I can fully support. But then the prophet announces to Israel that “God has commanded that every lofty mountain be made low, and that the age-old depths and gorges be filled to level ground.” I’m not sure I’m comfortable at all with such an image. I have visions of a massive convoy of bulldozers moving tons of earth and turning everything into one huge concrete parking lot. So I tried to put myself in the shoes of a different culture and a different time and place.
In the arid and stifling Middle Eastern climate at a time when most movement was typically on foot or aided by wagons powered by four-legged beasts of burden, the sight of lofty mountain heights and deep gorges and valleys could have been extremely deflating. Travelers knew the toll of hunger, thirst, extreme temperatures, exhaustion, and fatigue, which just added to the regular aches and pains we are all familiar with, to say nothing of the moaning, complaining, and whining, “Are we there yet?” “She touched me. Make her stop.” “I need to use the bathroom.” So it makes sense travelers would prefer a more direct, more level, less winding road. With the arrival of the combustion engine and more affordable mass transit, travelers are now more concerned with the variety of entertainment, the affordability of snacks, leg room, overhead storage space, and making their connecting flight with the least amount of hassle.
So clearly, the focus of this image in scripture is God’s gracious mercy and justice, and his restoring of his people to their former favorable status. We have to recall that the setting of today’s gospel was not quite the time before the birth of Jesus. Rather, John the Baptist was preaching in the desert a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, which in the unfolding of actual historical events means that the young man Jesus of Nazareth was about to walk up to him at the river and ask to be baptized, and from there he would inaugurate his public ministry of teaching and healing.
The evangelist is saying that John the Baptist is that “voice of one crying out in the desert, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord.’” But don’t let those images throw you, of valleys being filled in and mountains and hills being made low, of winding roads being made straight and rough ways being made smooth. This is what the prophet figures would resonate best with his audience, telling them “how” to go about preparing the way of the Lord. Just remember they didn’t have the combustion engine and affordable mass transit. They had hunger and thirst and extreme temperatures and exhaustion and fatigue and moaning and complaining and whining. Their best scenario was to fill in the valleys and level the mountains. Instead we need to read past these disturbing images to get to “why” we are preparing the way of the Lord. And we find it in the last line of the reading, “and all shall see the salvation of God.”
To see the salvation of God is not something we do with our eyes. It is not some painting or work of art in a museum. It is not something on social media, TV, or the movie theater. It is not some dramatic landscape of mountains and wildlife, although I’d be fine with that. Instead, to see God’s salvation is to experience it, to embrace it, and to be transformed by it. This “it,” God’s salvation, restores us to righteousness, and reconciles us with God and with one another, and it is only fulfilled by God’s gracious mercy and justice! The coming of God’s salvation that John the Baptist was announcing, when he set about proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, is precisely that very same coming of Jesus Christ upon the desolate landscape of human selfishness and sin. And Jesus comes to restore the human race to righteousness, reconciling us with God and with one another.
The prophet is moved by such urgency it compels him to cry out in the desert, “Prepare!” Most prophets have that “je ne sais quoi,” that endearing quality of being slightly off, quirky, and strangely passionate about things that no one else is passionate about. That’s why we give each other strange looks when it’s tax filing season and we see those highly animated people on the curbside dressed up as the statue of liberty. And we behave toward the prophet’s message as we would toward loud intrusive and annoying ads on TV. We either push the mute button, or flip to another channel, or leave the room to get a snack. Perhaps the message does not move us deeply and urgently enough. And those of us who love the mountains and valleys are simply turned off by images of huge sprawling parking lots.
“I pray always with joy in my every prayer for all of you,” St. Paul writes. “I am confident that the one who began a good work in you will continue to complete it until the day of Christ Jesus.” We are familiar with St. Paul’s energy and passion for the gospel. He trusts that God who is at work in our lives will bring his work to completion. But it doesn’t hurt to get on board, to welcome the urgency of the message, “Prepare!” Last week, scripture instructed us to be vigilant, watchful, to know that God is at work. Today, scripture asks us to lend a hand. Be ready. God comes with mercy and justice.
Rolo B Castillo © 2018
Baruch 5: 7
Luke 3: 4
Luke 3: 6
Philippians 1: 4-6