Our text this week doesn’t quite seem to fit the season, does it? If we are already looking to hear the Christmas story, this reading is a bit disappointing. We don’t hear stories of angels or shepherds or wisemen or even a tiny baby Jesus. Instead what we have is an eccentric prophetic voice calling from the wilderness telling all who would listen to Prepare! Prepare the way of the Lord! Make straight the road in the desert and level the mountains and hills. To many of us this reading seems out of place. And yet, we are still in the season of Advent, a time of waiting and preparing for the arrival of our Lord. It is a time to get ready for Christmas’ arrival, for the coming of our savior, our Emmanuel, God with us. This is a time of preparation so perhaps this reading is more appropriate than we think at first.
As we all know, there is a lot to be done to prepare for the arrival of a special guest. Granted this year, we likely won’t have as many guests coming to our homes as in years past. But still there is a lot to be done before Christmas gets here. There are lights to put up, trees to decorate, cookies to bake, gifts to buy, and this year we really need to plan ahead if we need to mail those gifts to loved ones. Personally, I have already begun doing many of these things. Not only am I trying to get ready for Christmas, but our daughter is moving back from Germany and so our house needs even more preparing as we welcome another adult into it. My Christmas lights are already up, as are many of my neighbors’ lights perhaps in an effort to hurry the Christmas spirit along a bit. So yes, maybe a word from God telling us to prepare for the Savior’s arrival isn’t so out of place right now.
As part of preparing we hear in our text the need to straighten roads in the desert, which may strike you as unusual. Until you learn that in ancient days the arrival of a King required preparing roads, filling gullies and moving rocks, smoothing the way so that the king could arrive swiftly without fear of getting lost in the wilderness or being delayed by some obstacle. The other thing about leveling the path for the king is that his approach can be seen more clearly, from a long way off. It is important to see the king’s approach in order to be ready when he arrives.
So, Isaiah prophesies about a voice calling in the wilderness and John fulfills that promise. He points to the arrival of the Lord, urging all who would listen to make the way clear so the Messiah might come swiftly and so that we will recognize his approach. In this season of Advent John’s cry reminds us that even while we are busy preparing our homes for Christmas, sending packages, and setting up Zoom calls with distant family and friends we must also be preparing our hearts to receive Christ. We need to be ready; this is a big deal according to John the Baptist!
But a funny thing about God’s Word, it doesn’t always wait to come until we are ready for it. It arrives on its own timeline. Our actions can’t hurry it along nor can they delay it. Yes, we can smooth the way, but God works on God’s own timing.
And this king is unlike earthly ones who call only on the influential people and leaders, high priests and emperors. Instead God uses John to call to the common folk to come and greet the king. John, the man who runs around wearing camel hair and eating honey and locusts in the wild, is the chosen voice to proclaim the arrival of the Messiah. This message doesn’t come to the mighty but to average, everyday people.
John calls to them, and to us, to repent, to prepare our hearts and minds for Jesus’ arrival. He calls us to examine our lives, the way we think and act, to examine where we fall short and then turn our hearts towards God. John’s baptism of repentance is meant to prepare our hearts for the king’s arrival; to fill in the valleys and remove the mountains in our hearts that stand in the way of Christ’s advent. Just as the roads in the desert would be prepared for the arrival of an earthly ruler, so the paths of our hearts are to be prepared. We don’t do this with fancy light displays or exquisite meals or expensive presents.
Instead we prepare our hearts by removing the roadblocks of pride, selfishness, prejudice, greed, hatred, resentment and our own hunger for power and control. Int heir place we build bridges of forgiveness and reconciliation with our loved ones, our neighbors and even strangers. We pave God’s pathway with our humility and our commitment to follow this soon coming king.
This year, just like years past, we are once again presented with a decision. Christmas is coming. Everyday Christ’s arrival gets closer. How will we prepare for it? Will we be so focused on the earthly trappings of a commercial Christmas that we miss the opportunity to slow down and reflect and truly prepare ourselves for the Messiah’s arrival? Will we litter Christ’s pathway with our vain attempts to create a picture-perfect holiday? Or will we take this time of quietness, and yes solitude, to look deeply at ourselves, to acknowledge the “rocks and valleys and mountains and junk” we have placed in Christ’s path to our hearts and ask God to help us remove them? The choice belongs to each one of us. What will you do?
I don’t know about you, but for my part I am still going to enjoy the beauty of the lights and the aromas of cookies baking. I will give God thanks for the warmth of my home and my loved ones, even while we are separated across the miles. But I am also going take time to be purposeful about examining my life and the roadblocks I have set up along Jesus’ pathway. And with God’s help I pray that the highway to my heart will be made as straight and direct as possible so I can proclaim “ Come O Come Emmanuel, open wide our heavenly home and make safe the way that leads on high.” Amen.